There’s a lot to accomplish at the beginning of the school year: routines to teach, expectations to communicate, communities to build . . . but not necessarily in that order. In fact, by starting with community, the expectations and routines fall naturally in line. And the best place to start when building a classroom community is with read aloud. Shared books and stories create the common ground that will become the very fabric of the classroom from day to day. These first books will become mentor texts, touchstones, shorthand for “the way we do things or the way things are in this classroom.” Here are the books I use to launch my community each year.
Ish by Peter Reynolds. I value approximation.
In this simple story, a little boy’s enthusiasm for drawing pictures is crushed by his brother’s declaration that his pictures don’t look like their subjects. Luckily, he learns that his sister has rescued all of his discarded art, and that she values the “ish-ness” — the approximation, the essence, of his drawings. He begins to see the benefits of “ish-ness” in all of his creative endeavors.
The Wonderful Happens by Cynthia Rylant. I celebrate each unique student.
This sweet book celebrates the wonderful and simple things in life: bread, birds, flowers. It also celebrates the fact that, although there was a time when you didn’t exist, you now do and you are part of the wonderfulness of our world.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. We honor diversity, and recognize the importance of names.
On the first day of school a Korean girl is teased about her name. She tells her classmates that she will choose a new name. In the end, she takes pride in her Korean name.
Big Al by Andrew Clements. Looks don’t matter nearly as much as actions.
Big Al is the biggest, ugliest fish in the ocean. All he wants is to have a friend, but he is so big and ugly that he scares all the other fish away. He tries everything he can to fit in. Finally, it is his sacrifice when he saves the other fish from the net that wins them over and helps them to see beyond the big scary facade.
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Stamina and persistence are positive traits.
Although it seems unlikely, there are lots of students who have never heard this classic fable of stamina and persistence. Positive thinking is certainly not all it takes to succeed, but confidence is a big part of the equation. Self-confidence can be learned, and I also work to build as much as I can in each of my students.
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. Cooperation and collaboration will be practiced in my classroom.
A little blue truck takes time to “beep” at all the animals along the road. A big important dump truck roars through the story and promptly gets stuck. When the little blue truck tries to help, he gets stuck, too. All it takes is one “beep,” and all of that networking pays off — all the animals come to help the little blue truck help the big dump truck.
The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups by David Wisniewski. Humor is valued in my classroom.
I read this book with no other motive than the laughter we will share together.
How We Are Smart by W. Nikola-Lisa. Everyone is 100% smart, even if we are different mixtures of the multiple intelligences.
After reading several of these poems over the course of a couple of days, I give the students a blank circle graph that has a key to the eight intelligences featured in Nikola-Lisa’s book. You can download the template by clicking here.
First we agree on the colors we will use for each of the intelligences so that it will be easy to compare our graphs at a glance. Then the students are instructed to divide the circle graph into eight pieces, with the size of each piece corresponding to their view of how strong that particular intelligence is for them. I model by making my “word” intelligence, my “logic” intelligence, and my “nature” intelligences fairly large, while making my “body” intelligence fairly small. I’m a failure at the Macarena and the Electric Slide, and cheerleading was never even an option for me. I was psychologically scarred by the one dance recital I took part in during junior high — my lack of coordination was that humiliating. Every graph has to have all eight intelligences, because no matter how small that intelligence, we each have a bit of all of them, in different combinations of strengths and weaknesses.
From Community to Strategies: Teaching How to Infer
Starting with books that have big messages makes it possible to ring the bell on the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy on the very first day of school as you talk about inferring the theme.
After I read one of these books, we talk about the facts of the story — the information that is right there in the text. We do a literal nutshell summary. For example: Ish is a story about a boy who draws pictures. He stops drawing, then he starts back up again.
To infer, we use what we know from the story and combine that with our background knowledge to think about motives and emotions and the author’s intentions. For example: The boy in Ish really missed drawing pictures. His sister helped him to see his art in a new way and to believe in himself.
To get to a theme, we take our inferences and try to make them into a global statement that doesn’t depend on the factual details of the story. For example: Ish is a book about believing in yourself no matter what others think. Ish is a book that encourages us to value approximation.
We go through this process of moving between strategies, themes, and core beliefs in each book, and in doing so become stronger readers . . . and a community that values the contributions of each learner.