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Language arts teacher brings world of books to classroom

Comstock Park —  Seventh-grader Ryleigh O’Connor enjoys reading and reads about 32 books a year. She likes romance novels, she said, and her favorite book is “Five Feet Apart” by Rachael Lippincott, a book about two teenagers with cystic fibrosis.

Thanks to an extensive library of about 900 books in Lisa English’s language arts classroom, Ryleigh and other sixth- and seventh-graders can check out books right from class.

Because of budget cuts when English started teaching sixth and seventh grade, Mill Creek Middle School doesn’t have a dedicated library. So English started accumulating books and worked to find titles that would interest students. About six years ago, her classroom library was the beneficiary of a fundraiser by Culver Academies. English’s high school friend, a cheer coach at Culver, saw her plea for donations on Facebook and made the classroom library the cheerleaders’ annual fundraiser. English received boxes of new and gently used books and Amazon gift cards.

“This was the kickstart to my current library,” English said.

The majority of the titles come from grants, including several from the Comstock Park Education Foundation, as well as KDL donations and sales, used book sources and student donations. 

“Trying to keep them current is the key,” she said.

English also uses Booksource, a company that supplies the education market with new and classic titles for classrooms. She maintains a database to track what students are reading and to check books in and out. 

She said her middle-schoolers most enjoy fantasy fiction and realistic fiction. 

Seventh-grader Cainen Williams likes to read action, adventure and fantasy books like the Harry Potter series. “Getting books is a fun thing for me,” he said.

KDL Partnership

Sixth-graders looked forward last year to walking a block with English to the Comstock Park Branch of Kent District Library to learn about the library and check out books, a program she said has been in place for about seven years.

“Their comfort level increases with familiarity and willingness to ask for help from the amazing KDL staff,” she said.

English said not all students had the opportunity to obtain a library card that required a parent signature. Those students can now get a youth card and check out three books at a time.

Because of the pandemic, the library is coming to the classroom this year. 

Starting this semester librarian Jackie Boss has been visiting English’s classroom to talk about and recommend titles. 

Seventh-grader Yumna Yahya enjoyed walking with her friends to the library and being able to get books not available at school, and appreciates the book talks this year. She enjoys fiction, she said, and her favorite book is “Eclipse” by Stephenie Meyer, part of the Twilight saga.

Boss brings several copies of the books she recommends and bookmarks printed with monthly recommendations. She noted that realistic fiction books by Gordon Korman are popular with middle-schoolers because they’re usually about sixth-graders, including “The Unteachables,” about what happens when the worst class of kids is paired with the worst teacher.

Boss said during their visits to the library students discovered the library was not a scary place and learned how to access materials including e-books, audio books and databases for research. The library even became a hangout after school for students, she said.

Seventh-graders in Lisa English’s language arts class benefit from the classroom book library

Developing Lifelong Readers

English sets weekly page number goals for each student, determined by their reading ability, as well as the level of difficulty of their chosen book.

English and Boss say they work to expose students to different types of books to encourage them to try something that is “out of their box.” They do speed-dating with books to help students explore new authors and genres. 

English keeps track of the titles students have read, and “when I see patterns, I attempt to persuade them to try something new.”

She said the best feedback comes from other teachers who “complain” that they have to ask students to stop reading in their classes. Parents tell her that they have never seen their children read so much, she said.

English said she knows there’s been progress toward creating habits and developing lifelong readers. It makes her day, she said, when she sees the excitement of a student sharing a book with a classmate.

“I think students are getting exposed to relative (and) current issues that really seem to grab their attention,” she said.

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Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry covers Comstock Park. She is from Evansville, Indiana and St. Joseph, Mich. and a graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School and Central Michigan University. She moved to the Grand Rapids area in the mid-1980s and has been a resident of Comstock Park since 2002. She understands the complexity, rewards and challenges of the teaching profession as she has five years of experience as a high school teacher at River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Mich. and St. Stephen High School in Saginaw. As a reporter for the Advance Newspapers and Mlive she covered Sparta, Kent City and Northview schools. She is happy to be reunited with some of her journalism colleagues and writing about Comstock Park Public Schools for the School News Network. Read Karen's full bio

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2 COMMENTS

  1. My friend who teaches at Oak Park River Forest High School in Illinois has a similar sized library for her high school students! Amazing!

  2. I understand why this teacher would establish such a strong classroom library: her students absolutely need access to a wide variety of books for pleasure reading. That said, I would also hope this teacher would continue to advocate for the school to establish a school library with a certified librarian. There could be grant funding available to support building the collection. Why a certified librarian? They are fully certified teachers who also have training in collection development and management, which would mean an even broader array of titles available to all the students of the school rather than only the ones in a single classroom.

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