In this podcast, Franki Sibberson chats with Mary Lee Hahn (author of Reconsidering Read-Aloud) about the best read alouds for building community at the start of the year. A full transcript is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: How have you used read alouds to build community at the beginning of the year?
Mary Lee Hahn: Well, I start with picture books. In those first days of school when our schedule is a lot less structured, picture books are just really easy to slip in some downtimes; to divide up the day into smaller chunks as we're all getting used to getting our stamina built up. They're short, and I choose to start with picture books because I can say a lot to my kids about how our classroom will be run and how we will live together in our classroom through the picture books.
For instance, I always, always use the book Ish by Peter Reynolds because I want to talk to kids about how I value approximation, and I want everybody to try their best and not worry if they don't get it right on the very first try. I always use Big Al by Andrew Clements to talk about friendship and not judging people by how they look.
A favorite this year was Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear. This is a Kids Can book, and it talks about competition and trying to be better than someone else. But in the end the characters value each other's strengths, realizing their differences.
Another new one that I used this year was Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages by Marla Frazee, and my kids were a little astonished that I was reading them a baby book about babies beginning to walk. But they really were able to transfer it to starting fourth grade, starting school, and trying new things. So we get those conversations started with short books, and start really digging in deep. That's another way that it sets the tone for the year.
Franki: What kinds of things are you trying to set up early in the year?
Mary Lee: Once I'm done with the picture books and I start in with a longer novel that I'm reading, my reading workshop will have been fairly well put into place. At that point the kids are all reading different books pretty much, and so the read aloud at that point becomes the one book that we all know. That's just a huge part of our reading and writing workshop community – to be able to refer back over the course of the year to a whole small set of books that we all have in common.
That longer read aloud continues to develop their ability to have conversation and really think deeply about the book. I use it to model strategies. We always do a really thorough job previewing the read aloud because I want them to do the same thing with their books. We predict a lot as we go along. We talk about the language, and they learn some strategies for keeping track of a longer story, which is sort of the hallmark of where they're at as readers in fourth grade.
Franki: You mentioned some books that you have used often in the past, and then some new ones this year. What are you looking for in books to use early in the year to build community?
Mary Lee: First and foremost I want them to be fun. They need to be a quick read so, like I said, I can flip them into the schedule at times. I try to look for authors that might show up again for the kids as they read that. The Andrew Clements book is important because later on in the year lots of them might be reading some of his novels. They get to see that there's a breadth and a depth to the work that an author can do.
I look for ones that have a good message and a good theme. Part of the community building for read aloud is that reading is fun, and that we'll have fun talking about books, and that it's fun to listen to books, and it's enjoyable to get involved in a story and make pictures in our mind.
Franki: Do you find that the conversations when you use the same book year after year are similar, or are they pretty different each year around the same book?
Mary Lee: I think they are generally the same. A lot of those first books I've chosen have a real specific theme or message, and it's a little bit more teacher directed at the beginning of the year. The conversation that students generate comes later, in the longer books.
Franki: Do you have any other favorites that you use early in the school year, besides the ones that you mentioned?
Mary Lee: In the past I've used The Little Engine That Could and paired that with Little Blue Truck, The Little Engine That Could is more about perseverance and working by yourself, and then I like Little Blue Truckbecause that one's more about collaboration, so it's good to see the combination of those. I like the book War and Peas, a book about making assumptions and arguing and fighting without really getting to the heart of, without investigating what the problem really is about. While I didn't use that one at the beginning of this year, I might bring it out if there comes a time when we've got some conflict in the classroom to talk about – not making assumptions.
My personal picture book collection is more valuable to me than a whole library full of picture books, because all of those books are handpicked. There's something I've found in them that I know I can teach from.