Great Picture Books to Discuss Identity and Character

For our entire 4th quarter, we are diving into identity and how it fits within our social comprehension guided by the work of the incredible new book from Sara K. Ahmed, Being the Change.  As we start to look at how our identity shapes our actions, I thought a safe spot to start with would be within the pages of picture books.  After all, some of my students are not yet ready to share parts of their identity and so looking at the lives of others before we turn inward is a more welcoming path.

I was thrilled to be able to pull so many great nonfiction picture books to have the students read, discuss, and reflect on.  The questions we will use to spark conversation include:

  • What can you infer about their character traits based on their actions?
  • What can you infer about their identity and what they value?
  • What do you think motivated them to do what they did?
  • How do these actions fit into the world from a historical standpoint?

Here are some of the books we are using

A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider--The Story of E. B. White

A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider–The Story of E. B. White by Barbara Herkert (Author),‎ Lauren Castillo (Illustrator)

When young Elwyn White lay in bed as a sickly child, a bold house mouse befriended him. When the time came for kindergarten, an anxious Elwyn longed for the farm, where animal friends awaited him at the end of each day. Propelled by his fascination with the outside world, he began to jot down his reflections in a journal. Writing filled him with joy, and words became his world.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez  (Author),‎ Felicita Sala (Illustrator)

Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, young Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests: slithery and scaly ones, who turned over teacups and crawled past the crumpets…. While other girls played with dolls, Joan preferred the company of reptiles. She carried her favorite lizard with her everywhere–she even brought a crocodile to school!

When Joan grew older, she became the Curator of Reptiles at the British Museum. She went on to design the Reptile House at the London Zoo, including a home for the rumored-to-be-vicious komodo dragons. There, just like when she was a little girl, Joan hosted children’s tea parties–with her komodo dragon as the guest of honor.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann (Author),‎ London Ladd (Illustrator)

In Mississippi in the mid-1800s, it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write. Getting caught meant thirty-nine lashes with a whip as punishment. But this did not stop Lilly Ann Granderson, an enslaved woman herself. She believed in the power of education. To share her knowledge with others, she started a midnight school. In a small cabin hidden in a back alley, Lilly Ann held her secret classes. Every noise in the dark was a reminder of the punishment she and her students faced if they were found out. But the chance to learn was worth the risk. Over the years, Lilly Ann taught hundreds of enslaved people to read and write. Many of her students went on to share their knowledge with their families. Some started secret schools of their own. Others forged passes to escape to freedom in the North. Based on a true story, Midnight Teacher is an inspiring testament to a little-known pioneer in education.

Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression

Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression by Carole Boston Weatherford (Author),‎ Sarah Green (Illustrator)

Before she raised her lens to take her most iconic photo, Dorothea Lange took photos of the downtrodden from bankers in once-fine suits waiting in breadlines, to former slaves, to the homeless sleeping on sidewalks. A case of polio had left her with a limp and sympathetic to those less fortunate. Traveling across the United States, documenting with her camera and her fieldbook those most affected by the stock market crash, she found the face of the Great Depression

Dangerous Jane

Dangerous Jane by Suzanne Slade  (Author),‎ Alice Ratterree (Illustrator)

Jane’s heart ached for the world, but what could she do to stop a war?
This energetic and inspiring picture book biography of activist Jane Addams focuses on the peace work that won her the Nobel Peace Prize. From the time she was a child, Jane’s heart ached for others. At first the focus of her efforts was on poverty, and lead to the creation of Hull House, the settlement house she built in Chicago. For twenty-five years, she’d helped people from different countries live in peace at Hull House. But when war broke out, Jane decided to take on the world and become a dangerous woman for the sake of peace.

Martí's Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad (English and Spanish Edition)Martí’s Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad (English and Spanish Edition) by Emma Otheguy  (Author, Contributor),‎ Adriana Dominguez (Contributor),‎ Beatriz Vidal (Contributor)

A bilingual biography of José Martí, who dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty, the abolishment of slavery, political independence for Cuba, and intellectual freedom. Written in verse with excerpts from Martí’s seminal work, Versos sencillos. 

