George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Donna YM's picture

I like using "The Kid in the Red Jacket" by Barbara Park, then follow it with "There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom" by Louis Sachar. Both of these can be used for great writing activities as well as acceptance of new students and students who may be overage or ESE. I usually have an inclusion class and we all get along fine all year! I attribute that to using these books early in the year.

Diane Sayre's picture

I absolutely love this book but haven't taught it for several years. I was considering using it again this fall as a community-building opening activity. After reading Ms. Aguilar's article, I've decided that Seedfolks will definitely be our first unit in my high school Individualized Reading Workshop classes. We will study the characters and compare their characteristics to those shown on seed packets (personal characteristics, type of "soil" needed for optimum growth, time to "germinate," space required for growth, etc.). Then each student will create his/her own seed packet as a way to introduce him/herself to the class. We'll identify our goals for growing as readers and the conditions we'll create in our classroom to help us reach our goals. Thanks to Paul Fleischman for the wonderful novella, and to Ms. Aguilar for encouraging its use as an intro unit!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Coach, author and consultant from Oakland, California

Thank you for your comment. I LOVE your idea! It's so beautiful and relevant and such a perfect way to start off the year. Please let us know how it goes,

Syd's picture
9th Grade Humanities, PbL, 1:1

Elana, Seedfolks never disappoints.

Another one for middle school is Rio Grande Stories by Carol Meyer, especially if you teach using project-based learning. A middle school teacher and principal pose a challenge to students and they pretty much run with it. They share their lives and their heritage, so basically, it's meaningful to them.

Pretty cool stuff.

Thanks for the post!

Darlene Pope's picture
Darlene Pope
8th Grade Social Studies teacher & Dept. Chair, AVID Coordinator

I was just considering how to implement Seedfloks into my AVID class this year! Between your recommendations, Diane Sayre's ideas, and my past practice I should be able to create a powerful community building experience for my AVID students that will help them start their year off on fertile soil.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

[quote]Love these ideas! Thanks so much for sharing them, one question about implementing them... I have one student who absolutely refuses/balks at the idea of writing about himself. Now seeing that my Middle School writing class is only 4 students, this has an incredibly large impact. I've been taught to teach writing, by mining our personal experiences, any ideas in how to work with this issue? This extends deeper than classroom community and safety.[/quote]

My experience with middle schoolers like this is that they're too scared and don't feel safe -- not because of the teacher or the class but because middle school is the time when kids are figuring who they are and it's all really wobbly in there. Ironically, these kids are the ones who need to write the most!

You might want to read A Room for Learning by Tal Birdsey

He talks about middle school years as being all about coming of age and self-knowledge and awakening to one's own story. He also talks about how he helps them to be able to first know, then be able to share these stories, and how to help them feel safe enough to do that. He's also in a one-room school (in VT) so you might find it interesting from that perspective, too.

I would love to hear what others here have to say on this topic as well.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Coach, author and consultant from Oakland, California

Syd: Thank you for the recommendation. I can't wait to check it out.

Caroline: I think you've given me a topic for my next blog post! Thank you, and I hope you can wait a couple of weeks for my thoughts on this question. But in the meantime, I'm glad others are jumping in with thoughts.

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

Your comment PROVES how TEACHERS save children and totally undoes the film WAITING FOR SUPERMAN which blames the teachers!!

I set the stage the first 2 weeks and my students all read "Seventh Grade" by Gary Soto so they know they are not alone, but even more important they see a boy who had to pick in the fields to buy his own clothes. That takes us deeper to understand the great Caeser Chavez, (how interesting that few children do NOT know this great man) and to understand that children deserve an education and by law must be in school.

The next is they do have a story to tell and they all write it confidentially. Their stories grow more painful to read year after year. But, they make ME strong. From there I teach the student's how to write a Family Tree. We discuss being an immigrant. It is FUN and interesting. All over my room are stories of PEOPLE!

Essays and posters of family. It will be a great year!

caroline's picture
K-8 Teacher, one room school

Love these ideas! Thanks so much for sharing them, one question about implementing them...

caroline's picture
K-8 Teacher, one room school

Both Syd and Elena... it is always nice to hear feed back on real issues.

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