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.
As a teacher, a new school year means a clean classroom and a fresh start, as well as the end of mornings sleeping past 5 a.m. and days spent reading by the pool. As a student, however, excitement and nerves always kept me awake on the night before the first day. My first-day outfit and fresh school supplies were often overshadowed by worry. The idea of walking into a classroom filled with new classmates, strange routines and a teacher I’d never met was downright terrifying.
These three books reminded me that many students aren’t thinking about summer reading assignments or new lessons during the first weeks of the school year. Instead, they’re worrying about entering or reentering a world where the potential for rejection seems to be around every corner. They’re worrying that their personality, interests or appearance won’t live up to the elusive standards set by their peers or by popular culture.
Sharing stories about characters who also experience these fears will validate students’ concerns about acceptance and identity. These books also remind students who are heading into a new school year without such concerns that their kind words and welcoming smiles can be lifelines for their new and uncertain classmates.
Little Bat in Night School
By Brian Lies
Little Bat is excited to begin attending night school for the first time, but when Mama Bat drops him off at a classroom full of various nocturnal animals, he discovers that school isn’t quite what he thought it would be. After two other students reject him (“‘We’re already playing—’ one said. ‘—with each other,’ the other one added.”), Little Bat flies into a cubby to hide. There, he meets an opossum named Ophelia and they become instant comrades. Bolstered by their new friendship, the pair rejoins the class and spends the rest of the night participating in classroom activities such as storytime and recess. Brian Lies’ illustrations are infused with personality, and his straightforward text and witty asides convey an important message with lightness and humor.
- Creative writing
Pair Little Bat in Night School with another book in Lies’ series of picture books about bats. Bats in the Library is particularly beloved among my students. As a class, decide on a place where you would take a group of bats (for example, to an amusement park, the movie theater or the White House). Lead the class through a creative writing exercise. Provide students with guiding questions, including:
- What does this place look like at night?
- What will the bats wear?
- What will they eat?
- What will the bats do?
- Who will they meet?
Afterward, let students work in pairs to write and illustrate their own stories about the bats at the chosen location.
- Nocturnal animal research
Briefly discuss the other animals in Little Bat’s class, then prompt the class to tell you why these specific animals are Little Bat’s classmates (hint: because they’re all nocturnal animals). Make a graphic organizer on a piece of chart paper. Over the course of a week, read a variety of nonfiction books about these nocturnal animals. As you learn about each animal, add to the graphic organizer and discuss the animals’ similarities and differences. At the end of the week, read Little Bat at Night School again. Ask the class, “Do the facts we learned over the past week help us better understand Little Bat or his classmates’ personalities, behaviors and classroom activities?”
- Open art building
One of Little Bat’s favorite classroom activities is building a car out of various odds and ends. Gather a variety of materials (paper towel rolls, pipe cleaners, old CDs, plastic containers and bins, drinking straws, foil pans, fabric scraps, clay, bottle caps, toothpicks, egg cartons, paper plates and so on) and provide plenty of masking tape. Give students free rein to emulate Little Bat and craft a unique creation.
By Matthew Burgess
Illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani
Nico is nervous as he approaches his classroom, and it feels like his backpack is “full of stones.” When he arrives, he is the new kid, an outsider among his classmates. Nico is “a little lost,” but he finds creative ways to spend his time. He sits peacefully in the sun and befriends a flock of birds, which earns him the nickname “Bird Boy.” Initially a little hurt by his nickname, Nico decides to embrace it and imagines himself having a variety of bird adventures. Eventually, Nico’s kindness draws others to him, and he makes two friends who join “the wild flights of his imagination.” Gentle and surprising, Bird Boy celebrates the joy and freedom that comes with being delightfully different.
- Personal nickname art
I love doing this activity at the beginning of the school year, when classroom culture and class bonding is essential. After discussing Nico’s nickname, give students time to reflect on their personal hobbies and interests. What is something they enjoy that is unique to them? Help them turn this into a personal nickname.
Type each child’s name in a large font at the top of a sheet of paper. At the bottom, type their chosen nickname. In the middle of the page, students will draw, paint or collage a visual interpretation of their nickname. Mount the sheets on colorful paper and laminate them. Give time for each student to share and explain their nickname to the class. Hang their creations along the top of a classroom wall for the entire school year.
- Birding adventures
Nico imagines what he would do if he were various types of birds. He cruises the coastline like a pelican, hovers among the flowers like a hummingbird and dives off an iceberg like a penguin. Provide students with books that contain information about different kinds of birds. Invite students to choose a bird, then give them time to research it. Using their research, they will write about an activity that coordinates with their bird’s specific traits. For example, “I imagine that I am balancing like a flamingo,” or “I imagine I’m a peacock, strutting through the streets of India.”
- Classroom culture conversation
Nico is the new student in his already established classroom. Sit in a circle and ask students to think about a time when they were new, like joining a new sports team, attending a new school or participating in a new activity. Ask, “How did you feel when you were the new one or faced an unfamiliar experience?” Allow time for students to share their memories and reflections. Then ask, “Who or what made this experience easier or harder for you?” Record students’ thoughts on the board or on a piece of chart paper. Next, ask students how this discussion can help make their classroom a more welcoming place for new students and for those who feel lonely or on the outside. Students will have lots of ideas. Record their ideas on chart paper and laminate it. Display the list in the classroom and refer to it often.
Ruby “can’t wait to share her day with you.” Her bedroom is brimming with books, building supplies, paint and other materials, because “there are so many things she wants to do and make and be.” Ruby’s curiosity drives her to make a volcano, watch plants grow, take apart a watch and create a potion. She travels back to the era of the dinosaurs and visits the future in a time machine that she invented. When her busy day comes to an end, Ruby looks forward to tomorrow because she knows there is “no end of things to do.” Questions directed at readers (“If you could travel anywhere in time, where would you go?” and “What kind of things are you curious about?”) encourage self-reflection. Engaging and playful, This Is Ruby is an ideal read-aloud for getting to know new classmates and building classroom community.
- Career aspirations
Ruby’s interests have her dreaming of many different careers. Of course, “she hasn’t decided yet.” If your school has a guidance counselor, collaborate with them to provide resources that contain information about a wide variety of careers. If possible, invite a few classroom caregivers or members of the school community into the classroom to share with students. Extend the exploration by hosting a career fair. Ask students to research an occupation, then create a visual aid and a brief (60 seconds or less) oral presentation. On the day of the fair, invite students from other classrooms to visit and walk around listening to students’ oral presentations.
- Book of smells
Ruby makes a book of smells for her dog, Teddy. Bring in a variety of items students can use to create their own book of smells, such as finger paint, herbs and spices (add a bit of water to spices and make a paste), juice, mustard, essential oils, scratch-and-sniff stickers, cooking extracts, coffee, dried flowers and unlit scented wax candles. Fold and staple two pages of construction paper to create books, or use a single page of oversize paper. Students will use the materials to create scent samples on the pages, then create a cover for their books. Don’t forget to add labels under each scent!
- Time-travel adventures
Ruby travels back in time and forward to the future. Read aloud other books about time travel. I recommend Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? and Jared Chapman’s T-Rex Time Machine. Afterward, invite students to choose a day or an era in time for their own time-travel adventure. Students will do research or ask family members for details about their chosen destinations, then turn their research into a creative writing piece. The writing can be narrative, fictional or epistolary.