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Teaching Opinion

Students Like Books ‘That Help Them Feel Seen, Heard, & Valued’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 25, 2020 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What books have resonated most with your students, and why do you think that has been the case?

In Part One, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, Sarah Said, Jennifer Orr, and Tatiana Esteban share their experiences. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sarah, Jennifer, and Sarah on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Mary Ann Scheuer, ReLeah Cossett Lent, Maria Walther, and Nancy Boyles contribute their commentaries.

“We need books that show many different experiences”

Mary Ann Scheuer is a teacher librarian in Albany, Calif. She writes the blog Great Kid Books:

“Wow, wow, oh wow—just look at this!” My 11th grade student Alysse walked into our high school library and sparkled with joy when she saw the display for Autism Acceptance Month.

“When our library had the Autism Acceptance display, I was not expecting it. I thought, OK yes. I was assuming it would be ‘Autism Awareness,’ but when I saw ‘Acceptance,’ it brought me to tears. I knew [when] other people in our school saw ‘Acceptance,’ it would get into their heads that it’s important not only to be aware of people with autism but to accept everyone. To see something so specific on autism, made me feel happy! Really happy!”

The next week, when Alysse came bounding into the library again, she couldn’t stop talking about how much she loved reading Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2009). Alysse picked this up as part of our Autism Acceptance Month display and especially related to Marcelo’s experience as a teen on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. When his father requires him to spend the summer working at a law firm, Marcelo finds his values and ethics challenged, as much as his coping and social skills, while he navigates making friends, discovering suppressed evidence, and staying true to himself.

Alysse bubbled over with excitement for this book, so I asked her more about it: “It was really nice to have representation in a book. You feel included. That’s a nice feeling because before I got diagnosed, I kept wondering what’s wrong with me, why can’t I talk to people. When I read this book, it felt actually true, real. I felt represented and don’t hate myself. It’s just the way my brain is wired. I can’t always explain what’s going on in my head, but reading or hearing that there [are] other people who do that—OK, you know why that’s happening, there’s someone like you.”

When I think about the books that have resonated most with my students, it’s the books that help them feel seen, heard, and valued. As a teacher and librarian, I always want to help my students find their own stories. According to the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 7th Edition, the top three types of characters kids want in books include characters who they want to be like because they are smart, brave or strong; who face and overcome challenges; and who are “similar to me.” I pay special attention to selecting and recommending books that represent a wide range of experiences. I especially value the recent work of the organization We Need Diverse Books and the work to prioritize Own Voices stories. In the library and throughout the school, we post book recommendations for a variety of themes, showing that representation matters. We need books that show many different experiences, so our readers can see themselves reflected in the pages. Our characters must represent polylithic experiences, made of many different elements to their identities.

Song picture books

Maria Walther is a 1st grade teacher and the author of The Ramped-Up Read Aloud (Corwin, 2019):

In a basket within arm’s reach of our read-aloud area, you’ll find my growing collection of song picture books. From the first day of school to the last, when we have a free moment or two, kids reach into the basket, pick out a book, and we sing, sing, sing. Even as we are just beginning to learn the words and melody, children are swaying to the music and showing off their dance moves. Once the song becomes what we call “an old favorite,” I can hear my 1st graders singing the words or humming the tune as they write or walk down the hall. Here are three reasons that I think song picture books are a winner year after year:

Songs Are Fun!

I am a firm believer in joy-filled learning. Too often, we (myself included!) let outside pressures or the latest well-meaning, but misguided curricular mandates seep into our classroom. The feeling that we are “behind” our colleagues or not “where we should be” in the material distracts us from the true focus of our teaching—children. Spending just a few minutes a day singing with your students has lasting benefits. Like a traditional read-aloud experience, raising your voices together in song builds community. As an added benefit, it gives you a few minutes to re-energize while you observe your learners and their uninhibited actions.

Songs Touch Kids’ Hearts!

Out of all of the song picture books we share, the most-requested is Take Me Home Country Road (Denver, 2005). We usually save this song picture book for the end of the day and always sing it together on the last day of school. I’ve shed many a tear during the final refrain of, “Take me home, down country roads.” Over the years, I’ve had former 1st graders (some who are now teachers themselves) come back to visit. Each time, their story is the same: They don’t really remember practicing word-wall words or researching animals, but they still know every word to Take Me Home Country Road. Without a doubt, John Denver’s song touched their hearts.

Songs Are a Low-Stress, High-Energy Reading Event!

To extend the song picture book experience, I type up the words and copy them for the kids to put in their “Song and Poem Book.” This three-ring binder contains some of my 1st graders’ most-treasured words, and therefore, gets read and reread throughout the school year. Tim Rasinski, the co-author of The Megabook of Fluency (2018), recently confirmed my observations and beliefs by saying that when we fill our classrooms with song, we help to build our readers’ word recognition, vocabulary, and fluency. So, borrowing the words from another one of my students’ favorite song picture books, “All you need is songs, songs. Songs are all you need.”

