How to Make My Classroom More Like a Library

Education, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Kate Lechtenberg

I was recently working on a proposal for a new course, and my book list kept getting longer and longer.  The solution was clear: choice.  If there were dozens of “perfect” book for this class, then students should be able to choose, right? I should support my students’ freedom to read!

But then I panicked — how would I could I possibly narrow the list? The students need to read all these books because they’re all perfect and essential, right?

That’s when I realized that my intellectual freedom instincts as a librarian were conflicting with my English teacher’s love of sharing a book with a room full of students. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coates compares the library and the classroom: 

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library is open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.” (Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me)

So how could I make my classroom more like the library, but still keep some of the shared experiences that inspire the complex conversations that feed learning? As I’ve looked over some of my recent syllabi for a college courses, I see four different approaches to offering my choice to students.

Recipe 1: Occasional Choice: This was the standard approach I took when I was an English teacher as well.  Mostly required texts with occasional choice, this one is recipe features a strong flavor of teacher control, and it’s the approach I took.

  • 9 parts required young adult novels/graphic novels/nonfiction
  • 1 part required education practice book
  • 1 required nonfiction education book
  • 2 choice novels selected from ALA Youth Media Awards lists

Recipe 2: Choice Leads the Way: This is the approach I took in my most recent course proposal, and while I love the freedom these choices give students, it’s more choice than I’m used to offering and it makes me a little anxious to think about all those curiosities on the loose.  How will I reign them all in? Or at least bring them in conversation? Or maybe that’s what Coates doesn’t want me to do.

  • 1 required nonfiction educational theory book
  • 1 required children’s novel
  • 8 parts choice articles, nonfiction books, and literary works
  • 1 part open topic choice
  • occasional required articles each week

Recipe 3: Part Choice, Part Common Texts: This approach is the course I’m teaching now, and I like the balance of having several required books in common and almost as many choices. The choices often help me facilitate interest-focused groups, and it supports students freedom to read while keeping us together periodically.

  • 6 parts required young adult novels/nonfiction/graphic novels
  • 2 recommended educational practice books
  • 3 parts choose from a list of 2-5 books
  • 2 parts choose from ALA Youth Media Awards
  • frequent required and choice articles/multimedia

Recipe 4: Skinny requirements, plus the library: I took this approach this summer in a graduate course for preservice librarians, and it was liberating. My goal was to keep focused on the requirements and then encourage the kind of curiosity that Coates experience in the library!

  • 2-3 required articles each week
  • 5-10 articles in “the library,” a list of optional resources

What other models of choice are possible? I’ll keep exploring, and I’d love to hear more ideas about other approaches to choice in the classroom.  Here’s to making the classroom more like the library!


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

One thought on “How to Make My Classroom More Like a Library

  • This is such a lovely post with an awesome perspective. Open, interactive pedagogy that is well-balanced is a challenge in practice! When it works, though, it is so rewarding. Kudos to you for all of this amazing experimentation and thanks for sharing.

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