Whether students have a year or more under their belts or are starting school for the first time, a new school year can invoke everything from laughter to tears to giggles and cheers. Teachers face the full spectrum of student feelings about the first day of a new school year: excitement, shyness, doubt, fear, anxiety.
How can we help our students face their feelings and the start of the new school year?
Selecting the right back-to-school read aloud is exciting because of the potential it holds. We can imagine the conversations we will have with our scholars and the connections they will make. We can imagine the safe, welcoming, reading-first space we will inspire.
It may be tempting to concentrate on introducing students to routines and expectations and practicing procedures around sitting on the carpet or signaling for the bathroom. However, building classroom culture is critical to a successful school year. Reading should start on day 1 as part of your strategy for achieving that safe, welcoming, reading-first space.
As you assemble or sort through your read aloud bin for the right mentor texts for the first unit in your scope & sequence, think about which books signal the community and classroom culture you want and your students need.
Pair read alouds that are “elementary school classics” with books that celebrate and recognize your students’ experiences, backgrounds, and interests.
For example, a classic back to school read aloud is Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes, about a young girl’s first day of kindergarten. Henkes captures the feelings of many new students navigating new spaces and friendships.
Now pair that with a text that has characters with identities and experiences that are meaningful to your student population. Yes, first day jitters and excitement are universal, but the additional challenge of being a non-native English speaker or coping with homelessness can tip feelings over from nervous to overwhelmed.
Chrysanthemum, You’re Not Alone!
As part of your preparations for the beginning of the school year, gather a collection of your books related to the first day of school.
Book Pairing Recommendation:
Ideal read-alouds for the start of school should:
- Allow you to introduce and discuss the roles of students and teachers, the classroom, and school in general
- Show young learners that it is normal to have a mixture of feelings during this time of change
- Include a variety of themes and topics: the first day of school, making friends, families and communities, dealing with new situations and separation, helping each other process our emotions/overcome fears, and growing up
Getting students to start talking about how a character grapples with new classmates and the school setting can help them express how they are feeling as well as recognize that others in the room feel exactly the same way. (It also gives you the opportunity to start reading to kids! And show how book-centric your classroom is.)
- In the first few days, read more than one character’s first day of school. Ask children to make connections between these stories. Also encourage them to connect their own school experiences to those of characters in the books.
- If students are writing, have children write about something in school that made them feel happy. It may be one or two sentences. For students who are not writing yet, encourage them to dictate their experience for their drawings to an adult who will record their words. Include a space for students to sketch their answer.
- Have students turn to the last page in the book. Then ask them to draw a dream that the character might have that night or imagine what her second day will be like.
- As a whole group, write a class letter as Chrysanthemum to Moony Luna. What advice would she have for Luna about school?
- Finally, create a bin of other back-to-school books (it’s quite a genre!) for students to explore in and outside of class.
Additionally, consider reading your favorite must-read back-to-school book in the students’ first language (or inviting a parent to join alongside you in the reading) if they are English Language Learners. Many of the most popular “classics” are available in other languages as well as authentic literature written as bilingual texts.
Recognizing children’s cultures and their languages is a BIG deal. Too many schools get students’ names wrong from the beginning. More and more schools have English Language Learner populations and multiple languages spoken within one school and classroom. Reading in students’ language or selecting a text that portrays a character your students identify with communicates to them that they matter, their lives matter, and they are going to learn a ton with you this year.
Culturally responsive books with characters and themes about navigating a new school/grade/year:
A Shelter in Our Car: Zettie and her Mama left their warm and comfortable home in Jamaica for an uncertain life in the United Sates, and they are forced to live in Mama’s car.
David’s Drawings and Los dibujos de David: Available in Spanish and English, a shy young African American boy makes friends in school by letting his classmates help with his drawing of a bare winter tree. A shy young African American boy makes friends in school by letting his classmates help with his drawing of a bare winter tree.
Elizabeti’s School and La escuela de Elizabeti: In this contempory Tanzanian story available in English and Spanish, author Stephanie StuveBodeen and artist Christy Hale once again bring the sweet innocence of Elizabeti to life. Readers are sure to recognize this young child’s emotions as she copes with her first day of school and discovers the wonder and joy of learning.
First Day in Grapes and Primer día en las uvas: Available in Spanish and English, the powerful story of a migrant boy who grows in selfconfidence when he uses his math prowess to stand up to the school bullies.
Moony Luna/ Luna, Lunita Lunera: Bilingual English/Spanish. A bilingual tale about a young girl afraid to go to school for the first time.
The Closet Ghosts: Moving to a new place is hard enough without finding a bunch of mean, nasty ghosts in your closet. When Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, answers Anu’s plea for help, Anu rejoicesuntil she realizes that those pesky ghosts don’t seem to be going anywhere.
The Upside Down Boy/ El niño de cabeza: Bilingual English/Spanish. Awardwinning poet Juan Felipe Herrera’s engaging memoir of the year his migrant family settled down so that he could go to school for the first time.
Willie Wins: In this heart-warming story, a boy gets beyond peer pressure and comes to appreciate the depth of his father’s love.
For further reading on starting the school year: