Fifth Grade: Classroom Library Books to Support Reading Workshop

Welcome back!

If you're just joining me, over the past week this series has focused on suggestions for organizing beautiful classroom libraries. Each day this week, I posted suggestions for each grade level, based on the Units of Study for Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins et al. (which I am honored to have played a role in creating). In previous posts I outlined suggestions for: kindergartenfirst gradesecond gradethird grade, and fourth grade classroom libraries. Today I have suggestions for fifth grade.

Fifth graders are a delight to work with. They have an awareness of what others think, are developing their own opinions about important issues, and often passionately concerned about justice and fairness. They sometimes seem so grown-up, but deep down many of them are still drawn to stories with animals as main characters and love silly humor. They often have a craving for fairy tales and fantasy, for singing songs, and being read-aloud to. For fifth graders, books can be simultaneously serve as a way into young adulthood, and a way to escape it.

Your fifth grade library can reflect the interests, personalities, and needs of the young people who will be reading from it. Across the year, baskets of books can rotate in and out of the library to support the work of each particular unit, and keep kids interested in finding new books. Throughout the year, your library will be filled with fiction or nonfiction books to match the range of reading levels and interests of your fifth graders. Dividing your library into two halves - fiction and nonfiction will help you organize for upcoming units and manage book shopping more easily. During a fiction unit, you can simply pin a curtain over the nonfiction half. During nonfiction units, the curtain can come down to reveal fresh nonfiction titles.

As you build your collection, be conscientious about the groups who are represented on the shelves of your classroom library, analyzing through many lenses. How racially diverse are the main characters in your books? Are there both male and female protagonists? How do the characters in your classroom library defy stereotypes (or not)? Is there a diverse representation of families, lifestyles, traditions, socioeconomic status, disabilities, and characters of all shapes and sizes and walks of life - in both fiction and nonfiction? Consider this always a work in progress. If you're not sure where to begin, the official site of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign is a good place to begin to educate yourself on the need for more diverse books, and where to find them. The publisher, Lee and Low Books, specializes in multicultural books for young readers, and their website and blog are a terrific resource for learning more.

Traditionally, a classroom library might be organized by baskets of leveled books. However, I want to encourage you to go beyond baskets marked by reading levels. Of course, you might have a few baskets marked this way for convenience, but you may want to downplay levels and instead highlight baskets filled with favorite authors, topics, themes, genres, character traits, and other, more enticing ways of encouraging kids to find a book they really want to read.

Unit 1: Interpretation Book Clubs: Analyzing Themes

It is said that books can serve as "windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors" (Bishop R.S., 2015 ). Your fifth grade library can provide a window for students into lived experiences from a wide range of perspectives. Through books they are offered a glimpse into many cultures, time periods, and other worlds, while at the same time books can provide a mirror--a place to see their own identities and familiar experiences reflected back to them. Author Grace Lin spoke eloquently about the importance of windows AND mirrors in her recent TEDx talk. If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to watch it soon. For this unit, look for books that lend themselves to meaningful thinking and conversation.

It will be incredibly useful to organize books for this unit by themes or issues that characters face, so that clubs can easily make plans to read multiple books on one theme, allowing them to compare and contrast, and think deeply about how different characters experience similar themes or issues. Some of the suggested themes might include issues of cultural differences, overcoming obstacles of all kids, fitting in, loneliness, loss and grief, family struggles, race and identity, growing up, healing emotional wounds, and others.

In any club unit, it's ideal to have multiple copies of each title, so that partners or groups of kids can read and talk about the same book. However if you are short on books, you can scrape by with kids reading individual books and then swapping with a partner. Remember that depending on the length of the text, you can plan on clubs reading approximately a book a week (a week and a half at the most).

This unit builds nicely off of the work your students may have done in the fourth grade character unit (Fourth Grade Unit 1, Interpreting Characters: The Heart of the Story). In fact, you may be able to borrow or share books with your fourth grade colleagues to provide more choices of titles. Chances are, you will have some titles that you aren't using and so will they. In some schools, all the best multiple copies of books with strong characters and themes are placed on rolling carts so they can easily become a rolling library to be shared from classroom to classroom.

Unit 2: Tackling Complexity: Moving Up Levels of Nonfiction 

For this unit, you may want to pin a curtain over the fiction side of your library, or swap the books out to create excitement over the nonfiction books your kids will be reading. You will want the shelves of the nonfiction half of your classroom library to be pouring with high interest, engaging informational texts. Put out information books of all types of text structures, with all kinds of engaging features. Organizing books into bins based on topics (rather than levels) will help your students find books on topics they are curious about. The books inside the bin might be marked with a dot or a letter, or some other marking, to assist students in finding a book they can read with accuracy, fluency, and deep comprehension -- but it will be important that students go beyond the sticker. They'll need to open books up and read a few pages to truly get the sense of how challenging the text will be.

Unit 3: Argument and Advocacy: Researching Debatable Issues

In this unit, your student will be reading as many sources as they can to research debatable issues like deep sea versus outer space exploration, the benefits versus the risks of extreme sports, animals in zoos, and the pros and cons of plastic bags. The authors of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading have made some text sets available in the digital resources that come along with the units, so all you'll need to do is print them out and get them organized, along with additional books and texts that you'll want to add to the online starter sets.

For organization, you may want to compile the articles and other printed resources for each topic into packets that students can have for their own, to reread often, highlight and mark up. Each club can store their packets, books and other materials in a shared bin, so that everything they need for studying their topic and preparing for debate is in one container.

In addition to the texts students will be reading to research their chosen issue, you might have students shop for one additional book, one that is purely their choice, fiction or nonfiction, to keep their personal reading lives alive and well. 

Unit 4: Fantasy Book Clubs: The Magic of Themes and Symbols

This is a unit that you and your students will look forward to all year long. In this unit, your students will work in reading clubs to read a fantasy series of their choice. The goal is for them to read an entire series, or as many as they can, across the unit. You'll want to scour your classroom, as well as your school and community library to pull together as many books as you can for kids to choose from. Keep in mind that the first book in any series is most important, so prioritize those.

If you are short on books, you can still have a very successful unit of study. One option would be for partners of students (instead of clubs) to each read one fantasy book and then swap. Another option would be to adapt the unit so that students read individual fantasy titles, rather than series -- of course, you can group similar stories and characters, or books that contain similar themes, or elements, so that they are somewhat like a series, and kids can still do most of the work of the unit.