Picture Books to Learn About Your Students

I try to use authentic books with students as often as possible – starting at the beginning of the school year. This is because it’s important to make the reading-writing connection visible to students, it promotes building trusting relationships with students, and it celebrates the learners in your classroom through authentic writing rather than through generic worksheets.

Reading and writing are reciprocal processes, which means that the reading work the students do supports the students’ writing, and writing through different genres supports reading. Starting at the beginning of the school year, when reading aloud to students, try pointing out the ways the author is using his/her writing to share something about him/herself or tell something about a particular topic. By teaching students to read like a writer, they are learning to pay closer attention to different elements of the writing such as the tone, voice, word choice, setting, and character development. These are all important reading skills that we want to teach students, and they are also important writing skills that we want students to apply to their own pieces. 

It’s very hard to learn from someone you do not trust. Have you ever had a teacher you did not trust? If so, did you learn much from that teacher? The answer to that question is probably not. Without trust, we are much less likely to put energy into trying new things or taking on new or difficult challenges. One way to build trusting relationships with students is to create mentor texts that share parts of yourself and your life with students and then invite the students to share about themselves through their own writing. One thing to keep in mind is that you need to see the child for who he/she really is – not a version of the child you heard about from a previous teacher or another student.

A friend of mine and I were talking in mid-August about busy work and how we dislike being asked to do busy work. I would argue that most people do not like busy work. So, why give students busy work to fill the time? Rather than asking students to complete generic All About Me worksheets at the beginning of the school year, celebrate the learners in your classroom through authentic books and writing. You will learn more about who the student really is as a person and a learner as well as send the message that authentic writing is valued in your classroom. Here are three books and writing activities I use at the beginning of the year with students:

“My Map Book” by Sara Fanelli

This is one of my favorite books to use with students at the beginning of the school year because kids can easily relate to it. “My Map Book” is drawn and told from a child’s perspective, and it encourages readers to examine their own worlds. The author takes the reader on a journey through the maps of her life – a map of her family, a map of her day, and even a map of her tummy! This expands the definition of what a map is and invites students to create the maps of their lives by using similar maps as the author, or they can veering off course and creating maps of other parts of their world. I use “My Map Book” to show students how we read illustrations, so as writers we need to include as many details as possible into illustrations. I also explain how the labels are used by the author to support the reader’s understanding of the map. If you create your own map book to use as a mentor text with students, you are showing your students what is important to you in your life, which will hopefully invite the students to do the same in their own maps. This book and writing activity can be used for any grade – Kindergarten through fifth grade, but the expectations will be different for the different grade levels. For example, a kindergartener may create a book of 2-4 pages and the child may need to dictate the labels so that you (or another adult) can write them. A fifth grader, on the other hand, can expand their maps to places outside of the home and into more of their other interests.

“Best Part of Me: Children Talk About Their Bodies in Pictures and Words” by Wendy Ewald

An award-winning photographer asked children to answer the question, “What’s the best part of you?” The children’s responses are presented in this book. The photographs are in black and white and each child included in the book has written his/her own story in the child’s own handwriting, which I believe is so powerful. While reading the book to students, make sure to point out how we as the readers can get a glimpse into each child’s personality. For example, one of the children, Camila, included four stars that frame the title of her piece as well as her name. These are details that students can include when crafting their pieces. You can do a similar activity with the students by posing the same question, “What’s the best part of you?” and then taking pictures of the students – either in black and white or color. The students can then add the writing to go with their picture and these can be put together and hung up around the classroom. Once finished, the students’ work can be a springboard into conversations about diversity, including ways we are similar to one another, different from each other, and also unique.

“The Important Book” by Margaret Wise Brown

In this book, Margaret Wise Brown (author of “Goodnight Moon”), explores the importance of everyday objects. I love that each poem featured in this book has a structure that can be easily replicated by students. Specifically, the poem begins and ends with the same sentence about the object. The poems include rich vocabulary words, which is wonderful for all students, including students who speak multiple languages. When I have done this with my students, I have asked them to brainstorm objects, activities, or people that are in their everyday life and after selecting one, they write a poem with the same structure as in the book – the same line at the beginning and closing of the poem. Then, they write 3-5 lines about the topic they selected and include an illustration. I have laminated the poems and hung them around the classroom. This book gets poetry into the classroom right from the beginning of the year and shows students that poetry can be fun! Writing is an act of discovery and this book and activity provides students with a structure to follow for their poem, but encourages them to play with the structure. So, they can stay within the rules, but also break the rules at the same time.

What books do you enjoy using with students at the beginning of the year? Which books you are using to learn about your students this fall!

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