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Teaching and Learning Begin with Books



The printed page can ease back-to-school jitters.

By Carol Bauer

The start of school always brings a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and—for some students—a little fear. I’m not surprised. After a summer with family and close friends, it’s hard to settle into a new classroom, or even a new school.

A class read-aloud on the first day of school can help students at every level prepare for reading and writing. A read-aloud can also provide a shared experience that the class can build on and revisit all year long. When teaching fourth grade, I love to start my year off with Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli. The book allows students to see that growing up is not always easy, and everyone has to learn to make decisions about what kind of person they will become. (I have different “favorite” books or stories for each grade level.)


The first month, I build a library of short “best friend” books. We read these more than once. And we use them as a class to gather ideas, explore themes, and to start writings. I start students writing with something they like to talk about: Themselves! Students write “true/false” questions about themselves, and then we learn about each other as we take the “quizzes.” Later, I ask students to expand on one of their questions by writing a personal narrative using their true/false questions. I model an example by writing true/false questions about myself. That way, students get to know me, too.

Some of the best friend books we revisit all year include:

  • The Great Kapok Tree by Lynn Cherry, which is useful for exploring science topics, niches, maps, cultures, sequencing, personification, and more.
  • Goonie Bird Greene by Lois Lowry, which helps us examine multiple meaning words and storytelling ideas.
  • Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon is a picture book about a struggling child who isn’t sure he has a story to tell. This is the book I use when the class needs inspiration.
  •  Sixteen Seconds in 16 Years: the Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo and Dom Lee is the book I use to drive home the point that people from many cultures are victims of discrimination.
  • Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull and Davis Diaz is great for discussing grit and perseverance.

I also like to use books that might encourage students to read other books. In AVI’s Who Stole The Wizard of Oz? characters solve a mystery using clues hidden in classic books like The Wind in the Willows and Treasure Island. I bring in the classics as they are mentioned, and students are often ready to read them.

Creating Classroom Climate

To encourage students to treat one another with kindness and respect, we use colored pencils to create butterfly images. Once the coloring is complete and the butterflies have been cut out, students pass them around, and tell each other something they like about each butterfly—the colors, pattern, or neatness, for example. After about three passes, students “crumple” the butterflies. They are aghast. They can’t believe their hard work is being damaged. Next, I ask them to try to smooth out the wrinkles. When they realize they can’t, I explain that hurt feelings work the same way. You can say, “I’m sorry,” but the damage remains. To help students remember to treat one another kindly and avoid crumpling feelings, I hang the butterflies on the wall. To further the point, I use the best friend books and books about bullying.

Books make my lessons stronger. They help my messages resonate—and they make my examples feel real—all year long. I keep books close at hand from the beginning of the year until the end.

Carol Bauer teaches fourth grade at Grafton Bethel Elementary School in York, Va. An educator for more than 20 years, Bauer also is former president of the York Education Association.


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