Trudy's Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm

Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm by Sue Macy  (Author),‎ Matt Collins (Illustrator)

On the morning of August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle stood in her bathing suit on the beach at Cape Gris-Nez, France, and faced the churning waves of the English Channel. Twenty-one miles across the perilous waterway, the English coastline beckoned. Lyrical text, stunning illustrations and fascinating back matter put the reader right alongside Ederle in her bid to be the first woman to swim the Channel―and contextualizes her record-smashing victory as a defining moment in sports history. Time line, bibliography, source notes.

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth BlackwellWho Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone  (Author)

In the 1830s, when a brave and curious girl named Elizabeth Blackwell was growing up, women were supposed to be wives and mothers. Some women could be teachers or seamstresses, but career options were few. Certainly no women were doctors.

But Elizabeth refused to accept the common beliefs that women weren’t smart enough to be doctors, or that they were too weak for such hard work. And she would not take no for an answer. Although she faced much opposition, she worked hard and finally―when she graduated from medical school and went on to have a brilliant career―proved her detractors wrong. This inspiring story of the first female doctor shows how one strong-willed woman opened the doors for all the female doctors to come.

Before She was Harriet (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Books)

Before She was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome  (Author),‎ James E. Ransome (Illustrator)

We know her today as Harriet Tubman, but in her lifetime she was called by many names. As General Tubman she was a Union spy. As Moses she led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As Minty she was a slave whose spirit could not be broken. An evocative poem and opulent watercolors come together to honor a woman of humble origins whose courage and compassion make her larger than life.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix (Food Heroes)

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix (Food Heroes) by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (Author),‎ June Jo Lee (Author)

Chef Roy Choi calls himself a “street cook.”
He wants outsiders, low-riders,
kids, teens, shufflers and skateboarders,
to have food cooked with care, with love,
with sohn maash.

“Sohn maash” is the flavors in our fingertips. It is the love and cooking talent that Korean mothers and grandmothers mix into their handmade foods. For Chef Roy Choi, food means love. It also means culture, not only of Korea where he was born, but the many cultures that make up the streets of Los Angeles, where he was raised. So remixing food from the streets, just like good music—and serving it up from a truck—is true to L.A. food culture. People smiled and talked as they waited in line. Won’t you join him as he makes good food smiles?

Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber

Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber by Sue Macy  (Author),‎ C. F. Payne (Illustrator)

While sitting in the bleachers of a Soap Box Derby in the 1950s, Mary Garber overheard two African-American boys in the following exchange: “See that lady down there?” asked one boy. “That’s Mary Garber. She doesn’t care who you are, but if you do something good, she’ll write about you.”

Mary Garber was a pioneering sports journalist in a time where women were rarely a part of the newspaper business. Women weren’t even allowed to sit in the press boxes at sporting events, so Mary was forced to sit with the coaches’ wives. But that didn’t stop her.

In a time when African-American sports were not routinely covered, Mary went to the games and wrote about them. Garber was a sportswriter for fifty-six years and was the first woman to receive the Associated Press Sports Editors’ Red Smith Award, presented for major contributions in sports journalism. And now, every year the Association of Women in Sports Media presents the Mary Garber Pioneer Award in her honor to a role model for women in sports media.

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli (Author),‎ Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)

Through artful prose and beautiful illustrations, Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson tell the true story of Wangari Muta Maathai, known as “Mama Miti,” who in 1977 founded the Green Belt Movement, an African grassroots organization that has empowered many people to mobilize and combat deforestation, soil erosion, and environmental degradation. Today more than 30 million trees have been planted throughout Mama Miti’s native Kenya, and in 2004 she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Muta Maathai has changed Kenya tree by tree—and with each page turned, children will realize their own ability to positively impact the future.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie by Demi  (Author, Illustrator)

Maria Salomea Sklodowaska was born on November 7, 1867. Her family called her Manya, but the world would remember her by another name: Marie Curie, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

In a time when few women attended college, Marie earned degrees in physics and mathematics and went on to discover two elements: radium and polonium. She also invented a new word along the way: radioactive. This book celebrates her momentous achievements while also educating its readers about her scientific accomplishments and their implications.

