When I had a child who worried about being different from her playmates, I curled up and read The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Maya summed up the story about the flower-smelling bull by saying, “So it’s important to just be me and not worry about them.” The year I had third-grade boys preventing the girls from playing football, I read William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow to start a discussion about gender stereotypes. Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus is my gift to any parent who frets that their child isn’t learning to read at the right pace.
Using books to make my point instead of lectures or facts is a natural reflex with children, but it took time to extend this practice to my work with adult learners. In the beginning I was worried teachers would think I was treating them like children; I didn’t want to see eye rolls. I took a risk and began reading anyway, and felt myself relax into the comfort of sharing a book with an audience. When we teach adults, we need to address their hearts and minds. Over and over, books allow me to raise deeper, sometimes even controversial, issues that lead to critical heart and mind discussions.
This booklist includes texts I’ve used in professional development with educators that help me entertain, open discussion, and make emotionally relevant points.
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman
Use to explore topics of transition, change, and cycles.
The beginning of the year is a time to begin anew, but it’s also a time to reflect on what has come before. In August I read aloud Swirl by Swirl to different teams and school staffs.
“A spiral is a snuggling shape. . . . Coiled tight, warm and safe, it waits for a chance to expand.”
The illustrations show examples of spirals in nature, from a curled-up chipmunk and a cross section of a nautilus shell to a spiderweb and breaking ocean wave, and I invited each participant to think about their own unfurling.
After distributing a blank spiral outline to each person I said, “When you consider coming challenges or changes this year, where are you in the spiral? What’s ahead of you? What’s behind you? Feel free to label, draw, or represent your own spiral.”
Perfect Square by Michael Hall
Use to explore topics of flexibility, transformation, and plan vs. reality.
“It was a perfect square. It had four matching corners and four equal sides. And it was perfectly happy.” So begins this picture book of possibilities. Each day something happens to the square that requires it to reinvent itself. On Thursday, for example, the square is shattered and repositions the pieces into a bridge.
With my professional learning community (my instructional coaching team) I paired up the coaches and gave each one a decorative paper square. Each coach handed their perfect square to their partner, who scissored, punched holes, and/or tore their shape. The coach’s job was to reinvent the pieces as something new. One coach reflected, “This represents just about every day in coaching: It will never be perfect, you’ll work with what you have, and you’ll always surprise yourself by what is created.”
The Animal School by George H. Reavis
Use to explore topics of differentiation, mandates, multiple intelligence theory, and teaching the whole child.
When the animals decided to meet the problems of a new world, they organized a school and adopted a curriculum of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. Predictably the duck was an excellent swimmer, but it was a basic flyer and below standard in running and climbing. Being judged for things we don’t do well instead of having a strengths-based emphasis on each unique learner is the theme of The Animal School.
I’ve used this book in making the case for conferring with individual students as well as strengths-based feedback in writing.
Inkblot: Drip, Splat, and Squish Your Way to Creativity by Margaret Peot
Use to explore creativity, the need for both intuition and analysis in problem solving, and “how-to” writing.
“Random marks—such as drips and splashes, blots, streams, and splatters—have a liveliness about them that transcends what we can imagine our hands alone doing.”
I’ve used this unique book in multiple ways. Making inkblots is a wonderful brain break. It’s also a metaphor for education, because you are creating something without knowing exactly how it will turn out.
Testing Miss Malarkey by Judy Finchler
Use to explore “teaching to the test vs. teaching about the test,” the role of educators and parents around assessment, and anxiety.
The statewide test, the IPTU, is coming. Miss Malarkey is biting her nails, the principal is stressed out about pencils, fish (otherwise known as brain food) is the only food served in the cafeteria, and parents are making their kids fill out worksheets and eat power bars. Maybe, just maybe, priorities are messed up. This picture book makes a strong point about how students watch our actions and behaviors as we prepare for THE TEST.
If You’re Riding a Horse and It Dies, Get Off by Jim Grant and Char Forsten
Use to explore topics of change, new ideas, analysis, and commonsense school reform.
It’s 1918 at Temple Elementary School, and the mare has died.
“Do you think a bigger whip would help?”
“Let’s visit some schools that are successfully riding dead horses.”
“Let’s assemble a committee to study dead horses.”
This funny allegory about education gets participants laughing and inspired to consider “something new” that allows a rider to get off the dead horse and put it properly to rest.
The Story of the Little Piggy Who Couldn’t Say No by Sabine Ludwig
Use to explore gratitude, boundary setting, keeping your cool, and educational roles.
Little Piggy is prepped for a day at the beach, but her plans change when she misses the bus because of a long goodbye kiss from Mama Pig. Her adventures continue when a dog pops her inner tube, a cat borrows her hat, and a crocodile begs for her sunglasses. It’s all too much. She ends up in the swamp screaming “NO!” and lets the animals have it.
“Full of cheer, I left today
to swim, but things are not okay!
I’m in this mud, I’m really stuck.
Stop laughing at my rotten luck!
I helped you all, now don’t you see?
Please grab hold and pull on me!”
I use this text with teacher leaders as they explore their roles and when they need to legitimately say no so they can say yes to good work and balance in their lives.
Make Your Own Meaning
Of course it’s more than just choosing the right book—there’s an art to sharing it. If the group is small, I read it teacher-style. If the group is large, I’ll use a document camera or project the images. I often begin by saying, “Thank you for indulging me as I read a children’s book. While I read, I’d like you to watch for/think about/reflect on . . .”
If the book is longer, I find one or two spots to stop and have participants turn and talk. After I’ve read the book, I facilitate discussion that focuses on the theme or moral and why it matters. Truthfully, there are still some eye rolls when I pull out a children’s book, but most of my professional development feedback includes comments like “I’m inspired,” “I get it now,” and “I’m reconsidering how I’ve thought about issues in the past.” Those epiphanies are well worth 32 pages of literary indulgence.