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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

As a teacher, on the first day of school, I wanted my students to know that in my class we would read a lot and we'd read great literature, literature that would help us understand our world better, and ourselves. In the first weeks of school, I also needed to build community in my classroom, define routines and procedures, and particularly in middle school, get kids re-anchored in the purpose and pleasure of learning.

I used stories to accomplish all of these objectives and in doing so, I began to build a community of learners bound together around literature. The stories we read invited my middle schoolers to tell their stories; the writing assignments I gave allowed students to share their lives, experiences, thoughts and feelings with each other.

Here are a few of my favorites books that might be best used at the beginning of the year:

Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman

I've spent anywhere from four days to six weeks teaching this book, doing all kinds of literary analysis and response to literature. (For example, I've had kids illustrate scenes, showing the transformation of the lot; I've had them write and then read monologues spoken by different characters; I've had them deconstruct passages, focusing on the impact that metaphor has on the reader.) There's rich detail that describes setting, varying points of view and multiple perspectives, characters from over a dozen ethnic backgrounds, wisdom, history, and beautiful language. It would be the perfect compliment to use in any school that grows a garden. I can't recommend this book enough -- read it! Read it even if you don't want to teach it! Give it away as a gift! It's truly a gem.

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

A classic used by teachers in many grade levels, although probably best for grades 5-9. This short book is a perfect launching point for students to write their own personal or autobiographical narratives. It's also full of delicious, descriptive writing and breath-taking metaphors -- wonderful if it can be read aloud. You could teach the whole book or just read a chapter (often a page or less) and have students respond to the topic. For instance, I love the chapter, "My Name," as a starting point to have students write about the history of their names. This is another fantastic way to use literature as the bridge to get into who we are and where we come from.

The Library Card, Jerry Spinelli

This is a set of short stories that are probably most appropriate for grades 5-8. They feature a magical library card that changes the lives of kids who have become disengaged from school. My favorite is the first story in which we meet Mongoose and Weasel, two friends who are always getting into trouble (stealing, spray painting, ditching school) until Weasel finds the magical library card and gets turned on to learning.

In another story, Brenda's discovery of the card helps her manage her addiction to TV. These are gripping and funny short stories which can prompt a discussion on the purpose of reading. I often started reading it aloud on the first day of school because book says what I wanted my students to know quickly about my class: You're going to read interesting stuff and it's going to change your life.

Those are my three favorites, which are really most appropriate for middle school. (For more ideas on starting the school year, please check out my recent article, "Teaching Secrets: First Days in the Elementary Classroom.")

Please share your favorite short stories, novels, picture books, or poems that you use in the beginning of the year to build community, get kids into learning, and convey the power and purpose of reading.

Also, happy back to school!

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