Brave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel by Lisa Pliscou (Author),‎ Jen Corace (Illustrator)

Born in the late 1700s, Jane Austen was a smart, creative girl in a house full of boys, all of whom could aspire to accomplish many things as adults while girls were raised primarily to become good wives. Jane didn’t have much opportunity to go to school but she read everything she could, including all the books in her father’s study. And before long, she began to write her own stories, filled with funny, clever, and inventive characters.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renee Watson  (Author),‎ Christian Robinson (Illustrator)

Born to parents who were both former slaves, Florence Mills knew at an early age that she loved to sing, and that her sweet, bird-like voice, resonated with those who heard her. Performing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired everyone from songwriters to playwrights. Yet with all her success, she knew firsthand how prejudice shaped her world and the world of those around her. As a result, Florence chose to support and promote works by her fellow black performers while heralding a call for their civil rights. Featuring a moving text and colorful illustrations, Harlem’s Little Blackbird is a timeless story about justice, equality, and the importance of following one’s heart and dreams.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford  (Author),‎ Elizabeth Zunon  (Illustrator)

You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way. 

Lena Horne was born into the freedom struggle, to a family of teachers and activists. Her mother dreamed of being an actress, so Lena followed in her footsteps as she chased small parts in vaudeville, living out of a suitcase until MGM offered Lena something more—the first ever studio contract for a black actress.

But the roles she was considered for were maids and mammies, stereotypes that Lena refused to play. Still, she never gave up. “Stormy Weather” became her theme song, and when she sang “This Little Light of Mine” at a civil rights rally, she found not only her voice, but her calling.

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx (Spanish and English Edition)

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx by Jonah Winter  (Author),‎ Edel Rodriguez (Illustrator)

Before Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took her seat in our nation’s highest court, she was just a little girl in the South Bronx. Justice Sotomayor didn’t have a lot growing up, but she had what she needed — her mother’s love, a will to learn, and her own determination. With bravery she became the person she wanted to be. With hard work she succeeded. With little sunlight and only a modest plot from which to grow, Justice Sotomayor bloomed for the whole world to see.

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (People Who Shaped Our World) by Laurie Wallmark  (Author),‎ Katy Wu (Illustrator)

Who was Grace Hopper? A software tester, workplace jester, cherished mentor, ace inventor, avid reader, naval leader—AND rule breaker, chance taker, and troublemaker. Acclaimed picture book author Laurie Wallmark (Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine) once again tells the riveting story of a trailblazing woman. Grace Hopper coined the term “computer bug” and taught computers to “speak English.” Throughout her life, Hopper succeeded in doing what no one had ever done before. Delighting in difficult ideas and in defying expectations, the insatiably curious Hopper truly was “Amazing Grace” . . . and a role model for science- and math-minded girls and boys. With a wealth of witty quotes, and richly detailed illustrations, this book brings Hopper’s incredible accomplishments to life.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter (Author),‎ Stacy Innerst  (Illustrator)

To become the first female Jewish Supreme Court Justice, the unsinkable Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to overcome countless injustices. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s, Ginsburg was discouraged from working by her father, who thought a woman’s place was in the home. Regardless, she went to Cornell University, where men outnumbered women four to one. There, she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and found her calling as a lawyer. Despite discrimination against Jews, females, and working mothers, Ginsburg went on to become Columbia Law School’s first tenured female professor, a judge for the US Court of Appeals, and finally, a Supreme Court Justice.

To the Stars!: The First American Woman to Walk in Space by Carmella Van Vleet  (Author),‎ Dr. Kathy Sullivan (Author),‎ Nicole Wong (Illustrator)

Kathy Sullivan wanted to go everywhere. She loved blueprints and maps. She loved languages and the ocean. She didn’t like the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She wanted to explore and do exciting things that girls weren’t supposed to be able to do. Only men had the exciting jobs.
Kathy liked fishing and swimming; flying planes and studying science. That’s what she liked and that’s what she decided to do with her life. She followed her heart and eventually became a NASA astronaut and the first woman to walk in space. Kathy wanted to see the whole world and so she did: from space!

The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter (Author, Illustrator)

Zaha Hadid grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, and dreamed of designing her own cities. After studying architecture in London, she opened her own studio and started designing buildings. But as a Muslim woman, Hadid faced many obstacles. Determined to succeed, she worked hard for many years, and achieved her goals—and now you can see the buildings Hadid has designed all over the world.

 

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe (Author)

Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Now, award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork echoing Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean–and definitely not inside the lines–to be beautiful.

