Picture Books as Portals: Helping HS Students Re-discover Magic


I believe in the power of reading stories aloud. I believe in the power of simple plots and innocent characters that evoke deep emotions and complex themes. I believe in helping word-weary teenagers rediscover the magic they felt as a child flipping through picture books.

So I’ve had a thought niggling in my head for a few years: How can I incorporate picture books and read-alouds back into my high school classroom?

Last year, I watched my husband, a 4th grade teacher, grow more and more passionate about student choice in reading. He fought prescribed reading programs with tricky multiple-choice tests at the end of each book. He spent oodles of his own money building a classroom library that represented the recommendations and requests of his students. Along the way, he had a brilliant idea to have students write their own recommendations in the front of these books, imbuing them with a personal stamp–“I’ve been through this journey, and loved it. I want to share that with you.” He has been part of my inspiration.

I read teachers like Pernille Ripp argue for picture books in every classroom and saw Paul Hankins, an 11th grade AP teacher, share why he agrees. I’ve heard a colleague I respect bring up the value of exposing high school students to “children’s literature,” and learn from her project where Creative Writing students create a children’s book.

I love reading children’s books to my god-daughter.BriAidaCheesySmiles_Jan2015

Today I decided that I would finally explore how I would reunite my students with the amazing world of picture books. So I threw out a Facebook post asking for people to share their favorite children’s book. In the meantime, I began exploring that #10for10pb conversation on Twitter and “Picture Book 10 for 10” Google+ community.

I started to get SUPER excited! I had at least 12 tabs open with different blog posts of suggested books. I was furiously adding to my Pinterest board so I could find my way back to the best ones.

Here’s a list of books currently in my Amazon Cart to begin my classroom collection, but I have about twice this amount on my Amazon Wish list!

  1. I’m Trying to Love Spiders. To demonstrate how stories are woven through all kinds of text in our modern world–informational included.
  2. Black and White. To demonstrate a non-linear story arc and how stories can intrigue us by engaging us more actively to explore text structure.
  3. BookSpeak: A Poem about Books. To introduce the power and importance of books!
  4. Biblioburro & Brave Girl. To introduce nonfiction picture books that also model historical Upstanders that connect with our freshman research and project.
  5. Zathura. To introduce the way images and text can work together to create mood.
  6. Five Chinese Brothers. A gateway to a discussion of cultural context, stereotypes, and the intersection of society and the literature it produces.
  7. Voices in the Park. A way of exploring the impact of point-of-view on a story.
  8. Trombone Shortly. An autobiographical story of a young musician from New Orleans. The power of illustrated narrative.
  9. Firebird. This has been on my radar since a student did a project on Misty Copeland last year.
  10. The OK Book & Skycolor & The Boy who Loved Math. As an introduction to genius hour projects with my freshman this year.
  11. This Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. As an easy intro to accessible poetry that holds a character or story form.

My strategy was to skim each post and buy the books that appeared in more than one. But even this strategy fell apart as my Amazon cart reached nearly $400. When I checked in with Facebook, I was delighted to find suggestions rolling in. (We’re now beyond 50 comments!)

Sitting back,  I reflected on my limited funds and marveled at the passion reflected in people’s responses remembering their favorite children’s books or sharing the ones they had discovered recently. What if I could slowly grow my classroom library of picture books with the help of a community of readers? What if every person was willing to donate their favorite book, write their recommendation on the inside cover, and be a lasting inspiration to the students in my classroom?!

Teenagers may play cool, but no one can resist the excitement of opening a package with a picture book and a personal inscription. Plus, I’ve been on a mission to bring as many outside voices into my classroom as possible. This was one more way to invite a community of mentors outside the classroom to grow a community of readers inside of it!

Will you help me grow my classroom library of picture books and read-alouds and inspire nearly 100 students to reconnect with the magic and their love of story?

Here’s how it could work:

  1. Choose a book from this wishlist of books gathered from my research OR find your favorite book online, in a storage bin, or at your favorite independent book store.
  2. Ship (if necessary) to your house.
  3. Write a short intro to high school readers on the inside cover: Why did you chose this book? What makes it great or significant to you? (Make sure you sign your name and provide a Twitter handle or email address where we can send a response.)
  4. Mail to Hershey High School, Attn: Brianna Crowley, 550 Homestead Road, Hershey, PA 17033. Update: I’ve left my high school classroom for a new venture supporting teacher leadership across the U.S. If you want to contribute to a classroom library, please DO! Here’s a website that will help you find a classroom near you to support their read-alouds. 
  5. Wait for us to send you a shout out! Again, I wish I could, but my classroom social media sites are also dormant as I pursue a new pathway to support teachers and students. I deeply believe in this project, and hope to write a follow-up post about it soon! (Love, Brianna)

Do you think this will work? Feedback please!

15 thoughts on “Picture Books as Portals: Helping HS Students Re-discover Magic

  1. See your school librarian! If your library doesn’t have the books you need, I’m sure you could borrow them from other schools in your district.

  2. There are so many possibilities here! So many things your students can do with and learn from picture books. Some of the best writing around is in picture books because the author has to think so carefully about the words to use, as those words are few. They must all count.

    As I unpack my classroom library in the next couple of weeks I will be looking for just the right title to pass on to your students!

    Then, if you ever want to do something connecting your high schoolers with kinders, let me know.

    1. I love that you pointed out the thoughtfulness behind an author’s choices in picture books. I’m excited to have my students explore author’s purpose in this way.
      And I would love to connect my HS students with your kinder students! I’ll be in touch 🙂

  3. You get my creative teacher juices flowing. I love to see you in action. I love how you seep into my planning and reconstruction of lessons. You. Are. Fabulous.

  4. In response to your question “Do you think this will work?”, I think it is a wonderful way to begin the new school year, and it is a nice way to encourage students to think about what excited them about reading when they were children. I did a variation of this a idea a few years ago that was quite successful. I simply gathered up all the picture books I had in my own home that had accumulated while my two children were growing up along with pile from the local library, books that my incoming ninth graders would have recognized, everything from MISS NELSON IS MISSING to GOODNIGHT MOON to CAT IN THE HAT, etc. I gave them time to reminisce, to read aloud to each other. I took pictures and created a power point that I used at the end of the course. Coincidentally, that week, two new children’s books were reviewed in The New York Times. I bought a few copies of each book for students to read aloud in small groups. Using a judging criteria, the students composed their own assessment of each book. Then I shared the professional reviews with them so they could weigh their own ideas against the reviewer’s. Whatever the strategy, picture books can be a powerful tool in the high school classroom. An outgrowth of this activity was sharing my work with the faculty, having them reveal their favorite children’s books for the school community, and having the students poll their peers for the same information. Lots of skills involved here, but it was just fun for the students to unearth titles and memories from the past. Good luck with your experiment! Another title for you: THE WHALE’S SONG by Dyan Sheldon.

    1. Anne, thank you for stopping by and for your amazing response! I too was thinking more about the ways to ask my students to evaluate the books, and your suggestion of using a literary critique as comparison is genius! Thanks for reading and sharing your own experiences. Hope to see a book pooping into my mailbox sometime this year from you!

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