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Build Your Classroom Library!

By Heather Flanagan
January 5, 2017


Between “Google it!” and “turn to page 55 of your textbook,” lives a rich but accessible middle ground: classroom and topic libraries.  While we’re fostering technical literacy for middle school students through the BOP Digital Platform as a part of the Billion Oyster Project Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science (BOP-CCERS), we believe that print isn’t dead yet!  At our recent professional development, “Build Your Classroom Library,” BOP’s Curriculum Specialists Annie Lederberg and Ann Fraioli introduced teachers to this idea of  “a contained universe of text that’s not completely overwhelming… [where] there’s still room for surprises.”

When students explore a concept or idea in a science classroom, at one extreme there’s one textbook or one single text.  But Annie argues that “part of literacy is finding and evaluating multiple texts, not just reading one authoritative text- now more than ever” and that “literature review is part of science culture.”  By reading multiple texts students have the opportunity to compare the information in each source, think critically about each source’s accuracy, and reflect on how the source conveys the information.

But at the other extreme, sending students off to Google can overwhelm them.  With so much information out there, it can be difficult for students to select which texts are worthy of investigating.  While students do need to learn how to conduct their own independent research, even activities like breaking students into groups and having each group read a separate text precludes students from participating in a valuable shared experience- a close reading as a class, moderated by a teacher who pushes students to back up statements with evidence.  A topic library is one in-between option that creates this opportunity for a shared research experience.


BOP teacher fellows Marie Tesi (left) and Shaina Simpson of P.S. 71 in the Bronx take a closer look at the Why is NYC here? topic library.

Topic Libraries

A topic library…

  • Creates a shared research experience.
  • Provides different sources with different voices and materials.
  • Helps differentiate instruction.
  • Fosters socio-emotional skills.
  • Introduces the element of surprise!

Modeled on course packets in college, Annie explained that a topic library is a collection of articles or excerpts curated by the teacher that contains a range of different sources, with different voices and different materials, narrowed to focus on one topic.  Ideally, the packet contains a coversheet with a sentence or two about each source that’s written engagingly enough to provide a hook for young readers, has its own pagination for easy reference, is arranged in order of accessibility, and contains some information that is repeated across some sources.  Ann and Annie created a topic library investigating the question, “Why is NYC here?” as an example (but noted that in a middle school classroom, they’d probably include between 5-10 texts):


In addition to creating a shared resource for everyone to refer back to, it’s a great way to differentiate instruction- especially because the students can differentiate for themselves by choosing to read or focus on one text over another.  If a student is stuck on one reading, you can guide them to another, and you can also push students to try more challenging texts.  Even if every student doesn’t read every text, since everyone is holding the same packet of materials, everyone can read it together, or look to it for evidence, sparking a close reading moment during class discussion if there’s a disagreement.

Topic libraries can also foster socio-emotional development.  By giving students choice, it empowers them to take ownership over their research process, while open discussion with classmates reinforces the sense of their interdependence.  It helps students see that reading widely and engaging with others’ viewpoints are ways we make sense of the larger world.  This in turn helps develop a vibrant, intellectually lively classroom culture in which students’ interactions, and the ways they build on each other’s ideas, can lead to surprises- what students pull from the text determines what will happen next.

At a time when so much reading happens online, teachers like Emily Chandler of P.S. 371 were interested in excerpts from some of the older texts as a way to get kids out of their comfort zone, especially from The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, which was published in 1985 but reproduces century-old menus, pictures, and poems, along with some history.  The cover alone would serve as an interesting prompt for class discussion, but the accompanying text is a great example of how resources in a science classroom can come from unlikely places- like vintage cookbooks!




Andy Zimmermann of M.S. 88 liked The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher because its nicely designed infographics could help break down the complexities of NYC infrastructure, especially for his English Language Learners.  Many teachers in the room agreed that topic libraries with rich images in addition to text would appeal to their visual learners.


From left: Andy Zimmermann and Lynn Shon of M.S. 88, with Cynthia Jackson of Grace Church School.

Annie finished up the topic libraries discussion by adding that she sometimes rewrites a text in easier language, and asked teachers to look at an original excerpt from The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River alongside her version:


She noted that she always gives both versions out so that students understand that there is no one, authoritative “translation”- this keeps them thinking critically about how ideas are communicated.  Annie’s noticed that students at all different reading levels will go back and forth between the two.  She’s found that when students see a simplified version modeled for them, it sometimes makes it easier for them to break texts down for themselves.

Classroom Libraries

Topic libraries aren’t the only game in town!  While a topic library offers multiple perspectives and voices on a single topic, cultivating a larger classroom library (of, possibly, both physical and digital books and resources) creates a situation in which teachers can offer a wide but still curated body of literature (and media) to help students seek out answers for themselves.  Annie noted that a classroom library enables her to point students in a direction- “try that book, it has a really good index”- and that she’s better able to help students access that text when she has it in the room and she’s familiar with it.  Both topic and classroom libraries integrate well with other classroom activities, especially as a part of the inquiry process.  Students can find partial answers to their questions, develop new questions, and build on the ideas and questions of their classmates through open-ended discussions.

For the last activity of the night, Ann and Annie turned teachers loose on the 58 books, collections of pamphlets, and piles of maps and posters they’d brought in from Governors Island, asking teachers to keep track of what they thought might be useful in their classrooms.


Andy thought having a physical map in the classroom would be really beneficial- his class’ Oyster Restoration Station is in the Gowanus Canal, and it’s one of a few sites they visit along the canal, noting, “These maps are very comprehensive- there’s something you get out of the physical version that you can’t really grasp in the digital version.”