Danza!: Amalia Hernández and Mexico's Folkloric Ballet

Danza!: Amalia Hernández and Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet by Duncan Tonatiuh (Author)

Danza! is a celebration of Hernández’s life and of the rich history of dance in Mexico. As a child, Amalia always thought she would grow up to be a teacher, until she saw a performance of dancers in her town square. She was fascinated by the way the dancers twirled and swayed, and she knew that someday she would be a dancer, too. She began to study many different types of dance, including ballet and modern, under some of the best teachers in the world. Hernández traveled throughout Mexico studying and learning regional dances. Soon she founded her own dance company, El Ballet Folklórico de México, where she integrated her knowledge of ballet and modern dance with folkloric dances. The group began to perform all over the country and soon all over the world, becoming an international sensation that still tours today.

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson  (Author),‎ Sean Qualls  (Illustrator)

Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, he was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams. As a boy, Emmanuel hopped to school more than two miles each way, learned to play soccer, left home at age thirteen to provide for his family, and, eventually, became a cyclist. He rode an astonishing four hundred miles across Ghana in 2001, spreading his powerful message: disability is not inability. Today, Emmanuel continues to work on behalf of the disabled.

The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can: A True Story

The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can: A True Story by Tererai Trent  (Author),‎ Jan Spivey Gilchrist (Illustrator)

All the girl ever wanted was an education. But in Rhodesia, education for girls was nearly impossible.

So she taught herself to read and write with her brother’s schoolbooks and to count while watching cattle graze.

When the girl became a young wife and mother, she wrote her goals on a scrap of paper and buried them in a can—an ancient ritual that reminded her that she couldn’t give up on her dreams.

She dreamed of going to America and earning one degree; then a second, even higher; and a third, the highest. And she hoped to bring education to all the girls and boys of her village.

Would her dreams ever come true?

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours by Duncan Tonatiuh  (Author)

This charming book introduces one of the most popular artists of the twentieth century, Diego Rivera, to young readers. It tells the story of Diego as a young, mischievous boy who demonstrated a clear passion for art and then went on to become one of the most famous painters in the world.

Duncan Tonatiuh also prompts readers to think about what Diego would paint today. Just as Diego’s murals depicted great historical events in Mexican culture or celebrated native peoples, if Diego were painting today, what would his artwork depict? How would his paintings reflect today’s culture?

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick  (Author),‎ Steven Salerno (Illustrator)

Beginning in 1922, when Edith Houghton was only ten years old, she tried out for a women’s professional baseball team, the Philadelphia Bobbies. Though she was the smallest on the field, soon reporters were talking about “The Kid” and her incredible skill, and crowds were packing the stands to see her play. Her story reminds us that baseball has never been about just men and boys. Baseball is also about talented girls willing to work hard to play any way they can.

Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole by Deborah Hopkinson  (Author),‎ Stephen Alcorn (Illustrator)

Many know the story of Robert Peary’s great 1909 expedition to reach the North Pole. Yet few people know that Peary was joined on this grueling, history-making journey by fellow explorer Matthew Henson. Henson was born just after the Civil War, a time when slavery had been abolished, but few opportunities were available for black people. Even as a child, he exhibited a yearning for adventure, and at the age of only thirteen, he embarked on a five-year voyage sailing the seven seas and learning navigation, history, and mathematics. Henson’s greatest adventure began when he accepted an invitation from Robert Peary to join his expedition to the North Pole. The team endured storms, shifting ice, wind, injuries, accidents, and unimaginable cold. Finally on April 1, Peary, Henson, and four Inuit men began the final 133-mile push to the Pole.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book)

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford  (Author),‎ Kadir Nelson  (Illustrator)

This poetic book is a resounding tribute to Tubman’s strength, humility, and devotion. With proper reverence, Weatherford and Nelson do justice to the woman who, long ago, earned over and over the name Moses.

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace  (Author),‎ Bryan Collier (Illustrator)

Ernie Barnes was an NFL football player who longed to make art. Finally his dream came true.

When Ernie Barnes was growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s, he loved to draw. Even when he played as a boy with his friends he drew with a stick in the mud. And he never left home without a sketchbook. He would draw families walking home from church, or the old man on the sofa. He drew what he saw.

