Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
In the spring of my junior year of high school, I was assigned The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. But staying true to form, I went rogue. My wayward book of choice was Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life, a slim book I discovered nestled on my mom’s bookshelf. And change my life it did. In her personal love letter to reading, Quindlen writes:
“In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the ‘shall nots’ of the Ten Commandments, I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.”
I have never posted rules in my library. I have never delivered an anti-bullying lecture. I have never given a child a “you can be anything you want to be” pep talk. But I believe deeply in library behavior, compassion for all and student empowerment. So how do I address these issues with my students? Through bibliotherapy.
Bibliotherapy uses books to create an entry point into the social and emotional lives of students. Any teacher will tell you that SEL (social emotional learning) is a hot topic in the education world—as it should be. Children often have trouble naming and expressing their emotions. Sometimes they express their feelings in ways that violate the peace of the library and of other students.
Books offer children places to see feelings validated through characters and story. Stories help children encounter issues from an objective viewpoint before gently guiding them to personal application, sparking self-awareness and empathy. For teachers, books can be nonthreatening points of entry, doorways into sensitive discussions. When unkindness or deliberate exclusion occur among our students, we can stand and lecture like Charlie Brown’s teacher, or we can gather the children around us on the rug with Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses: “Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat. But nobody, not even Peggy and Madeline, the girls who started all the fun, noticed her absence.”
In the spirit of Quindlen’s description, the following books invite students to travel through words and pictures into the worlds of others, as well to the worlds of their own minds and hearts. These books help them discover who they were, who they are and who they aspire to be, whether in the next hour or in their dreams. They serve as validation, affirmation and excellent launching points for classroom discussions.
Paolo, Emperor of Rome
written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Claire Keane
Paolo the dachshund lives in Rome, the Eternal City filled with “fountains, food, and music.” It is, “above all, a place of freedom”—but for Paolo, Rome is not a place of freedom. He is confined to Signora Pianostrada’s hair salon, where he sits with his nose pressed against the window and longs for a chance to explore the city. One morning, someone leaves the salon door ajar, and Paolo escapes into the beauty and chaos of Rome. He scampers around the city, visiting cafes and cathedrals, temples and statues. When challenges (city cats, alley dogs and falling nuns, among others) arise, Paolo confronts them with a tenacious spirit and heroic energy. With a lovable pup at its heart, this cinematic tale heralds bold self-assurance and valor.
- Self-perceptive art
Signora Pianostrada calls him “Lazy Paolo,” but Paolo’s heart and self-perception is the opposite. In his dreams, he zooms around on a scooter and balances trays of Italian food on the tip of his nose. (Be sure to show children this illustration.) Discuss how our self-perceptions (try using the word “view”) are sometimes different and much more important than how others perceive us.
Ask the following questions: “Can you think of a time when someone called you something that hurt your feelings because it wasn’t true? Maybe they called you lazy, mean, shy, dumb or too rowdy? Do you see yourself this way, or do you see yourself differently?” Tell students that they are going to be like Paolo and draw versions of “their best self.” Before having this discussion with a first grade class, I drew a picture of myself as a first grader. I was holding a book and looking down at the floor, but in my dreams, I was building my own backyard flower shop and running track like Wilma Rudolph.
- Peaceful hearts
When he watches the sunrise wash the city in a pink light, Paolo’s heart is “at peace.” Walk your students through a peaceful heart mindfulness activity. Before beginning the exercise, invite students to articulate why they think Paolo’s heart is at peace. I made a script to use with my students. You can find it here.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Paolo, Emperor of Rome.
An Ordinary Day
written by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic
At first glance, it seems to be another ordinary day in the neighborhood. Mrs. LaFleur waters her roses, Kai and Joseph hunt for reptiles, and Magnificent the Crow caws in disapproval. Amid the morning neighborhood bustle, two houses sit “unusually quiet.” A car pulls up in front of each house, and two stethoscope-wearing visitors emerge. A female doctor quietly knocks on the door of one house, and a male veterinarian quietly knocks on the other. Two stories unfold simultaneously. What is an ordinary day for most of the neighborhood becomes an extraordinary day for these two families.
