Dazzling Kids With Dewey
Learning about the century-old classification system can be fun
By Shelley Riskin — School Library Journal, 11/01/2003
Are your students more likely to doze off than be dazzled by Dewey decimal skills? Don’t despair, there are indeed engaging ways to teach kids how to use this century-old classification system to accurately and efficiently find library materials.
I’ve spent more than 20 years as an elementary school librarian creating lesson plans about Dewey. The routine went something like this: I’d start by giving an overview about Melvil Dewey and then launch into an explanation about the 10 main categories for all nonfiction books. Then the yawns and blanks stares would kick in. So a few years ago, when I started my current job at the Pleasant Ridge School in Glenview, IL, I created a hands-on, visual, and artistic dimension to this valuable lesson that appeals to all young students.
First, I cleared off two library shelves (approximately 8.5 feet long by 3 feet wide) and designated the area “The Visual Dewey Display.” Then above each section I hung big, colorful signs that read: 000–099 General Reference (UFOs, Computers, Libraries, Newspapers); 100–199 Philosophy and Psychology (Ghosts, Astrology, Feelings); 200–299 Religion and Myths (Bible Stories, Myths); 300–399 Social Sciences (Money, Shipwrecks, Holidays, Fairy Tales, Fashion), and so on. Under each sign, I placed numerous objects with appropriate labels and the corresponding Dewey decimal numbers. For example, under General Reference kids will find a Library of Congress hologram labeled 027 and a floppy disk labeled 025. Under languages, there’s a miniature Webster’s dictionary labeled 423, and under Natural Science sits a Smithsonian book about the history of flight labeled 629. Under the Arts, they’ll find a xylophone labeled 780, a Chicago Bulls cap labeled 796.32, and Lord of the Rings trading cards with the number 778.5 affixed.
Students flock to the display whenever they’re in the media center and often ask questions about an object, its Dewey number, and whether they can check out display books. These inquiries always result in a teachable moment. I explain that Snow White and all other fairy-tale library books are together, with the special “Dewey address” or number of 398.2, while all books related to money can be found under 332, and so on. My lesson can be general and quick, or detailed and complex, depending on the child’s interest and the amount of time I have available.
When classes visit the library with their teachers for their first book checkout or research project, I have the opportunity to formally introduce and review the Dewey decimal system. My goal is to encourage students to play with objects that visually represent Dewey subjects. By doing so, the display becomes a fun and interesting springboard for the formal study of classification of information. I pair these objects with books from that call number and ask students if they’ve played with these items. A majority of children from each class always raise their hands excitedly. Their enthusiasm is the perfect impetus to introduce, explain, and review the Dewey decimal system. The Visual Dewey area has become one of the most popular places in my library media center, and it doesn’t cost very much. I’ve never spent more than a couple of dollars on an item, and I tend to find them in places such as sidewalk sales, children’s bookstores, museums, card shops, art fairs, and library catalogs.
Here are some tips to get you started: although very few of my items have disappeared, it’s best to keep the display where you can see it. Buy objects that are sturdy and inexpensive. Keep the display interesting by occasionally adding or removing objects. And make sure that each book in the display is available in your collection. I show students that the display and the library book have the same number and that they can check out the library book after placing the sample book back on our display shelf.
So, if you and your kids are dozing over Dewey, try the Visual Dewey Display. It will entice them with the wonders that can be found in library collections, everything from Egyptian mummies to space and beyond.
Shelley Riskin is a library media specialist at Pleasant Ridge School in Glenview, IL.