Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Anal-Retentive Guide to Library Organization

So now you know my secret - I'm a book hoarder.  But unlike the TV show, where there are piles everywhere and trash mixed in with dead animals, my stash is neatly organized and filed away in plastic tubs.

The way I went about organizing was a little haphazard - I didn't have a plan, I just started taking books out of tubs and making piles.  I spent a moment or two deciding how best to organize, and I decided that since elementary school covers such a wide range of subjects and reading levels, not to mention picture books versus chapter books, the best way to organize my books would be by reading level.  This way, when I get a job, I'll be able to take the tubs that my students at their particular grade level can handle.  Kindergarten kids wouldn't be getting my Lemony Snicket books, and 5th graders wouldn't get Dr. Seuss and Junie B. Jones.  After I decided how to do it, I just jumped in, headfirst.

I would pull out a handful of books, check their reading levels on the Lexile website, and make a pile accordingly.  Books that didn't have levels would get their own pile.  I did this until nearly every book was either in a pile with like levels or a tub with like subjects.  I have some tubs just for certain genres - classic literature, Christmas and winter holidays, poetry, myths and fables, etc...  From these piles I began putting the books back into the tubs, only this time, like went with like.

After all my piles and tubs were settled, I started cataloging.  Let me just tell you that Excel is my best friend.  It is everything my little left-brain head wishes it could be.  So I typed the books into an Excel spreadsheet using the following columns - Title, Author, # of Copies, and Location.  Location refers to which tub they were in, and you better believe that every tub got marked with an "address".  For example, I have a Show-Off (small plastic tubs with a handle on the snap-on lid) that is labeled "Chapter books 900+".  I wager the name is pretty self-explanatory.  Lexile says that 900 is an on-grade-level range starting at the 6th grade, so my collection of those books isn't very large.

Cataloging this way is great because it allows me to arrange the books by title, author, or location.  Eventually I'd like to add extra columns like Lexile level and keywords, to help me search for a book for a particular theme or lesson, but those aren't necessary.

I could have stopped there, but I always seem to take things a bit too far.  Long ago, I had pinned something on Pinterest that I've been dying to try out, a program called the Booksource Classroom Organizer.  You put all your books into a system, and you can use a smartphone to scan the ISBN numbers to "check them out" to students, so you can keep track of who has what book.  Now I know, a teacher doesn't have time to sit there and scan books for 22 kids, that's just insane.  But if I loan out a special book, like one of my books that is signed by the author or one of the books I've had since I was a kid, I'd like to know where it goes.  So I put my whole library into this system, one book at a time.  Ideally, you'd be able to download the app and just scan all the titles into the library.  That didn't work for me because the books were already put away in their specific tubs and there was no way in HECK I was getting them all out again.  I had a few tubs that were already organized - those genre-specific ones I mentioned above, so I tried the app out on those.  My success rate with the scanner was only about 50%, and some older books, or books with library binding didn't have an ISBN bar code on them, so I had to look inside the book and enter it by hand.  Mostly, I just consulted my oh-so-pretty Excel spreadsheet, typed the titles into Amazon and copied/pasted the ISBN numbers.  Again, there are a few books that the company doesn't recognize, so a little less than 10% of my collection isn't in the system at all, but since I'll only be using it for "special" books, I'm okay with that.

You'd think I'd be done, right?  Not quite.  The last part of this equation, the part that won't get done until I have at least 4 extra sets of hands, is to put colored tape on the books to signify their Lexile level.  It helps the kids get closer to picking Just-Right books.  Since I've only had experience at one school, I thought the colors and what levels they correspond to was set in stone.  I've since discovered that you can pretty much assign whatever color to whatever level you want.  Since I haven't decided what colors to use, I'm not going to worry about that part right now.

So there you have it - a crazy person organizes her crazy collection of children's books.  I hope reading about my insanity made you feel a little more sane =). 

My Classroom Library

I've been collecting books for my future classroom library for a while.  It's been going on for at least 4 years.  Most came from used book stores or used book sales.  If you're a new teacher, and you don't feel like getting up at 4 in the morning on a Saturday to rush the Half Price Books free-for-teachers warehouse ("ain't nobody got time for that"), then you need to know when the libraries around you are having their used book sales.  If you're not already acquainted, let me introduce  This is a great starting point, especially if you're new to your area.  Libraries run reports of books that are out of date and haven't been checked out in a long time, and they they sell them off to make room on the shelves for new books.  School districts do this in their libraries too.

Another huge part of my collection has come from Scholastic Book Fairs.  Yes, I do buy a few at the actual school book fair, but do you know what happens to the books that don't get sold?  Scholastic holds warehouse sales and you can get the books for up to 50% off the cover price.  Like the Half-Price warehouse, this is for educators only.  If you pre-register for the sale, you get a coupon.

