I never thought I would pack up my classroom and move back to Denmark. I mean, I had thought about it. We had discussed it a lot. It was one of those “one day…” plans, but then this summer with a can’t miss opportunity to work for Famly, one day became now and last week (I think it was last week anyway because the weeks blur together), I stood in my beloved classroom and said goodbye to all of the books, to what we have built together.
I had told myself I would leave them all and walk away with my head held high, a gift for the brand new teacher who would be joining my team. And yet, as I saw the books in there and the stories called to me, I had to hold them one last time, and once they were in my hands, I knew there were some I couldn’t walk away from. Whether they held memories, teaching points, or just windows into the incredible community I have been a part of these last 14 years, a few called to me so loudly that they are now coming with me to our new apartment in Denmark. I will find a way to use them again. I would have brought them all, but what use are books just sitting on shelves when they should be in the hands of readers?
I posted this image on Instagram with the box of books I grabbed, and many asked if I would share my must-keep ones. So here you are, in no particular order, the picture books that I know I can use for so many things, the picture books that moved me to tears, had us laugh out loud, had us wonder, had us question the world and start discussions as we grew together, as we sat in community together. I know I missed a few, I know I could have grabbed more, but I limited myself to one single box.
I know I grabbed a few others but these were the ones I remember. All of these are fantastic books that deserve to be read, shared, and loved. Which picture books would you keep?
Cross-posted from my Patreon community where I post min-pd videos, specific unit plans, and also do livestreams once a month.
I started compiling my pile of great picture books to read for the first day of school and then…the list grew. A lot. Because so much of what we do on that first day of school depends on the type of mood we are trying to invite, the focus we choose to have, and of course, the age of our students.
So, the link shared here will show you more than 50 great picture books you could use, 20 that I love personally, and then another 30 some suggested by other educators. Some are new, some are old, and all serve a great purpose of discussing norms, modeling fluency, opening up discussions, creating memories, and focusing on reading as an act of community creation.
Reading a picture book aloud has been a personal first-day must for many years in our classroom. I want kids to see that we will spend valuable class time on reading, that read-aloud is not just for younger children, and that their voices get the space they deserve in our time together.
I know I missed amazing titles, which would you add to this resource?
Looking for a few end-of-year picture book read-aloud ideas – here are 30+ texts you could use. The list is always growing as new amazing books are published even if I have a few perpetual favorites on here.
I always end our year with a final read-aloud, yes, even with 7th graders, and it allows us to just sit together in community one final time. It is a beautiful way to say goodbye and one that I highly recommend.
I was in a reading frenzy the first week of summer vacation. Lounging on my nap couch, bringing a book to the pool, lying in my hammock, and feeling on top of my reading life. And then we went home to Denmark, jetlag and worries of the future crowding my mind, and all of a sudden the reading bonanza I was in disappeared. Just like that. I finally finished a book yesterday, a 10-page slog at a time, wondering where my concentration and drive went. It’s not that I don’t like to read, it is that I don’t have the energy to.
The guilt of not reading is a constant companion because I see the books staring at me and the time beckoning. Yet I know that once my sleep gets figured out, once a few major decisions fall into place, once my brain believes that I am resting, then the reading will continue. I am secure in my own identity as a reader, it may be on pause right now, but I will restart it soon.
I see these same emotions play out in our classrooms as well; kids who were reading champions, who never went without a book, all of a sudden floundering. Losing the drive, the motivation, the love of settling into the pages of a book and seeing only work, stress, and perhaps even guilt like me. But a major difference between the students in my care and myself is that for some reading appears to be lost for good. An activity they were good at, something that has now slipped out of their grasp. And for some they don’t think it will or even want it to ever come back.
So many of my students believe that to be a reader, one must be actively reading at all times or making plans for their next read, and these false notions of what it means to be a reader can lead them into further disconnection with reading and seeing reading as part of their future identity.
This is why we must consider and change how we speak about reading and the act of being readers. This is why we must actively share our reading journey, leaving no part untold, so that the readers in our care can truly see and understand that once a reader, always a reader, even if it lies dormant. I share my reading pauses with my students so they can see how I slowly get back into active reading. I don’t stop calling myself a reader just because I do not have a book in my hands, just because I do not feel like reading. I am merely at rest, still solid in my knowledge that I am a reader.
