I believe that effective teaching is about hearing all the voices — making sure that every student is valued, heard and respected and knows that his or her voice can make a difference.
The Common Core Standards have changed the way we teach opinion writing.Writers in the primary grades need to introduce their topic, supply an opinion and reason, and then provide some closure to the piece. The standards are clear, but how we get there with young writers is up to us. There is depth to this; we can’t just expect kids to get what these standards are all about in one lesson or unit. We have to build understanding over time. In addition to listening, we need help them develop their interests and find their voice so they can feel empowered to make a difference with their ideas.
We know our students need strong text to guide them in their understanding of opinions as writers. There are quite a few geared toward opinion writing (i.e., Click, Clack, Moo, A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea). While I knew the mentor texts would be helpful, I worried about the primary writers who were just beginning to understand what it means to have an opinion. I decided to build in some understanding of opinions using characters. I used a few of these books specifically in writing workshop and others during reading workshop or read aloud during our opinion study. These books have been helpful for introducing and developing opinions and inspiring opinion writing in the classroom.
Characters with Opinions
Mercy Watson by Kate DiCamillo
Mercy Watson is the first in a series of early chapter books, which include the Watson couple who live in Suburbia, with the main character, their precious pig Mercy. The Watson’s neighbor Eugenia is an elderly lady who lives next door and has many opinions, one of which is that pigs should not live in houses. Being introduced to Eugenia helped my students begin to understand what it means to have an opinion. The bright pictures and story easily capture the attention of hungry readers who may be ready to tackle five more books in the series. This year we enjoyed thinking about the first book in the series on the Smartboard through Tumblebooks.
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
This is a great read aloud where the two narrators argue about the classic ambiguous figure: duck or rabbit. Each of the voices in this book states an opinion about what they see in the pictures as the book progresses. Sometimes the narrator just states an opinion like: “Are you kidding me? It’s totally a duck.” or “It’s for sure a rabbit.” Later the voices are supported by what they see in the pictures like: “Now the duck is wading through the swamp.” and “No, the rabbit is hiding in the grass.” The story naturally invites readers to begin supporting or disagreeing with one side or the other. The narrators are providing evidence to back up their opinions. This book works when introducing kids to thinking about how characters can have different opinions and feel differently. It ends with each voice changing her opinion, which is a good opening for thinking about how our opinions change when we learn more.
Characters Explain Why They Feel Strongly About a Topic
Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems
Well, would you share your ice cream? Elephant considers this question when he remembers his best friend Piggie loves ice cream. Afterwards he considers that she might not like the flavor and it might not be easy to share. With an evil look in his eye he thinks he may be able to hide the fact that he even had ice cream by eating it all! But his heart is filled with concern that he doesn’t even know where Piggie is and he begins to search for her only to find . . . you guessed it, that his ice cream had melted. After reading this book, I invite kids to consider whether or not they would have shared their ice cream and why.
Red is Best by Kathy Stinson
Little Kelly weighs her opinion against her mother’s practical advice. Kelly loves red. She wants the red boots because they take bigger steps and she tells her mother she wants juice in the red cup because it tastes better. This book helped my kids begin to identify their opinion about simple things like their favorite color. It also helped us identify conflicting opinions. Where mom wanted Kelly to wear the brown mittens because they would keep her hands warmer, Kelly insisted that her ratty torn red mittens would make better snowballs. When thinking about opinions, it is important to consider both sides.
William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow
This book is a classic for conversations about empathy and understanding another’s needs. It helped us begin to see that opinions about matters are important even if they are different. William longs for a doll with blue eyes, curly eyelashes and a long white dress but his father brings him home a basketball and a train set, all of which he plays with often. He begins to believe his brother when he says having a doll would make him a creep. But William’s grandmother feels differently, sharing her reasons for why a doll would be just the right toy for him. William’s Doll helps us understand characters and their feelings. William, his grandmother, William’s brother and the neighbor next door all have different reasons for their opinions about owning a doll. It is a great interactive read aloud for primary kids.
Characters Use Their Opinions to Help Solve Problems
Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin
I am sure you have heard of this picture book where some very clever cows type up a letter asking their farmer for some electric blankets because they are just too cold at night. If you haven’t read it aloud, you should. The cows persist by refusing to be milked, and eventually send an ultimatum negotiating their typewriter for the blankets. The characters help kids see how strong opinions and persistence can eventually solve a problem. This book was the sounding board for writers in my room who already had strong opinions (and an audience) about something they believed in. After this read aloud, one writer wrote a letter to our class about how writing workshop was too noisy, a young chess player wrote his coach about how he felt about learning the game, and another student wrote a book called No War where he drew pictures of guns with x’s across them followed by pages with people hugging. His text read: No guns, just hugs.
Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan
Inside the back end pages of this early chapter book you will find these words:
We care about the health of this planet and all of its inhabitants. So the first edition of this book was printed on 30% postconsumer recycled paper, manufactured by a mill that uses biogas energy.
Not only is the author, Katherine Hannigan, passionate about helping save our planet but her main character Emmaline is as well. Emmaline and the Bunny is one of a few chapter books I introduce to my first graders near the end of the year. When the mayor of Neatasapin declares he will silence the children, send away the wild animals and cover the town in concrete, Emmaline’s love for nature is crushed. She wrestles with becoming something she is not. Emmaline’s desire to be free leads her to find an untidy place away from Neatasapin. Here she finds a bunny she longs to care for and protect. She and her parents work together to clear the concrete, and plant trees and bushes so as to create a safe place for her bunny despite the fierce and unjustified declarations of the mayor. The depth and changes of characters in this book helps students understand what a difference people can make sometimes when they voice their opinions.
During the weeks after our study, I listened to a student begin to identify characters with opinions in the books I aloud. When reading Zero the Hero during our math time, Alyssa insisted that we add this book to our basket that houses characters with opinions. She shared that the numbers (who happen to be the characters in the book) all felt that Zero couldn’t do anything because he was the same as nothing. She was thinking about what she understood about opinions and connecting it to a new text. Isn’t her application of learning what this is really all about?