One more major factor is Kohls.  They have a charity called "Kohls Cares for Kids", and they partner up with different authors to sell the author's books and coordinating stuffed animals for $5, and all the money goes to the charity.  Sometimes, when they've moved on to a new author but still have some of the previous author's books/animals left, they will sell them on the Kohls website for $2.50 a piece.  They've had some great author partnerships - Laura Numeroff (If You Give A...), Dr. Seuss, and even the author of the Skippyjon Jones books, Judy Schachner.  When I found out they had Skippyjon books I went a little bit nuts with excitement.  I don't always buy the animals too, but sometimes I do because they make good "Reading Buddies" for use with younger grades.

There is a small slice of the pie that is books that people have given me and books that I bought for full retail price (minus a Barnes & Noble Membership and the accompanying coupons), and even a slice that is books that I bought when certain bookstores were closing down.  Those Borders everything-must-go sales were an adrenaline rush.  I felt like a heel taking pleasure in the downfall of a company, but MAN did I get some great deals.

"So, Wendy, how many books do you have in your library?" (I'm interviewing myself)

Well, that's a great question.  I just finished organizing them, a process which I talk about here, and I can tell you that I have 549 books.

FIVE HUNDRED.  FORTY NINE.  I have a sickness.

That does not include the following:  books on tape, books that come with CDs/tapes, reference materials (dictionaries, thesauri, etc...) OR a large collection of Sesame Street Library books that I've been holding on to since my youth.  This is plain and simple picture and chapter books.

"Do you regret a collection that big?" 

Heck no!  I love to read. As a kid, I would have rather read than gone outside.  I would have rather read than watched TV.  If there is one thing I would love for my students to love, it's reading.  So I'm going do whatever I can to make that happen.

"Well, do you have any favorites?"

I'm glad you asked.  Yes, there are books that I own multiple copies of (in fact it is my goal to have a class set of The Phantom Tollbooth), and books that I love more than others.  Here are a few, in no particular order except the first one:

1. The Phantom Tollbooth
2. Matilda
3. Ella Enchanted
4. Any of the Eloise books
5. Any of the Skippjon Jones books
6. Books by Mo Willems
7. American Girl books
8. A Series of Unfortunate Events (have you read these?  The vocabulary alone is superb!)
9. Roald Dahl
10. Shel Silverstein

Friday, January 11, 2013

It's time to begin, isn't it?

Ten points to you if you can name the song this title comes from - it has been on repeat both on my iPod and in my head for quite some time now (yes, even with all the Christmas music that I flood my stereo with).

As I take gigantic scissor steps out of my comfort zone and into new schools, I'm also working on my "speechin' skills" for interviews.  It's probably a safe assumption that questions and answers one would find in a corporate interview can be quite different from those in the education field, but there will be some overlap.  I'm using the list I was using before, given to me by a principal in a neighboring district, but I've also been perusing an ebook I found about how to answer the 64 most common interview questions.  This book takes a more corporate standpoint, but I think we can all agree that any job you interview for is going to ask the big 3:

1. Tell me about yourself.
2. What are your strengths.
3. What are your weaknesses.

I've said before that I don't interview well.  I also don't meet people well.  I don't make a great first impression - it's not a train wreck or anything, but I think I am an acquired taste.  I lack a lot in social graces, so I tend to clam up when I meet new people and speak as little as possible.  In interviews, where I am being directly questioned, I tend to go into a fugue state, answer the questions from the seat of my pants, and forget everything that happened as soon as I walk out of the office.  This means that A) my answers are not the most well-thought out or presenting me in the best possible light and 2) I am unable to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses and adjust them later.  I can't guarantee that from now on my interviews won't be like an out-of-body experience, where I hear myself talking but I can't control it, but at least the answers I give will hopefully be more meaningful.  Here are some questions I answered from the ebook (and a little commentary):

1. Tell me about yourself.

I studied education at UNT and did my student teaching in Denton ISd at E.P. Rayzor elementary.  For the last 4 years, I've been employed for Denton ISD as an after-school instructor, a substitute, and a childcare giver for the adult ESL classes.  I've worked with kids in an elementary or preschool capacity for 10 years.

