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Rethinking the Book Box

By Genia Connell on October 4, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5

What have you read today or even this week? I was thinking about this question a few Sundays ago. I had read a couple of chapters on Kindle, a professional journal article, parts of six different newspapers, a catalog, several texts, tweets, emails, and i-messages. I'd also browsed through two magazines and a few cookbooks. Pondering this, I had to ask myself why, if my own reading life is so varied and I am trying to create lifelong readers in my classroom, do I strictly regulate what my students read and when? It just didn’t make sense, and I knew I needed to make a change.

Personal book boxes are a key component of my reader’s workshop. After examining my own reading habits, however, I decided to revisit my idea. I’ve always had tight guidelines regarding what students could keep inside their boxes to optimize reading instruction. They were allowed the one book they were currently reading and the next two books they wanted to read, all of which had to be at their “just right” reading level.

At times, I even dictated the genre of all the books. While students absolutely love IDR (Individualized Daily Reading) time, it was truthfully the only time of day book boxes were being used effectively. In the three short weeks since I’ve changed up my idea of what a book box should be, I have seen a noticeable difference in my students’ reading habits. They are reading every spare moment they can, and I’ve even had to dissuade a few from taking reading material to every recess. This week I’m happy to share with you how my book boxes underwent an extreme makeover and to describe the differences I am seeing in my students' reading habits as a result.


The Book Box

For the actual book box, I've tried several different materials including cardboard boxes and even decorated, cut-up cereal boxes. (I must have had way too much time on my hands that year!) Finally, I settled on the more expensive, but sturdy boxes from Really Good Stuff, which have held up perfectly over the past five years.

The first aspect I rethought was the name label. In the past, students decorated their own numbered label on an index card, which I laminated and taped to the front. Somewhere along the way, I decided to create adorable, themed book-box labels to give my classroom that neat, color-coordinated look I loved on so many teacher blogs. This year I went back to my old ways. Not surprisingly, there were way more oohs and ahs over their own labels than mine ever garnered. My point here is give your students ownership of whatever you possibly can in the classroom.


The Contents

The insides of my students’ book boxes have undergone a great transformation this year. Although we still have established guidelines for what goes into a reader’s book box, the class helped me determine what those guidelines should be, as you can see on the anchor chart we made below. The big additions to our IDR books are two new categories: microreads and short reads. In the past, students would always ask me if they could read when they had a spare minute or two, and I would usually say yes. But honestly, how easy is it to get into or enjoy a chapter book in a three-minute span? By allowing students to expand the types of written material in their book boxes, the amount of time they spend reading has expanded as well. Admittedly this book box makeover is still new to us, and our classroom list of approved materials is still in flux, but here is what we have agreed on thus far:

book box anchor chart



This category covers things students can read when they have just a few minutes to spare. This includes magazines, comics, joke books, brochures, catalogs, and menus. (Yes, some like to read menus!)

Short Reads

This category is for when they have ten minutes or less. Students decided it should include magazines, Scholastic News, picture books, almanac and record books, their writer’s notebooks, poetry books, and books that really interest them that may not be at their just-right reading level. 

IDR Reads

At this time of year my 3rd grade students are working towards thirty minutes of sustained reading. For IDR time, students still need two to three books at their level that they can read the entire time without needing to book shop.



Reading Response Binder

Students keep a reading response binder in their book boxes. As with the label on the front of the book box, I let them design the cover. Because we use computers a great deal in the classroom throughout the year for writing and projects, this was an easy way to introduce students to formatting fonts, adding backgrounds, clip art, and pictures.





I PICK Bookmarks

These are the first bookmarks I give my students, and most keep one in their book box the entire year. I prefer a bookmark to a poster on the wall or a sheet in their binder (I’ve tried both) because they seem to attend to it better when they have it at their fingertips daily.

Click on the image above to download I PICK bookmarks.

Still, students are not allowed to overload their book boxes. They must know what’s in there, what category it fits into, and when it is appropriate to read it. Thus far, students have done a great job with their organization. One boy brought two large manila envelopes he uses to separate his micro- and short reads, and another student uses plastic binder dividers to keep her box’s contents organized. Students are bringing in more materials from home now, too, whereas previously, they relied heavily on my classroom library.

Whenever I try something completely new, I get excited when I see positive results immediately. That’s been the case with my book box makeover. With all this reading going on in my classroom, they of course need to show some accountability, so within the next few weeks I’ll go a step further and share a few of the ways I’m having my students respond to what they’re reading in their binders and elsewhere. I’d love to read your comments on how you are using book boxes in your classroom or how you have students respond.