So how do we make space for these conversations?
Step 1: We first discover how each child sees themselves as a reader. If they declare themselves non-readers, then we ask when this started? What caused it? What actions did they take? How do they feel about that? Having surveys and follow-up conversations allow us to start these conversations from day one, but that doesn’t mean that every child is ready to share honestly with us. Why should they? They have no reason to trust us on the first day of school. So make sure to come back to these conversations as the year progresses, this also recognizes the damage that can be done to their active reading lives in our care despite our best intentions. Children stop reading all the time for many reasons, we should have a way o uncovering that throughout the year. I plan 6-weeks check-ups throughout our year so that this conversation will be checked on at least every 6 weeks but we have lots of other informal check-ins as well.
Step 2: Create action plans to reframe their language. While children are often at the mercy of adult plans, it is vital that we activate them as problem-solvers and active participants in their own goal setting. What is a realistic goal? Can they try a book on in our independent reading time? How many pages are they willing to try? If not reading with their eyes, will they read with their ears? Will they read with a partner? Will they listen to a read aloud? Also writing down these plans and goals is important because we often forget the nuances of how we got to this plan. Accountability is also built through check-ins. This helps us reframe the language that they use about themselves. Adding partial sentences such as “not yet” or “right now” can be a way to start the refrain. So when a child says they hate to read it can be reframed as ” I hate to read right now.”
Step 3: Give it time. We often confuse our power thinking that if we tell kids to read then they simply will. Some will for sure, and as we know, others will dig their heels in and refuse every positive attempt we make to give it a try. This can be an indication of how comfortable they feel as readers who are disconnected from the act of reading. It can also be a window into the reading trauma they carry with them, or even just disdain. Whatever is the root cause, it can sometimes take months for some children to even try to reactivate as readers and while our own rush to help them become active readers again is a driving force, we cannot let that cloud our decisions. Forcing someone to read through the use of grades, computer programs, or other negative external measures will most often backfire in the long run. What we are looking for here is an initial activation or reactivation of feeling like a reader. So meet them where they are at and take small steps together, be mindful of the child at the center of this, not just the adult pressure to “make them a reader.”
Step 4: Reworking mindset long-term. How do we speak about reading and who our readers are? What is the language that our curriculum wraps them in? How do we show the importance of reading through the actions we take? I constantly have to remind myself that the year I have with students is only one small part of their lifelong reading journey and that my well-meaning intentions can lead to significant long-term behaviors in reading, both positive or negative. So how I invite them into this work matters greatly; am I judgement-free, am I firm in my conviction that they too can find value in reading (notice that I am not using the word joy yet because for some joy can be too big of an ask in the beginning), and I am calm in my approach. Yes, this work is urgent but it must also be centered in peace in order to make space for the many components of a child’s life. Am I holding them to high expectations while also supporting them in an individual plan? Checking in with students through both casual and planned conversations is a great first step but also tracking what we discuss and the ideas we have is another. I keep a binder with my noticing and conversations so that I can track how I am supporting them and also how they speak about themselves.
Step 5. Celebrate small growth. Too often we are intently focused on the major transformations and miss so many milestone moments along the way. This is why I am not in favor of many major individually-based reading celebrations where children have to reach an adult-determined milemarker that automatically excludes those who are developing at a different pace. Each child has something to celebrate, whether it is trying a book for the first time in a long time, actually reading a page on their own, actually engaging in conversation for the first time about their reading identity, or even just being willing to speak to you at all. Paying attention to all of these mini-milestones and recognizing them in genuine ways through positive interactions can make a major difference in how children view their reading journey. Being an adult cheerleader as they reconnect, reactivate, or finally activate in the first place is a necessary part of the adult support we provide.
Seeing the determination in a child that has declared themselves a non-reader as a force of good rather than bad, can be a powerful tool as we help children see their own power. Their convictions and dedication to not reading are a sign of the strength they have and what we can potentially help them tap into as they envision themselves as readers. It takes motivation to be a dormant reader in a classroom filled with books, how can that motivation be used in a pursuit of reactivation?