But in the segregated south, Ernie didn’t know how to make a living as an artist. Ernie grew tall and athletic and became a football star. Soon enough the colleges came calling. Still, in his heart Ernie longed to paint. Would that day ever come?

Ernie Barnes was one of the most important artists of his time known for his style of elongation and movement. His work has influenced a generation of painters and illustrators and can be found in museums and collections, such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the California African American Museum.

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull  (Author),‎ Yuyi Morales  (Illustrator)

Cesar Chavez is known as one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. When he led a 340-mile peaceful protest march through California, he ignited a cause and improved the lives of thousands of migrant farmworkers. But Cesar wasn’t always a leader. As a boy, he was shy and teased at school. His family slaved in the fields for barely enough money to survive.

Cesar knew things had to change, and he thought that–maybe–he could help change them. So he took charge. He spoke up. And an entire country listened.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson  (Author),‎ Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Illustrator)

Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks intended to go places and do things like anybody else.

So when she heard grown-ups talk about wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws, she spoke up. As she listened to the preacher’s words, smooth as glass, she sat up tall. And when she heard the plan—picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails!—she stepped right up and said, I’ll do it! She was going to j-a-a-il!

Audrey Faye Hendricks was confident and bold and brave as can be, and hers is the remarkable and inspiring story of one child’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey  (Author),‎ Dow Phumiruk (Illustrator)

You may be familiar with the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But do you know about the artist-architect who created this landmark?

As a child, Maya Lin loved to study the spaces around her. She explored the forest in her backyard, observing woodland creatures, and used her house as a model to build tiny towns out of paper and scraps. The daughter of a clay artist and a poet, Maya grew up with art and learned to think with her hands as well as her mind. From her first experiments with light and lines to the height of her success nationwide, this is the story of an inspiring American artist: the visionary artist-architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews  (Author),‎ Bryan Collier (Illustrator)

Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Along with esteemed illustrator Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a lively picture book autobiography about how he followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom. Trombone Shorty is a celebration of the rich cultural history of New Orleans and the power of music.

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton  (Author),‎ Don Tate (Illustrator)

You know the Super Soaker. It’s one of top twenty toys of all time. And it was invented entirely by accident. Trying to create a new cooling system for refrigerators and air conditioners, impressive inventor Lonnie Johnson instead created the mechanics for the iconic toy.

A love for rockets, robots, inventions, and a mind for creativity began early in Lonnie Johnson’s life. Growing up in a house full of brothers and sisters, persistence and a passion for problem-solving became the cornerstone for a career as an engineer and his work with NASA. But it is his invention of the Super Soaker water gun that has made his most memorable splash with kids and adults.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating  (Author),‎ Marta Alvarez Miguens (Illustrator)

Eugenie Clark fell in love with sharks from the first moment she saw them at the aquarium. She couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than studying these graceful creatures. But Eugenie quickly discovered that many people believed sharks to be ugly and scary―and they didn’t think women should be scientists.

Determined to prove them wrong, Eugenie devoted her life to learning about sharks. After earning several college degrees and making countless discoveries, Eugenie wrote herself into the history of science, earning the nickname “Shark Lady.” Through her accomplishments, she taught the world that sharks were to be admired rather than feared and that women can do anything they set their minds to.

I Am Jazz

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel  (Author),‎ Jazz Jennings (Author),‎ Shelagh McNicholas (Illustrator)

From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz’s story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.

A Boy and a Jaguar

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz (Author),‎ Catia Chien  (Illustrator)

Alan loves animals, but the great cat house at the Bronx Zoo makes him sad. Why are they all alone in empty cages? Are they being punished? More than anything, he wants to be their champion—their voice—but he stutters uncontrollably.
Except when he talks to animals…

Then he is fluent.

Follow the life of the man Time Magazine calls, “the Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation”as he searches for his voice and fulfills a promise to speak for animals, and people, who cannot speak for themselves.

Girl Running

Girl Running by Annette Bay Pimentel  (Author),‎ Micha Archer  (Illustrator)

Because Bobbi Gibb is a girl, she’s not allowed to run on her school’s track team. But after school, no one can stop her–and she’s free to run endless miles to her heart’s content. She is told no yet again when she tries to enter the Boston Marathon in 1966, because the officials claim that it’s a man’s race and that women are just not capable of running such a long distance. So what does Bobbi do? She bravely sets out to prove the naysayers wrong and show the world just what a girl can do.

