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September 5, 2012 Building the Classroom Community With Picture Books By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    Tolerance, perseverance, self-confidence . . . the list of community values we want to instill in our students goes on and on. Character education is always important, but it feels even more urgent at the beginning of school, when I am trying to set the tone for the entire year. In my classroom, picture books are the perfect springboards for rich conversations on heavy topics. Here are some of the picture books that I rely on to jump-start my classroom community.




    Using Picture Books With “Big Kids”?

    Picture books are one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s arsenal, even in the upper elementary classroom. Picture books marry writing and art to create a form that is more than the sum of its parts. The short format of picture books means that you can get to the meat of the story in a single sitting. The illustrations provide an entry point for a wide range of students. And to be honest, I think picture books speak best to the heart — a requisite when talking about community values.


    Picture Books That Wear Many Thematic Hats

    We’ve all seen long lists of children’s books that are organized thematically — books for discussing bullying, for teamwork, for multiculturalism. And while these lists are certainly helpful, picture books can often be used for a wide range of themes and topics, not just the topic suggested on a reading list. The layers of meaning in these stories run deep, so we teachers have license when choosing picture books to match our community-building themes with the perfect book.

    While the purpose of these early read-alouds is really community building, I can’t help but squeeze in some instruction about literary elements as well. This is a perfect time to start discussing themes, or “big ideas,” with my students, and it helps them focus on the social and emotional content of the stories as well.

    I adapted Beth Newingham’s wonderful theme posters to create a “What’s the Big Idea?” door in my classroom. Each time we finish a picture book, my students hold a lively debate about which theme is the best fit for the book. This introduces multiple perspectives, too, since the books rarely fit just one theme. The students practice accountable talk and using textual evidence as they defend their thematic choices for the book. Finally, we put it to a vote and tack a small, laminated printout of the book cover onto the corresponding section of the door. (For more ideas for teaching literary themes, see Angela Bunyi’s blog post “Finding THE MEssage.”)

    Colored masking tape and laminated theme cards transformed the back of a door into an interactive bulletin board. We use sticky tack to add book covers to the door as we finish books.


    My Back to School MVP(b) List (Most Valuable Picture Books)

    During the first few weeks of school, I read to my students many times throughout the day. Read-alouds are a wonderful way to build a common knowledge base, to extend the length of time my students can sit without wriggling, and to foster a sense of joy and wonder around reading. This means that we read many, many high quality picture books during September — and I love all of those books dearly! Here is a very abbreviated list of some of my favorite back-to-school read-alouds.


    Swimmy by Leo Lionni 

    Don’t write this book off as little kid stuff. The simplicity of this poetic classic belies its multitude of themes, and I always find that it leads to the very best grand conversations in my classrooms. Last year, my students discussed the messages in this book and how it relates to our classroom for an uninterrupted forty minutes! Anything that can spur a conversation like that during the first week of school is pure magic, in my book.





    Ish by Peter H. Reynolds 

    Peter Reynolds has made himself the ambassador for creativity, and his heartfelt books about living an artistic life bring tears to my eyes. Ish is the second book in his “creatrilogy” that also includes The Dot and Sky Color. I read my students Ish on the first day of school to send a clear message: creativity, academic risks, and coloring outside of the lines is a requirement in my classroom!

    After sharing this book with my students, they head back to their seats for a follow up art activity. Each student gets ten wax-covered Wikki Stix strings to make an unusual sculpture. Then, each student in the class walks around our ad hoc sculpture gallery, writing down titles for each sculpture on index cards. The students marvel at all of the possible interpretations of their sculptures, and I point out how much fun divergent thinking can be. (FYI, September 15 is International Dot Day if you want a timely celebration of creativity.)

    A student adds his title to the list of possible titles for this Wikki Stix creation. 


    Heroes by Ken Mochizuki 

    This is one of the more mature picture books that I use with my class at the beginning of the year. It tells the story of a Japanese American boy who is upset when his “friends” always make him play the villain in their pretend games. This book introduces historical fiction, a thoughtful discussion of prejudice, and a wide range of themes including teasing, acceptance, heroism, family relationships, and bravery. The publisher puts out this useful guide for teaching with the book, and Scholastic has an interview with the author.


    Crickwing by Janell Cannon 

    The eponymous cockroach is transformed from misunderstood bully to culinary hero in this creative jungle story. I adore Cannon’s dazzling illustrations and her generous use of challenging vocabulary. I find this book particularly useful for discussing empathy, forgiveness, and teasing. Cannon also writes Stellaluna, Verdi, and Pinduli, and together her books are great for a brief author study that focuses on social/emotional themes.



    Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst 

    Farmer Sam Johnson challenges the gender-biased norms in his small town when he decides that men should be allowed to quilt just like women, and he starts his own quilting bee to prove that men can succeed at it. Eventually the men and women quilters join together for the greatest success of all. This book can be used for both encouraging group work and for more sophisticated discussions about gender roles and prejudices.

    After we read this book, we celebrate the beginning of our strong classroom community with a quilting bee of our own. I use a tie-together quilting kit like this Knot-a-Quilt kit, and the students paint personal messages onto the fabric squares before they tie their quilt together. Constructing our quilt takes a lot of teamwork and patience, but it pays off when the students proudly display their custom quilt, a beautiful metaphor for our classroom community.

    Students patiently work on knotting the quilt together.


    What are your favorite read-alouds to begin the school year? Please share your book suggestions and project ideas with us!


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Susan Cheyney