Amazing Places

by Laurie Bellet

Whenever I go into a public school classroom, there are a couple of areas that always amaze me. One is the class library and the other is the place where teachers store their “stuff.”

Classroom libraries are areas of incredible diversity and opportunities. Teachers accumulate books through the years by all manner of means. They frequent second hand book stores and library sales. They browse bookseller websites, take advantage of in store and discounts and they openly encourage parent donations to honor birthdays and special events. Go into any classroom and you will see books arranged by topic, author season and size. Then, there is a magical time of day when the teacher invites the children to ‘take out your silent reading book.’ The classroom transforms from a hectic business to a true ‘beit midrash.’

Yet, in many Jewish classrooms there is little or no classroom library. The synagogue library is a rich and essential resource. It doesn’t, however, serve the same function as beautiful, timely, books in the classroom. Certainly there are many reasons for this but I am inclined to wonder whether or not these challenges are insurmountable. Many of our classrooms serve multiple populations but, isn’t a well tended bookshelf an honorable addition to any room whether it be used for children, meetings or Mah Jong?

In Jewish supplemental schools young teachers abound. College students and new grads have had neither the funds nor the years of teaching background to be aware of, much less accumulate, a treasure trove of books. In my experience, I have noticed that institutions do spend funds on teacher and director gifts for Hanukkah and end of year. What if, instead, teachers were given gifts of beautiful stories and gift cards with a list of dedicated selections. Such gifts would endure throughout generations of students.

The lack of shelf space can be a problem yet, I have seen many classrooms with ill-used shelves, papers in disarray. Where space is a legitimate challenge, we now can find stores specializing in storage solutions. An initial investment would enrich student readers for years. Too many veteran teachers maintain their book collection in the garage at home.

When my son was in Montessori, birthdays were celebrated with a gift of a ‘birthday book,’ from the child to the classroom. The honored child was given a book plate to insert and was able to celebrate the day by sharing the stories and pictures with the group. The book was then given a place of distinction for a week of display before joining the rest of the collection on the shelf. Think of the opportunities if families were accustomed to this practice with every simchah!

It has become so simple to find quality Jewish children’s books. The major booksellers have a surprising selection and one internet search for Jewish children’s book publishers yields success. Book fairs become an eagerly anticipated school event. Teachers can be given a gift certificate to spend and signs can be placed on desired books for parents to purchase and donate to the classroom.

And, what of the awe that descends during ‘silent sustained reading’ time? Yes, this is a challenge for an education system where every second must be squeezed out of each limited teaching minute. Surely, though, we can dedicate 10–15 minutes, school wide each Rosh Chodesh and every full moon for this sacred experience, a time where teachers also join the students to savor the offerings of the class library. In schools where classes are off-site in rented space, a special book box for each class could be transported for this twice monthly time. Isn’t it worth a try?

How does your school honor Jewish books and carve out time to enjoy them? What books of Jewish content and relevance for your grade level would you recommend to a young teacher?