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson  (Author),‎ David Shannon (Illustrator)

Born of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, musical icon Robbie Robertson learned the story of Hiawatha and his spiritual guide, the Peacemaker, as part of the Iroquois oral tradition. Now he shares the same gift of storytelling with a new generation.

Hiawatha was a strong and articulate Mohawk who was chosen to translate the Peacemaker’s message of unity for the five warring Iroquois nations during the 14th century. This message not only succeeded in uniting the tribes but also forever changed how the Iroquois governed themselves—a blueprint for democracy that would later inspire the authors of the U.S. Constitution.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz  (Author),‎ AG Ford (Illustrator)

Malcolm X grew to be one of America’s most influential figures. But first, he was a boy named Malcolm Little. Written by his daughter, this inspiring picture book biography celebrates a vision of freedom and justice.

Bolstered by the love and wisdom of his large, warm family, young Malcolm Little was a natural born leader. But when confronted with intolerance and a series of tragedies, Malcolm’s optimism and faith were threatened. He had to learn how to be strong and how to hold on to his individuality. He had to learn self-reliance.

And there you have it, just a few of the books we will be suing to discuss identity, motivation, and character.

If you want to see more of our favorite books, go here.

Advertisements

Hold Your Tongue

He sits with his head slumped down.  Again.  Nothing in front of him.  Again.  Eyes are closed.   Again.  Arms crossed as he lays his head on the table.  Again.

To a person walking by he looks like he is asleep.

To me, he looks like he is mad.  Actively fighting me and what we are doing.  Again….

But I wait…ask him again if he is okay.  If he needs anything.

He doesn’t answer.

My patience runs thin, after all I have a class to get to.  To teach.  Why can’t he just answer?  I am trying to help after all.  Again.

He can tell probably that my answers are getting shorter.  Less calm in my voice.  And yet, he continues to refuse.  Tells me it’s not worth his time.  That he doesn’t want to do it.  Looks for the holes in my teacher armor and shoots to kill with every word he can think of.

I take it in, knowing now is not the time to fight, and yet it is so hard until I remember to walk away.

To hold my tongue and give some space.  To not guess at what is happening and draw the wrong conclusions, but instead just give time.  Not to try to solve.  Not to try to fix.  Not try to be right there actively problem-solving, trying to get to the bottom of it all.  Instead walking away before I forget what every kid needs; a shoulder, an ear, some time, some space.

And even though every ounce of my teacher mind tells me to come back to him, to try to fix it, to try again, I stay away.  I just watch, take no action, and wait…

And so five minutes later or perhaps even ten, I see his head is up.  He is reading, sort of, he is kind of working.  No longer shut down, but at least alert.  Is it perfect?  Nope.  Is it enough? Nope.  Is it a breakthrough?  Nope, not really, but it is a start, and sometimes that is all we need.

Tomorrow we try again, not stuck in a power struggle, but at least in a place of truce.  In a place where we can both exist and hopefully move an inch further forward toward something that looks like learning, like trust.

Once again, I am reminded of how powerful silence and space can be.  Especially when they expect us to do neither.  Again.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

After the Bullying Ends

Many have asked how our daughter is.  Whether the bullying has stopped?  Whether she is okay.

And to that I say, it’s complicated.

The short answer is, yes, the bullying has stopped.  After further incidents where Thea once again was targeted, was hurt both physically and emotionally, the girl who continued to seek her out was removed from her classroom and so it stopped.  They don’t see each other and so there has been no room for any kind of incidents to happen.

The long answer though is different.  Sure, Thea is no longer in an active bullying situation but as any parent of a child who has experienced trauma will tell you, it is not over.

Her foundational belief that school is safe for her is gone.

Her belief that adults can keep her safe is being rebuilt.

Her positive attitude toward school and what it entails to be a student is often missing.

Instead, we are left with a child who sometimes still asks to not go to school and wonders what will happen if…

What will happen if they target me again?

What will happen if they hit me?

What will happen if no one likes me?

What will happen if my teacher doesn’t believe me?

And whenever we need to, we remind her that we are here to help.  That her teachers are there to help.  That we have a plan.  That we have a system in place.

And yet, telling a child that you have a plan who has already witnessed that plan failing to protect them seems cruel at times and laughable at others.