Emily seconded this, pointing out that while students might not think of maps as art, historical maps in particular are the skilled work of a real craftsperson- “a cartographer made this.”


BOP Curriculum Specialist Ann Fraioli holds up a historical map.

Joe Gulino (I.S. 281) liked the poster of “Invasive Species of Long Island Sound,” noting that when his students pull up their ORS, they find many of these invasive species, and that seeing them on a chart like this would help them take ownership of the species identification process the next time they go, adding “I think kids nowadays are visual learners more than they ever were.”  Ann added that this particular poster was one of her favorite styles, because the front has images and the back has information- posters with a lot of information are less readable on a wall.  Annie suggested that it’s a good idea to think about how you use posters in the classroom- they don’t have to be on the wall all of the time.


Books for Younger Audiences

Lynn Shon (M.S. 88) observed that while so much on the internet is written at an adult level, many of the physical books the Curriculum Team brought are designed to be at a student level, which could be especially useful for English Language Learners and Special Education students.  She mentioned both Journey into an Estuary and Coastlines as particularly useful, noting that Coastlines essentially told the story of NYC’s seventh grade science standards- “that one kind of shocked me because it had all those standards in a kind of narrative form.”  (Ann found them on ShopDOE, the Department of Education’s purchasing portal, by searching “estuary.”)

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Field Guides

Teachers also saw a collection of field guides as an excellent resource, especially because the BOP Species ID Guide only comes with one picture of each organisms.  Ann noted that that would be a great way for students to compare texts, and Joe suggested he might ask students to create their own field guide.

Interested in checking out some of the books we brought?  We’ve included the list of all 58 books below.  And if you’d like to attend a workshop like Build Your Classroom Library, we’ve got more great professional developments coming up, like Data Analysis for Teachers- Part 1 in February on getting the right environmental data into the classroom, and Part 2 on figuring out what environmental data are telling us in March.  We hope you’ll join us!  If you’d like to read more about BOP Schools, keep checking back on the Billion Oyster Project blog for more posts, follow the BOP-CCERS Tumblr, and sign up for our newsletter!

Author Title
Ascher, Kate The Works
Barnhill, Kelly Do You Know Where Your Water Has Been? The Disgusting Story Behind What You’re Drinking
Baron, Robert and Locker, Thomas Hudson: The Story of a River
Bernhard, Annika Wetlands Plants and Animals Coloring Book
Buck, Lewis Wetlands: Bogs, Marshes, and Swamps
Burrows, Edwin and Wallace, Mike Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898
Carmer, Carl The Hudson River
Carson, Rachel The Edge of the Sea
Coulombe, Deborah A The Seaside Naturalist: A Guide to Study at the Seashore
Cudahy, Brian J Around Manhattan Island and Other Maritime Tales of New York
Cudahy, Brian J Over & Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor
Cunninghan, William P. and Mary Ann and Saigo, Barbara Environmental Science A Global Concern
Day, John W Estuarine Ecology
De Kadt, Maarten The Bronx River: An Environmental and Social History
Del Tredici, Peter Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, a Field Guide
Dunwell, Frances F The Hudson: America’s River
Eyewitness Books Seashore
Freeman, Stan and Nasuti, Mike The Natural History of New York
Gibberd, Ben New York Waters
Greenberg, Stanley Waterworks
Hamboussi, Anthony Newtown Creek: A Photographic Survey of New York’s Industrial Waterway
Hardt, Marah Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep
Haynes, James M. and Frisch, Norman J. Illustrated Guide to Hudson River Fishes
Johnson, Rebecca L A Journey into an Estuary
Kellner, Arthur D New York Harbor: A Geographical and Historical Survey
Kerrigan, Michael Geography Fact Files: Coastlines
Kieran, John A Natural History of New York City
Levinton, Jeffrey S Marine Biology Function, Biodiversity, Ecology
Lynch, Emma Ocean Food Chains
Macdonald Junior Reference Library Life in Fresh Water
McCay, Bonnie J Oyster Wars and the Public Trust: Property, Law, and Ecology in New Jersey History
McNeer, May The Hudson: River of History
Miller, Connie Colwell Garbage, Waste, Dumps, and You: The Disgusting Story Behind What We Leave Behind
Mitchell, Joseph The Bottom of the Harbor
Mittelbach, Margaret and Crewdson, Michael Wild New York
NOAA Learning Ocean Science Through Ocean Exploration
NYC DEP New York City’s Wastewater Treatment System
Otfinoski, Steven Sea Horses
Parks, Frederick J The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook
Perry, Bill A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide
Philbrick, Nathaniel Revenge of the Whale
Pollock, Leland A Practical Guide to the Marine Animals of Northeastern North America
Potter, Jean Science in Seconds at the Beach
Pringle, Estuaries: Where Rivers Meet the Sea
Pringle, Laurence This is a River: Exploring an Ecosystem
Sanderson, Eric W Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City
Scales, Helen Spirals in Time: The Secret and Curious Afterlife of Seashells
Shumway, Sandra E Shellfish Aquaculture
Stanne, Stephen P., Panetta, Roger G., and Forist, Brian E. The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to the Living River
Trujillo, Thurman Essentials of Oceanography
United Nations Classroom Resource Guide on Water Every Body Counts Every Drop Matters
Waldman, John Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor
Walker, Sally M Life in an Estuary
Walton, Terry Harbor Voices: New York Harbor tugs, ferries, people, places, & more
White, Christopher Chesapeake Bay A Field Guide
Wick, Walter A Drop of Water
Wood, Ian The Hudson River
Wright, Russell G Oil Spill!