2. What are your greatest strengths?

(The book says that you should have a list of your 10 best qualities memorized so you can recite them cold at 2:30 in the morning, so my list is first, followed by my actual answer)
1. Organized and Efficient
2. Creative
3. Enthusiastic
4. Sense of Humor
5. Intelligent
6. Dedicated
7. Ethical
8. Generous
9. Quick thinking on my feet
10. I Genuinely like kids

I am organized and efficient.  Teachers have limited instructional time, and the more time you have to spend searching for materials, or shuffling things around because your construction paper is under a stack of animal books, the less time you get to spend with the class.  Not to mention, all that shuffling and searching leaves you stressed, which rubs off on your kids.  I'm enthusiastic about education, especially reading.  If I can leave one legacy with the kids that I teach, it would be to turn them into voracious readers.  Finally, I think quickly on my feet.  There is no feeling quite so suffocating as being in front of 22 students and realizing that the lesson you planned is not going to work, but you have nothing else prepared.  While I strive to be organized and have all my materials ready, there may come a day when I forget an important tool, or my students simply are not feeling it, and I have to make a change and quickly.
(I put creativity on the list but I don't mention it because 1) it's subjective, and b) you'd need concrete, tangible examples and I'm not going to come into an interview with samples of artwork or lesson plans.  I mention the 3 out of 10 that I think a principal would most want in a competent teacher.) 

What are your greatest weaknesses?

No one is without things they feel they need to work on, but I feel like I have the qualifications and the enthusiasm to motivate me to do well in this position.  I don't always enjoy dealing with parents, they can sometimes feel entitled or feel like teaching is easy and anyone could do it, but I respect the fact that everyday they give me the most precious thing they have and I strive to right by them.   
(Do you know I have had more current and former teachers tell me they hated dealing with parents than any other aspect of the job?  It used to be that a parent and a teacher were on the same side - now when a kid doesn't perform or gets in trouble, the parents seem to think "What did the teacher do wrong?")

Why did you leave your last position?

Extended school day is a great program.  I recommend it as a part-time job to anyone in college who wants to someday work with kids.  But it is that, a part-time job, and I am ready for a full-time, classroom position.

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

I see myself in the classroom, at the same school I was hired at.  I don't mind switching grades if I am needed, but I am a person who puts down roots.  Outside of school, I see myself pursuing either a masters degree in a Language-Arts program or my certification to become a teacher of the Gifted and Talented program.  I say "pursuing" and not "having achieved" because I want to spend at least 2 to 3 years with my classroom being my sole focus.
(Honestly, I spent 9 years in college.  While I want to be the best teacher I can be, even if that means pursuing an advanced degree, it is not going to happen anytime soon because I am so *over* school right now.)

Why do you want to work here?
(I answered this question not with a specific school in mind, but a specific district)

D***** ISD is a wonderful place to work.  According to, out of the 21 elementary campuses, none rate below a 5 out of 10 and 15 campuses rate a 7 or higher.  As of 2009, the turnover rate for teachers in this district was less than 11%, compared to the state average of more than 14%   There are so many great supplementary programs, and I feel like education is a real priority.  While the school district has so many schools and 2 early childhood centers, it feels more like a community and less like a large metropolis.  I am excited to see what Dr. W, the new superintendent has in store.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


The month of December was not good to me.  Some things happened that made me sad and angry, hurt my feelings, and generally left me wondering if I'd made a mistake and maybe I wasn't even supposed to be teaching.  It's still too painful to talk about, but the effects are far reaching, like ripples on a pond.

I had already planned on leaving the after school program I worked at, but after events transpired I left it early, without getting to say goodbye to my kids.  I won't even be substituting at that school, so basically the last time I got to see my kids was November 30th.  Instead of the semester starting with me being guaranteed a few work days a month and a whole school of people who would call me if they needed as sub, I'll be starting over at new schools where I know maybe one other teacher.  Instead of hugging my kids and asking all about their winter break, and spending time with them, I am cut off from them.

I worked at that school for 4 years.  I was there for some part of 5 different school years.  I started out with kindergartners in the spring of 2009 and now they are in 4th grade.  I love all my kids, whether they were with me for a few months or all 4 years.  I love the kids I did my student teaching with.  I was a regular face there as a substitute, and I had teachers that called me first, before anyone else, when they needed a sub.  It kills me not to get to see these people all the time.  I had dreamed of getting a teaching position there, but that's not likely to happen now.  I had all these connections built up, and now it's all for nothing.

Basically put - it sucks.  I have been angry and hurt for a month now, and while I'm trying to resume life as normal, I just can't let go of the negativity.  I'm a firm believer that there is a reason for everything, that God does not play dice with the universe, but I'm wondering what the reason could be for A) cutting me off from the little people who make me smile, who make a bad day better, B) putting my whole future (career-wise) in jeopardy and C) making me question the one path that I was on that I thought, with absolute certainty, was where God wanted me.

January 8th marks the start of a new semester, and I just know the first time I step foot in a new school my heart is going to break even more.  Last year, when I didn't get placed at "my" school for student teaching, it was so hard to be in these other classrooms, in this other building, with these other people.  The one thing that helped was being over to drive to "my" school and visit my after school kids and get hugs from them and hear about their lives.  Now, I don't even have that.  This is a new chapter in my life and I don't want to turn the page.  I want to rip out all the pages until I get to the answers in the back of the book so someone can tell me why this all happened.