Helping a child recognize and see a path forward back to reading is not just a central tenet of the work I do, but it also encapsulates the humanity that is the center of the classroom we co-create. Every child, no matter where they are at on their educational journey, deserves respect from me – whether they love to read or not. So making space for identity formation, for reframing the language children use to describe themselves, offering that up to other adults who support them, and then taking actions based on the notion of possibility is what we can do as we plan for future students or reconsider our own reading curriculum.
As for me, I have a new book to read, a shorter one that will be out in the fall. One whose cover called my name and whose pages seem manageable even in my sleep-deprived state. I am going to give it a whirl and pay attention to how I feel. I know my inner reader is still in there, waiting to be reawakened.
I initially wrote this post four years ago but rediscovered it this morning as I started to dream about the year ahead. It is not surprising that it still rang true to me as the past few years teaching during COVID have placed even more expectations on the type of experiences we create with and for students. Perhaps you feel the pressure too?
For twelve years I have been sharing my thoughts on this blog.
Twelve years of good.
Twelve years of not-so-good.
Twelve years of let’s try this and see how it goes.
Twelve years of let’s figure it out together. Let’s change it. Let’s disrupt. Let’s center kids and the voices who have been ignored for so long.
Twelve years of simply needing to get it out so that my brain could process whatever it was and move on.
So many years and words documenting trying to be more than I am as a teacher. Of living, breathing education. Of late nights and early mornings trying to come up with a new idea, a twist on an old idea, of more pathways, of centering kids in new ways so they can hopefully feel safe, find value, and be seen. The years have flown by even as the days sometimes have dragged by. I have loved it for so long but the past few years, now more than ever, the pressure to be not just a teacher but to be a life-changing one, to handle everything thrust at us with grace, ease, and innovation, has become an insurmountable mountain of expectation that is crushing us all. To not just have great lessons but also make it look easy for those watching has become the norm rather than the exception.
And the pressure builds as we take on the responsibility not just to help them understand, but to create spaces that can compete with everything else that pulls kids in. So what no one ever told me before I became a teacher was how there would be this unbelievable pressure to be an amazing teacher. To be the kind of teacher that truly changes lives. To create the type of environment that students cannot wait to be a part of. What no one ever told me before I became a teacher was how much social media would lead me to believe that I was doing it all wrong, most of the time, because my students are not always those students that love school.
It is fed by the statements that surround us…
“If they didn’t have to be there, would they really show up?”
“Students should be running into your classroom not running away…”
“If they don’t love it, then you are doing it wrong…”
“If they are on their phone, your lessons must not be engaging enough…”
And while I get the sentiment behind these statements, I also think of the danger of them. The unattainable versions of reality that really none of us can ever live up to. These notions of creating such over-the-top unforgettable classroom experiences that make kids want to run into our schools, choosing us and our classroom above everything else. Every. Single. Day. Who can live up to that?
For fourteen and a half years, I have chased the mirage of being a perfect teacher as the markers continually move. Of trying to be the type of teacher that created those types of experiences that would make students flock to our classroom. That would make students want to come to school. And while there have been days where it almost felt like that, I have never fully achieved it, not for every child, because let’s face it, it is a completely unrealistic notion. And it is a notion that is driving teachers to feel as if no matter what they do, no matter how hard they work, they will never be enough. They will always be lacking. How exhausting and debilitating is that?
So I am going to give it to you real straight because that’s what I always try to do; most of my 7th graders would probably rather hang out with each other than walk through our door. Most of my 7th graders would not run into our classroom if given the choice. They would probably rather sleep, watch Youtube, make TikToks, or simply hang out.
And I am okay with that.
Because that’s normal child development. Because it is okay for our classroom to be low on their choice of experiences. Because it is okay for our classroom to not be something they think about when not in school. Because it is okay for kids to not be excited about the idea of going to school.
What is not okay is for them to hate it once they do get in our rooms.
There is a big difference.
And so that is where we do the work. To create experiences that make students want to engage within our learning. That makes students feel as if they matter once they are there. That makes the time fly, the minutes pass until the next class, where they can hopefully experience that again.
So while most of my students would probably not volunteer to come to our classroom, once they are there, many of them love it. Many of them love what we do, who we are, and how we grow. Many of them would choose to stay once there. And to me, that is what matters.