In one house, the doctor helps a mother as she brings new life into the world. In the other house, the veterinarian oversees the death of the family’s pet dog. When the “final breath was exhaled” and the “first breath was inhaled,” each is surrounded by family and love. Spare and sensitive, An Ordinary Day gently addresses the fragility of life, the nature of love and the power of small moments.
- “I spy” awareness activity
Without fail, when I pull out blocks or building logs and let students have free building time, an unfortunate event inevitably follows: One student always accidentally knocks over another student’s creation. I always wonder, how did they not see that tower in the middle of the floor? Many children have trouble noticing their environment. Use an awareness game to help students practice social and spacial awareness.
An Ordinary Day begins with small, ordinary neighborly activities. Ask children, “What are some of the things on your street, in your home or in our classroom that happen every day?” List student responses on the board. Invite children to wonder with you. “I wonder if we are forgetting things because they are so ordinary that we don’t even notice them.”
Take students to the playground or another school room or hallway. Tell them that it is their job to “spy” the details that are happening around them. When you return to the classroom, help students connect their observations with an appropriate behavior. For example, “I spy a long line by the slide. Maybe I should go to the fort first.” If you observed a hallway, you might say, “The first graders’ artwork is hanging on the wall, so I’m not going to lean against this wall.”
The birth of a sibling and the death of a beloved family pet are enormous and impactful events in the life of a young child. The classroom can be a safe place for them to discuss the big feelings that accompany these changes. Hearing friends share similar feelings can be comforting. Encountering these experiences and feelings in the context of a book can be equally comforting.
If possible, purchase or check out books that deal with new siblings, the death of a pet and other common changes. Keep them in a special basket and encourage children to read them whenever they are sad, confused or frustrated because of changes in their lives. Some of my favorite titles include Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, Corinne Demas’ Saying Goodbye to Lulu, Bill Cochran’s The Forever Dog, Susan Eaddy’s Poppy’s Best Babies, Kevin Henkes’ Julius, the Baby of the World and Russell Hoban’s A Baby Sister for Frances.
Are Your Stars Like My Stars?
written by Leslie Helakoski, illustrated by Heidi Woodward Sheffield
This lyrical concept book invites children to consider how families around the world experience color. Each double-page spread showcases a color through a sensory-filled stanza that concludes with a refrain in the form of a question. A family picking apples begins the red exploration: “When you stroll in an orchard, / do sweet smells fill your head? / Is the fruit bold and flashy? / Is your red . . . ” The page turn reveals a family surrounded by red Chinese New Year lanterns and finishes the refrain, “ . . . like my red?” Without resorting to didactic or heavy-handed prose, the book invokes curiosity, empathy and global unity. To quote one of my kindergarteners, “The world is big. Huge. I mean, it’s the whole universe! But we all see colors, so it’s actually really small.”
- Color association
Gather oversized sheets of colored paper. Have students sit on the floor with clipboards or at their desks. Stand or sit in front of your students and tell them, “Close your eyes. When I say open them, I want you to look at me. In my hand will be a piece of colored paper. Write down one or two images that come to mind when you see the color that I am holding. For example, when I first saw this dark green paper, I thought of my ivy plant and the couch that was in my family’s den for years.” After the exercise, invite children to share their associations. Remind them that this is not a time to think of the funniest thing to share, but rather a time to understand how colors represent different things for all of us.
- Culture study artwork
Provide children with photo atlases and books with vibrant and clear photographs of children and places around the world. National Geographic Kids has a great collection of online videos, as well. Let students choose a country and create a piece of artwork based on a color association that represents the country. For example, for a child living in England, red might mean the color of double-decker buses, while for a child living in India, blue might be the color of a peacock. Incorporate social emotional learning concepts by discusing how daily life is different for children around the world. Use the discussion to introduce the understanding that, although these differences can seem big, the similarities in our lives are even bigger. For further reading, I recommend Jenny Sue Kostecki Shaw’s Same, Same but Different and Norah Dooley’s Everybody Cooks Rice.