And yet she goes to school.  She laughs with her friends.  She smiles about boys (where did that come from?), she tells me of her interest in Rosa Parks and how one day she hopes to be as brave as her.  She shares the good, the trivial, and sometimes the bad.  We speak of before and after, having found a new time marker in our life that we never wanted.  We speak of next year and wonder whether 3rd grade was just a year to forget and that next year certainly must be better.

Her father and I wonder what the long-term changes will be.  Will she continue to distrust school?  Will she continue to reach fight, flight, or freeze much faster than her siblings?  Will she continue to wonder when someone says or does something unkind to her whether they will repeat it and a new bullying situation will happen?

I wish I could say that it’s over and that she is fine.

There are days I believe it but then there are days where we see the pain from it all rear its ugly head again and we are left to pick up the pieces of a kid who so much wants to love school, to be successful, to be liked.  But who just doesn’t know if it will happen.

So all I can say, to those who have wondered.  It’s better, we believe that, but we still have a long way to go.  And our daughter?  She continues to amaze us because that is all she ever has been; amazing.  And tough.  And kind.  No child should have to experience bullying, what can we do to stop it?

 

 

One More Time for the People in the Back

I don’t think that I can yell any louder.

How many times that I have repeated myself on this blog.

How many times I have repeated the voices of those who speak the words loudly, of those who spoke the words long before I ever did.

I don’t think I can say it in other ways than I have, but I suppose one more time for good measure.  For the people in the back of the room, or for those who just showed up.

If we want to help kids like reading we need to surround them with books.

If we want to help kids like reading we need to give them time to actually read.

If we want to help kids like reading we need to create a community of readers.

If we want to help kids like reading we need to help them develop their reader identity.

We need to help them go beyond our help.

We need to help them go beyond their level.

Their Lexile.

Their data.

The computer program that tells them what they can do or not do as a reader.

We need them to see worth in what they are doing and worth in who reading helps them become.

We need to help them see that reading matters beyond the journal entry, beyond the project, beyond the thing we just made them do to prove that they are actually reading.

We need to speak books.

To share books.

To have books that show them who they are and also what others are.

To celebrate books and all types of reading so that within our classrooms and schools every child can see themselves as a kid who reads. As a kid whose reading matters.  As a kid who doesn’t read “easy” books, who doesn’t cheat in reading when they listen to audio books.  As a kid who might not just be a reader someday, completely dismissing that they are, indeed, already a reader.

And not just in their own eyes but in our eyes as well.

So I suppose I can say it one more time; what we do with the reading we do matters.

What we don’t do with the reading we do matters.

The identities we help create matter.

And the words our students share about what is killing their love of reading matters.  the least we can do is listen to them.

And we must bring back common sense reading practices to protect the very kids whose reading lives we were told to nurture, to protect, and to grow.

Perhaps you will join in the yelling and the powers that may be will one day hear us.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

One Week Into a Phone Free Classroom

We went phone free in our classroom five days ago.  Five days of no phones allowed.  Five days of fewer distractions.  Five days of being conscious of when we pull out a device, and when we purposely put it away.  Over spring break, I had sent the following email to students and parents letting them know of the decision, worried about the top-down approach I was taking with this decision.  And yet, I felt like we had to try something new and now was the time for the change.

I hope your spring break has been nice!  Just a heads up that we will be going phone free for most of the 4th quarter in both literacy studies and informational studies in our classroom, as well as independent reading.  Students will be asked to leave their phones in their lockers on in a basket on our shelf as they enter the room.

There are a few reasons I have made this decision:

  • While there will be times we will use our phones and with the accessibility of Chromebooks, there are very few times where students need to BYOD anymore.
  • Students are given little privacy or room for risk/failure in our classrooms as other students are quick to pull out their phones and snap pictures or videos to share on social media.  Often they are faster than we are or do it on the sly, this leads to less risk-taking, and a heightened sense of anxiety when it comes to actually doing the learning.
  • One article here discusses how even having it nearby versus out of the room lessens your thinking.
  • Another article here discusses how the constant stimuli from phones are rewiring our brains to constantly seek stimuli rather than dive into the “zone of learning” 
  • And another article discusses the shortened attention spans 

If messages need to be sent to your students during our class together, they can be sent through the office.