So the next time you hear someone state, “But would they choose to come?” It’s okay to say, “Probably not” and not feel like a horrible teacher because what you realized is that the question was wrong all along, not you. Because what you realized is that you can teach your heart out and still have a hard time competing with everything that surrounds young people these days. Because what you realized is that the question should have been, “If given the choice would they choose to stay?”
And to that I can honestly answer, “Yes, most of the time I think they would…”. And if my answer is no, then my follow-up question is, “What needs to change?”
It turns out that perhaps I never needed to be a perfect teacher, I just needed to be real.
I wrote this blog post last year, what follows is an updated version of it in case you are interested in loose parts or storytelling kits with older students. Scroll down to see the update.
A few years ago I traveled to do a day of learning with passionate educators in Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows in British Columbia. After flight cancellations and changes in airports, Denise Upton, one of the district’s helping teachers, graciously agreed to pick me up and take care of me during the stay. While together, she told me excitedly about Story Workshop, oral storytelling grounded within playful literacy, that they were doing with children as part of their literacy approach. She shared all of the work that they did with students in order to give them natural materials to manipulate and create stories with before they ever sat down to write. She spoke of Indigenous oral storytelling traditions and how they were working on bringing the rich traditions of the peoples’ whose land their school buildings sat on and whose tribal members were within their school population back into the classrooms as a way to honor, teach, and preserve a broader envisioning of writing I was inspired and intrigued. Particularly, after she told me how they were using these material kits with their upper grade levels as well and that the response they had was incredibly positive. After a whirlwind visit, the idea sat in the back of my mind for a while, hoping to someday become something I wanted to do with my own 7th graders.
Well, after a year of teaching unlike any other, after too much screen and not enough togetherness. After once again teaching kids who repeatedly told me how much they hated writing, how writing was so hard, whose sentences were forced across the pages, I decided that someday was now. With a commitment to reconsider every unit and every idea we build our classroom learning on, taking our writing in a much more tactile and playful direction was exactly what I need right now to get excited about next school year. Hopefully, my incoming students will think so as well.
So with a loose idea of what it was Denise had shared with me, the seeds started to grow; what if I build some oral storytelling kits for kids to use in partnerships, trios, or by themselves before we begin to write? What if I collect natural materials for them to manipulate and play with as they share stories from their own lives and also from their imaginations? Surely someone had done this before?
The answer is yes, many have! None of my ideas shared here are really original but I got so many questions on social media when I shared the kits I was building that I figured a blog post would be nice. If you are learning about Indigenous storytelling, there are so many wonderful resources shared, such as this one. If you google “Loose Parts”, you can see a lot of information. If you follow the work of Angela Stockman, she has been sharing so many ideas for years and is truly inspirational. If you are trained within Montessori, you know this work. If you know Reggio Emilia principles, then you know these ideas. If you have worked with younger grades, you probably do this already. There are so many resources out there, so dig in and learn.
My purpose for these kits is to get kids talking more before they write out stories, whether they be stories from their own lives or stories they invent. I want them to build scenes or entire stories together or individually depending on the exploration we are doing. I want them to play with their imagination and ot be forced into written production as quickly as we have done in the past, I want them to build community through story, I want them use their hands more. I want English to have more joy and I want it to authentically fit into the identity-centered work we already do in our literacy explorations.
Building the Kits
I had a million ideas right away and needed a way to ground them so I started by focusing on ideas for what to put in them and also building the kits to give me a more tangible sense of what it would look like. I hate so much that educators are almost always forced to purchase things out of their own pocket, so I spent school budget money to purchase the toolboxes. I bought two different kinds, five altogether, so that I can share them between tables – I typically teach 28 students at a time, so I wanted to make sure that I had enough kits to share materials between 10 different groups if need be. I also needed the kits to not take up too much space in our classroom, be easy to store and move, as well as have different size compartments. The first kind I bought was this one and the second kind was this one.
All the boxes are removable in both kits so we can spread them out on the different tables as needed.
Once I had the boxes, then I got more serious with my materials. I had a few guidelines I wanted to follow:
Natural materials whenever possible
Different sizes of things to use
Material that doesn’t necessarily look like “one” thing in order for them to be used for many things
Low cost and easy to replace
Then I wrote a list, there are so many lists floating on the internet but I posted mine to Instagram and got even more ideas as well as a huge “Duh!” moment. Notice on my original list, I have nuts on it. That is not going to work at all for some of my students due to their allergies. After a helpful educator made me see the light, I updated my original list.
