Top Ten Books to Build a Classroom Culture by Cindy Christiansen
I have a small poster of two sheep in my classroom. One sheep is white and the other is black, and the quote below them reads, “Choose your socks by their color and your friends by their character. Choosing your socks by their character makes no sense. Choosing your friends by their color is unthinkable.” (Author Unknown) The sheep reside just above our pencil sharpener right at eye level for my middle schoolers. I hope that my students will recognize the poster for what it is – a symbol that our classroom culture is one of caring, respect, and acceptance.
As teachers, establishing a classroom culture is important, and to create this culture, we decorate our rooms with posters that convey caring, positive messages and buy extra pencils and notebooks so that students will know that we have their backs. These things are important, but I can’t help feeling that we’re just scratching the surface. We need to go deeper and connect this very important idea of classroom culture to the essential learning we do in the classroom. Since much of that learning involves literature, what better way to develop a welcoming, caring culture than through books!
Here then are ten books that will help my students and I nurture a classroom where trust and acceptance are key. Where learning and caring go hand in hand. Where every single student matters.
Let Me Finish! by Minh Le
This wonderful story follows the efforts of a frustrated protagonist as he seeks a quiet spot to read where his friends won’t spoil his books. Our subsequent discussion of boundaries and respect and what that looks like in our classroom will help start our year off on the right path. As a bonus, it’s a book about the love of reading!
Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt
“Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” Through the protagonist in this book, my students will begin to see that everyone’s thinking is important and should be respected because we can all learn from one another. A definite culture-building book and one of the first we’ll share!
The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
10-year-old Ada has a twisted foot and is physically and emotionally abused by her mother because of it. She and her brother eventually escape this horrendous situation. Through Ada, my students and I will explore the importance of perseverance and trust in one another as we grow our classroom community.
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
Even though it was published many years ago, this book’s message of not making assumptions about people based on first impressions can still spark great conversations. This is especially important at the beginning of the year as students choose partners, groups, and even friends.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Raymie Nightingale has a goal – to make her dad come home, and she is very focused on it. Navigating this situation with her are two important but very unlikely friends. I want my students to find the Raymie in themselves – to set goals and unabashedly work toward them and to accept unlikely friends along the way.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
“We may be plenty fragile. But we’re also the only ones who can decide to change.” There are so many great quotes in this amazing book, and this is one of the best to help students understand that we should all expect and encourage each other to change. (I also love the message that being the ‘weird kid’ is okay because every classroom needs to celebrate the ‘weird kids’.)
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
Roz the robot is an outsider to the community but is gradually accepted. She is an alien in a foreign environment much like my 6th graders are as they begin middle school. Perseverance and being yourself and the warm feeling of friendship all work to overcome those feelings for Roz in this book. Our discussions about Roz’s challenges will help foster those same traits in my students and build them into our classroom culture.
Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers
Jeremy, an African American child, looks in the mirror one day and sees a “real handsome dude.” But then his family, neighbors, and community help him see his other roles – brother, artist, dancer, writer, runner, etc. Just like Jeremy, my students need to see themselves in a broader way – as contributors to our classroom community, school community, and the world.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
Middle schoolers are funny people and need to have messages delivered in humorous ways sometimes. Scieszka shows us that our long-held beliefs about people aren’t always accurate. This message is especially important because my students tend to hang onto old impressions of each other and need to open their minds in order to build our classroom community.
Cindy Christiansen is a lifelong nerd who celebrates the uniqueness of each of her students and nurtures their fusion into one community of learners. She teaches 6th and 8th grade English/Language Arts at Larson Middle School in Troy, Michigan, in a classroom filled with books, enthusiasm, trust, and caring. Where every single student matters.