While I didn’t know what the response would be, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many parents/guardians loved the idea, how many wish we would go phone free as a class, how many were in favor.  And yet, how would the students themselves react?

Well, it turns out many of them read the email and already were onboard when they came.  A few had questions, but most agreed that it was nice.  So the week went on, the phones disappeared and we dug into our new learning  I noticed there was less scrambling to get to work.  Less distractions from the few kids that would pull them out to check throughout the class.  My phone was in my bag as well, sure, there were less pictures shared of our learning but not having it around was really not a big deal.  Today I asked them what they thought of the policy.  Boy, was I surprised…

I think it’s fair because we don’t need them.

I like it because I don’t get distracted.

It is nice to not have to think about them.

It’s no big deal.

I am grateful for it because I no longer have to worry about being filmed and it shared on Instagram.

Sure, a few voiced their complaints telling me they didn’t like to be without them, these were also some of the kids that were distracted by their phones the most playing fortnite or snapchatting in class, while a few voiced that they didn’t really need the policy because they already left them in their lockers.

What struck me though was how many students were positive about the change.  How many were grateful for the policy because they then didn’t need to police themselves.  It makes sense in a way too as we see just how addicted we, adults, are to our smartphones.  When they aren’t allowed to be around we naturally use them less and yet have a hard time putting them away ourselves.

One comment that did stand out though was that a child didn’t like being without their phone in case something bad happened at school.  Let’s just have that sink in for a moment…  In an age of school shootings, schools are no longer viewed as safe by the very kids we teach and cell phones are seen as a way to find out when they need to run or hide.

So this first week of no phones, it turns out that perhaps going without was not that big of a deal, once again making me wonder what we really needed them for in the first place.  It has been nice to have this one less thing in our classroom.  To see the students focus on each other, rather than on what is happening on their phone.  To see them be more present if even for a little bit.

I’ll keep sharing as the quarter goes on, but I have a feeling that going phone free is here to stay.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

How We Grow

They tell me to speak less.

To give less reading time.

To give more reading time.

To do more fun stuff.

To do more hands-on activities.

To grow.

To remain the same.

I survey my students periodically.  Whether it surrounds their reading habits, their self-assessments, their view of our classroom, or even their attitudes, surveys are a part of our learning journey.  They have been for many years.  In fact, I owe most of my growth and this blog to the words of my students.

One of the teaching points for me is always that they must put their name on the survey, no anonymity in here, after all, even if they have harsh things to say, they need to find a way to say it without intentional hurt.  Their name on the survey provides me with a chance to follow up.  To thank them for their honesty.  To wonder aloud how can I make their experience better.  To brainstorm or simply connect dependent on their needs. I need to see how our classroom is perceived by individuals, rather than just the group.

So yesterday, after they filled in this attitude survey, one thing stood out above all; we want more hands-on activities.  No surprise there, “hands-on” seems to be the key term whenever I speak to students.  And yet, I try…  Along with my colleagues and the students themselves, we try to plan for movement, for less teacher talk, for activities that excite rather than just sit-and-get and yet; but at the end of the day I still wondered; how do we make reading and writing more hands-on, and what does that even mean?

So today, I asked again; what do you mean?  How can we make our class more hands-on, and the kids responded in kind; more talking, more group projects, more competition at times, even more project choice.  So not what I expected at all.  What they want is more student time, less teacher time.  More choice beyond the choices they already have.

Certainly, we can do that.

And that’s the thing, every single time I give a survey, I grow.  Every single time, I ask for feedback, our students point out the direction that they would like us to take.  They increase ownership and I get to be a more responsive teacher.  It is a win-win, even if at times, their surveys show dissatisfaction.  Show that they don’t love the class.  Show that there are still many things I can work on.  Bottom line though is that if we don’t ask, we won’t know.  If we don’t take a deep breath and hold on to the notion that we are not perfect teachers, then we cannot become better.  No PD opportunity will ever beat the opportunity of growth that our students provide.

So if you give a survey, and I so hope you do, don’t forget though to follow up.  Don’t guess at their answers.  Don’t guess at their reasoning.  Have them put their name on it and then ask them what they mean.  When we remove the assumptions from our classrooms, we only grow stronger as educators.  Once again, our students are here to teach us if only we give them a chance.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.