img_4514 January 14

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Picture Book Believing: Sharing Picture Books with Intermediate Students by Carrie Gelson

img_4514Stories have the potential to alter our perceptions about our world. We need stories. Lots and lots of them. Picture books, shared in a classroom where writing, thinking and discussion happen, offer countless opportunities for each of us to grow in how we understand each other, our place in our communities and in the larger world.

Stories gift us with much to think about. Challenge what we thought we knew. Offer us ways to stretch ourselves so that we move beyond where we are and do not remain stuck. Sometimes this hurts. Sometimes it is uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels absolutely right.

There is a certain magic contained in picture books. They draw us in. More importantly and more powerfully, they draw us together. Sharing a picture book is about gathering close. As the story unfolds, emotions, thoughts and reactions weave in and around the listeners. New learning is shared learning. Questions are pondered by the group. Altered perceptions impact the community.

I have been a primary teacher for the past seventeen years. Primary teachers read a lot of picture books. We know all of the ways picture books deliver. In June, I packed up my boxes and boxes of books and set up in a new room, in a new school and in a new grade. I now teach Grade 4 and 5. I have been a long time dedicated picture book reader. I own bins of picture books that needed to find their place. In my imagined intermediate classroom, picture books would do more than hold their own. They would continue to be transformative. But imagined and real are not always the same.

Would my new students benefit from picture books? I had full faith.

Would they buy in? Time would tell.

It has not yet been a year. We barely have a full term behind us but I am impatient to celebrate the importance of picture books in my intermediate classroom.

Here’s how it happens:

#1 We built listening stamina. My students love to doodle and sketch or stare into space when I read a novel aloud to them. Listening to a picture book? For many of them, it had been a while. I needed to teach and review the “picture book listen” experience. It’s not so much about being lost in your head but rather about being attuned to the page. I pointed out all the things to notice – the end pages, the potential surprises under the book jacket (thanks for celebrating this with the Undies (Case Cover Awards) Travis Jonker and Carter Higgins) and the amazing of illustrations. Now, I benefit from the no-detail-missed observations of my attentive listeners.

#2 We read often for various reasons. Just because. For specific units. To illustrate concepts in curriculum areas. To extend our learning. To promote wonder. To inspire art. To demonstrate beautiful writing. To model craft. We have fully embraced #classroombookaday Thank you to Jillian Heise for creating a community that advocates for a daily picture book read aloud at all ages. In our room, #classroombookaday titles are chosen around a specific theme. Each week students vote for a favourite title and identify what theme they noticed. We write about which book best exemplified the theme and why. All week there is talk as connections between books are made. After the first two books are read each week, at least one child will begin nodding, “Yep, I think I know the theme.” Whispered chatter follows as if it is some big secret not yet to be revealed.

#3 We recognize that big stories can reside in small spaces. There are complex and compelling narratives in the chapter books my students avidly devour. But we are learning that there can be a huge story inside a mere 32 pages. Story dynamics that a novel delivers through more detailed and longer text can be found in a picture book. Where do we look? In the illustrations, in the spaces between the lines, in our hearts, in our heads, in our memories. To really experience a picture book, we have some work to do. Pleasurable work. Each page break, each pause, is a space for thinking. In our classroom, we are working towards having quiet fill those spaces so that thinking can happen. Then comes the talk. Each picture book shared together is an opportunity to feel deeply as a community. We can experience this after investing mere minutes in a picture book read aloud. We talked about the theme of self after reading Michael Hall‘s Red: A Crayon’s Story. We felt the joy of finding friendship in Gus Gordon‘s Herman and Rosie. We experienced grief and reluctance to let go in Ida, AlwaysWhen we read Jenny Offill’s Sparky! we talked about having faith, being humble and grappling with expectations. Jacqueline Woodson‘s Each Kindness filled the room with absolute silence. Our hearts hurt.

#4 We stretch certain read alouds across time. So many stories inspire response. We gather in close at the carpet, notebooks atop clipboards, clipboards on laps and pencils poised. At specific places, we stop and respond to questions. I might ask for a prediction or a list of observations. We explore details of the setting nuanced through text and illustrations. At a particularly dramatic point, I ask students to step into a character’s head and write all of the things they think this character is thinking or would like to articulate. At the end of some books, we write about the author’s purpose or themes in the story. Each “stop and respond” point gets five minutes of writing. Some of us share our writing aloud before we move on. At the end of a book, the page (or more) of writing in our notebook is evidence of all  the thinking one book inspired.

Our room shouts out, “Picture book reading happens here!”

Picture books are displayed in multiple places around the room. Favourite titles are reread with peers and visitors. Picture book piles are stacked on tables during Reading Workshop.

I believed. They bought in. Picture books do their magic thing each and every day.

Are you a picture book believer? Please share how you use picture books with your intermediate students.

Carrie Gelson teaches in Vancouver, British Columbia. She works with a group of Grade 4 and 5 students in a land of books (a.k.a. a classroom bursting with book shelves) Carrie shares her love for books on the blog There’s a Book for That Find her on Twitter at @CarrieGelson.