I’d love to hear which song picture books your kids have enjoyed so I can add them to our collection!

Some of my kids’ favorite song picture books include:

All You Need Is Love (Lennon & McCartney, 2019)

Footloose (Loggins, 2016)

Groovy Joe: Ice Cream and Dinosaurs (Litwin, 2016)

The Library Book (Chapin & Mark, 2017)

Octopus’s Garden (Starr, 2014)

Sing (Raposo & Lichtenheld, 2013)

There Was an Old Monster (Emberley, 2009)

Walking in the Winter Wonderland (Smith & Bernard, 2016)

Putting books out there

ReLeah Cossett Lent is the author of multiple books on literacy, most recently This Is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking and Doing. . .Content Area by Content Area” (Corwin, 2016) and Disciplinary Literacy in Action: How to Create and Sustain a School-Wide Culture of Deep Reading, Writing, and Thinking (Corwin, 2019):

As I ponder the question about which books resonate most with students, I realize that this question can only be answered by first asking one of my own: Which students?

I thought of the boy who proudly told me he had managed to make it to the 10th grade without ever having finished a book. ... I had methodically offered him choices of books I was sure would at least pique his interest during independent reading time, but he thumbed through all of them as if they had been rescued from yesterday’s trash.

“How about a Stephen King novel?” I offered, thinking maybe he would like a book that had been made into a movie. “You said you liked horror. . .”

“No, I don’t really like his books,” he responded as if he were a voracious reader.

I was undeterred. “Maybe you like books that are more realistic. How about Into the Wild or Bomb?”

“I already looked at those. They’re boring.”

I placed a few graphic novels on his desk, and he became semi-interested until he caught himself. Could it be that book-surfing was probably the best I was ever going to get from him? Finally, one day I noticed he had a book in front of his face and his eyes were actually moving across the page, definitely not fake reading. I made my way close enough to see the title. Deliverance? The book that made him forget that he hated to read was one that I had placed on my classroom library shelf almost as an afterthought, a yellowed paperback that really had been rescued from a give-away stack at the last minute.

“Why this particular book?” I asked him a few days later as I moved through the room, talking to students about their choices.

“It got good fast,” he said simply.

While I’m not here to say that this student became an avid reader, he did read other books in my class, including Of Mice and Men. He never chose a book I (or anyone else) recommended, seeming to relish the discovery of titles on his own.

Which student? How about the junior who belligerently and loudly announced to the class that she was not reading for 15 minutes each day. Period. The book that eventually snagged her was Sharon Draper’s Tears of a Tiger. In the same, rather pugnacious way she had made her first announcement, she proclaimed when she finished the last page that this was the best book she had ever read. In fact, Tears of a Tiger changed her life. She became a compulsive reader, a member of the school’s literacy club, and a college graduate. She kept in touch over the years because she credited me with what she considered to be this life-saving event—but I didn’t even recommend the book, as I recall. She just became bored enough during the daily reading time to pick it up and couldn’t help herself after the first page. She fell into a world that welcomed her as real life had not thus far. I suspect she is now insisting that her friends read The Hate You Give.

The only way to truly know which books will resonate with students is to put books out there—lots of them. Book talk the ones you know, get students to share the ones they love, and encourage kids to navigate Goodreads or www.teenreads.com (just out with its 2019 teen book finalists list). Show kids how to choose books, genres, and authors on their own and back off when necessary. Sure, some books are so enticing that they will catch even the most reluctant reader: Poet X, The Bus 57, Dear Martin, Furyborn, Shout, and most anything written by Jason Reynolds, for example, but some kids just don’t take to books we’re sure will be a hit.

Reading is a journey based on aspects as varied as interests, background, fears, imagination, curiosity, desire, or need—and that is why a book often resonates with readers for reasons we’ll never know. Sometimes, the most we can do is open the door and encourage them to enter.

Books supporting SEL

Nancy Boyles is professor emerita at Southern Connecticut State University, an independent literacy consultant, and the author of a new book on social-emotional learning, Classroom Reading to Engage the Heart and Mind, published by W.W. Norton, spring 2020:

I’ve always been a fan of picture books for shared reading, in the past using them mostly for standards-based comprehension instruction. Lately, I’ve also included them to enhance social-emotional learning (SEL), and students’ response has been enthusiastic. It’s all about the conversation! Picture books, with their powerful messages delivered in approximately 32 pages, are the perfect catalyst for getting kids to reflect on important personal and interpersonal issues. Here I profile eight books categorized by SEL focus area as designated by CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), along with a probing question for students to discuss:

Thanks to Mary Ann, Maria, ReLeah, and Nancy for their contributions!

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