Some of my favorite professional books for reader's workshop include: 

Comments (15)

This post reminds me of Donnalyn Miller's book The Book Whisperer. After reading her book a year ago I made some conscious decisions regarding "book logs" and how I would use,(or not use) them. I think every teacher should pick up Miller's book and read it - it will change the way you teach!

I love this!!! My school currently does daily 5 and it has some positive ideas but this, this is what I am feeling more comfortable with for my first graders!!! Yes I will need to tweet it a bit but I believe in the long haul this is much better!!! So much so I am going to introduce it before Christmas break!!! Keep posting great ideas!!!!

The I-Pick method of choosing books is from The Daily Five, and credit should have been given to the two sisters who wrote the book.

Yikes! Could have been stated a little friendlier! I am not sure it is something that the sisters created. We have been talking about Good Fit and IPick in my district for the last 15 years or so.

Hi Anonymous,

I adapted these from posters that my schools's reading committee created for us. After your comment, I did some research and see this strategy is used in The Daiky Cafe which I do not use. Thanks for pointing that out--credit is duly noted. :)

Hi Genia,

You have so many wonderful ideas that I have incorporated into my classroom. I just spotted your name brand skeletons. Can you tell me how you created or what you used for the head, arms, and legs? They look awesome!


Hi Denise,

Thanks so much! We just used tempera paint on black paper. I originally was going to use all white paint, but realized I was low, so I just asked, "Who would like a yellow, orange or fuschia skeleton instead?" I really like the result with the different colors. The head and legs came from an ancient reproducible book I had. Genia

I'm curious how you guide students in choosing books that are on their "just-right" level. How do they determine this? Obviously there are all kinds of assessments to determine reading level, but few of them would make much sense to third graders. I'm looking for a way to encourage my own students to choose books that are on level for them.

In our district we use the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System to determine each student's instructional and independent levels. "Just right" books come from their independent levels. Of course, student's prior knowledge can play a role in their understanding, so these levels aren't exact for each book. I write independent levels on sticky notes that students keep in their reading response binders. My higher readers, those a whole grade level above or more, get a larger range of books than those who are on or below. Every week I do a quick check to make sure they are reading books that are appropriate for independent practice. If a student wants to try a book out of their range, I have them read a couple pages to me and answer a few questions. After doing that, it's usually clear to me and the student if that book would work for them. Hope this helps! Genia

This looks great - I'm only just now introducing book boxes to my kids, I have a lot who 'need' to get up and choose a book halfway through reading even though we have discussed this at length! Can't wait to see how you do your reading responses too.

I definitely know what you mean about those "book shoppers!" I've had students in the past stretch out looking for one book into the majority of their IDR time. To stop this, one thing I've done is post a sign near the classroom library letting them know when it is "open." Students can shop first thing in the morning, when they finish an assignment or while they are waiting for buses to arrive at the end of the day. I tell my students they are responsible for having enough material in their book boxes to read for about thirty straight minutes, no matter whether you are reading picture books or chapter books. I have discovered (the hard way!)when you make your rules about book shopping, you have to stick to your guns. As soon as that first person gets up during IDR to shop that opens the door for all the others! ~Genia

I really like this- What do students keep inside the reading response binder? Do you have specific worksheets/templates or do you just allow them to respond? I have literature circles and they have reading journals in which they have specific jobs, response questions, projects, etc to complete with each reader they complete as a group.
Would love any ideas/templates you have to share.

Our response binders are a work in progress throughout the year. I've created most of the templates we use, and I am always changing and adapting to fit the class that I have and their particular needs. The past couple weeks we have been doing mini-lessons on making meaningful connections, so my response sheets match that righ now. More sheets are added as we go for asking questions/wondering, visualizing, inferencing, etc. I also have open-ended questions students answer for within the text, about the text and beyond the text questions. I find at this time of year though my third graders need a lot of guidance and modeling to get their responses down on paper. I'm working on a couple posts right now but I'll definitely be sharing my reading response materials within a few weeks. I'm interested in what types of specific jobs your kids have and and I'd love to hear more about your projects. I am a huge fan of any type of authentic assessment!

I love these ideas. I am wondering how to tailor it to fit the needs of my first graders. I would love to give them more ownership over choosing books for their book bags.

Having students pick their own books at any age can be challenging. I imagine your first graders need a lot of guidance at this point in the year choosing books at their independent level. Having an open-ended category like my short or micro-reads might work well to give your students more options and ownership during times when they might have shorter periods of "free-reading." I've found the key in my room is making sure they know when it is okay to read what. I am definitely seeing my students being exposed to a much greater volume of text throughout the school day than they were earlier in the year. Perhaps other first grade teachers could weigh in here on how they give more ownership to their students when it comes to book selection. ~Genia

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