I truly believe the first few weeks of school can make or break the community of learners you hope to develop. Teachers feel so much pressure to jump right in with teaching the curriculum that at times we push too hard at the beginning of the year. I feel like we have lost touch with the idea that taking the time to build community and establish some learning norms during the first month of school can pay huge dividends as the year progresses.
My professional bookshelf and my bookmarked web resources are filled with lists of books to launch a reading or a writing workshop. These lists are wonderful starting places for me, but the last few years I have shifted into an inquiry stance of “How can the books, poems, articles I share at the beginning of the year have a bigger impact than just learning to read like a writer or search for writer’s notebook possibilities?” I want my initial read alouds to be a launching pad for three big ideas:
- We are a community of creative thinkers that learn together.
- We are a community of readers that share our thinking freely.
- We are a community of writers that take risks and support each other.
My attempt to find read alouds to support the ideas above has led me to three framing questions when thinking about the texts I choose:
- Will the choice inspire lots of talk?
- Does the choice evoke a sense of community or collaboration?
- Is there a strong possibility we could return to the choice later in the year for further study of craft?
These three questions are going through my mind right now as I troll through my Goodreads shelves and look for new books at the library. If I read a book and I cannot answer yes to all three questions, it doesn’t mean I will never use it in our classroom, it just won’t be a book I use right at the beginning of the year.
Will the choice inspire lots of talk?
Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.
One of the norms I hope to instill immediately with the learners I will be working with for 180 days is the idea that we need to talk a lot. During the first few weeks of school I want to develop this culture in many ways, but initially I just want the students to want to talk. I think there are stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, that practically beg us to talk a great deal. It could be a character whose dad inspires him to bake an “enemy pie,” or it could be four people standing up for their rights. When I am scouting for read alouds at the beginning of the year, I want to find a story that is talkworthy. If we can’t learn how to talk to each other respectfully and effectively, then we can’t become better thinkers, readers, and writers.
I don’t necessarily think there is one list of talkworthy books for every single classroom. When you are looking for texts that inspire your new students to want to talk, think about some previous students you taught. Would ‘Joey’ want to talk about this? Trust your judgment. If you think it would be a blast to have a conversation with a class of students about the book, then chances are it will be great.
Does the choice evoke a sense of community or collaboration?
Teachers can position children as competitors or collaborators, and themselves as referees, resources, or judges, or in many other arrangements.
Community and collaboration are the two biggest themes I want to weave all through the school year. I used to think that I could be Super Teacher and meet the needs of every single student in my classroom on every single day. Then I realized that was impossible, and began to help my students help themselves and each other. I cannot achieve these goals if they don’t see the power of community and collaboration.
This is why I want to find stories where characters or actual people work together as partners or a group. I love stories where an individual faces and beats insurmountable odds, because those stories are so upliftingly powerful to read. However, I avoid sharing them during the formative weeks that we are trying to establish norms about community and collaboration. I want us all to grow into the roles of collaborators and resources, not competitors or judges.
Is there a strong possibility we could return to the choice later in the year for further study of craft?
We always push curriculum development until it ends at that vision, looking at each thing we notice in a text until we get to that point: something we can teach a writer to do.
Katie Wood Ray
For me this is the easiest question to answer. I am constantly looking for sources we can return to later in the year. Coming back to a text to explore new ways of thinking is an incredibly important skill to model. This is why so many of the picture books and nonfiction articles I share at the beginning of the year appear many more times as the year progresses.
When I am thinking about choosing a book for the first few weeks, I read it first to see if it matches my first two questions, then I read it a second or third time to look for craft possibilities. Is the language powerful? Is there a structure in the writing that could be studied further? Does a theme emerge that might not be noticed during the first reading? These questions and many more swirl around my brain as I reread texts.
Putting It All Together
When you are planning a selection of read alouds to build a sense of community and collaboration in your classroom, I suggest a mix of genres and topics that will appeal to the diversity of learners you may have in your room. This will help ensure that each child makes a connection with at least one book you chose. Don’t over plan. I think about lots of books, but I may only use about half the books I select. This allows for being flexible once I get to know my class better. If you consider the plan for choosing stories that I have described in this article, here a few that I am thinking about reading aloud this fall.
Fictional Picture Books
Blackout by John Rocco
Boy and Bot by Ame Dyckman
Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
Jumanji by Chris Van Alsburg
Wolf! by Becky Bloom
Nonfiction Picture Books
Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team by Audrey Vernick
Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Karen Leggett Abouraya
Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret by Lesa Cline-Ransome
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney
The Camping Trip that Changed America by Barb Rosenstock