I knew that if I felt like spending a ton of money, I easily could just order all of these things but I don’t want to. So, instead I turned to my local Buy Nothing Facebook group and asked if anyone had any materials they could donate. So what you are looking at in the kits above, almost everything is donated from kind strangers or friends who happened to have materials lying around. Amazing!
So right now in the kits I have:
Seashells, all sorts, all sizes.
Pine cones – I need to gather more.
Small popsicle sticks – they are pointy and I don’t know if I love that.
Wine corks that do not have wine labels on them.
Small cork buttons.
Wood buttons – I bought a giant bag off the internet.
Wool yarn in different colors – I have cut lengths of string in a variety of lengths.
Feathers – I think I may add more of these.
Slices of wood.
I also purchased felt mats in green, gray, and brown for the kids to use as a background. They can use more than one if we have enough left over, again I went with natural tones as a way to center us in nature even if the story takes place in a different setting.
Things I would still like to add:
Beach pebbles for more color
Large popsicle sticks
Ideas for use
So while the kits themselves are a lovely work in progress and bring me happiness right now as I plan, what matters more than the stuff in them is making space for them to be used with our students. So as I planned for the first two weeks of instruction (I do this in order to be able to walk away for a while, not because I want to work all summer), I planned with the kits in mind.
My two-week plan can be viewed here, but please know that it is so much a work in progress, that some of the ideas in it are my own, and others are based on the incredible work others have kindly shared, and that I have given credit to those whose work I am borrowing from or copying. Please feel free to also borrow or use my ideas, just give credit. The kits will be utilized, hopefully, on the third day of school in an activity where students continue to think of the stories they carry and start to build scenes from their own lives that they then, in turn, share with their peers at their tables. After their initial appearance, they will continue to be integrated into our work as we start our first longer writing exploration; personal narrative. Students can use events from their own lives or springboard events from their own lives into a fictional story.
I also want us to think of how the kits may help us work within the emotions we have tied up with our writing, how we can use them to go deeper into story and how stories can weave us together even when we don’t see eye to eye. I am hoping that as we explore our own identities and how that makes us view and react to others, these tangible items will ground us and make us feel safer within our burgeoning community. I am hoping that having these tactile explorations will bring more playfulness into our classroom, as well as more joy. We will also create expectations of how to use the kits with each other. My main focus for that is to be respectful of the material and of what is shared within their stories, but I will ask the students to also think of how to use the materials, how to clean up in order to preserve the kits, and how to work together. It really all ties into the community work we do throughout the year.
My own children helped me eagerly build the kits and have since then also used them. It has been amazing to see them build scenes, stories, and whole worlds using just these materials and then walking me through their stories that they now see so clearly. Even my son who has repeatedly that he hates writing has been using the kits and telling me his stories. I hope I will see the same willingness to try in my 7th graders.
I rolled these kits out with students a few times and the results were mixed. Some LOVED them and jumped right in building scenes, drafting stories, and using them to get their imagination flowing. Others not so much, they played with the materials after a while and built embankments and such (yes, even in 7th grade). But you know what, that actually makes sense to me; some kids will love storytelling this way, others will not. Much like we explore different ways to draft, this then became another choice for it.
And for some kids they allowed a freedom they hadn’t felt in a while as they sat in front of screens, so as I think of rolling them out next year; they will be a choice, not a force as so many other things are in our classroom. Not meant to be yet another way to force kids into a specific mold of what a writer is, but instead offering them ways to discover how they write best. How they would like to play with words and story. I will also dive a little further into how we care for the materials, most were kind to the things, a few had to be reminded. That all comes down to the make up of our classes and the energy the students bring into our space.
Ideas for use
A few ways you can use kits like these:
Draft your story, scene, or storyline
Partner story creating
Summarizing a read-aloud, article, or other media
Create scenes to then act out
One child creates a scene, the other writes the story without knowing what is but just based off of the components shown
Even with mixed success, they are still exciting to me. They offer us more hands-on opportunities, more ways to use oral storytelling before jumping into typing or handwriting, and also offer us a way to create build community; stories bind us together and trusting each other with our stories is powerful.