Read-Alouds for the First Day of School

by Margaret Berry Wilson on

The other day Jen Audley sent me a link to a blog entry about the first day of school that really got me thinking about the children who come to our classes and how thoughtful we need to be from the moment we meet them.

Carol, the author, respectfully questions several traditional back-to-school activities, such as having students write about their summer vacation (What if they did nothing but sit in front of the TV all day?) or explain how they got their names (What if the child is adopted and does not know?) It made me think deeply about some of my own traditional first day practices, and I bet it will move you as well.

Carol says one of the things she will do on the first day of school is read aloud a great book. I couldn’t agree more! The possibilities are endless, but you can’t go wrong if you choose a book that will draw children in, get them laughing, and bring them together. In that spirit, I have a few to recommend:

Kindergarten Diary by Antoinette Portis. Annalina’s diary reveals her fears about moving from preschool to “big school,” and her gradual discovery of what to love about kindergarten. Portis’ writing and illustrations are charming and realistic. On one of my favorite pages, Annalina reminds me of my own nieces and their fashion sense, as she writes, “My mom says I have to go to Big School. So here is what I am going to wear—my rainbow bathing suit, my ballet skirt, my plaid shirt, my cowboy boots, and definitely no socks.” On the opposite page, reality sets in, and she writes, “My mom says I have to look nice today.  And I have to wear socks.” This is definitely a book that kindergartners and first graders can relate to! It could also lead to their first journal entries.

Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth by Alison McGhee,  illustrated by Harry Bliss. A know-it-all second grader cows a wide-eyed first grader into believing the worst about her new teacher, telling her that Mrs. Watson is a “three-hundred-year-old alien who steals baby teeth from her students.” The first grader thinks she is in “big trouble,” as she has a loose tooth! She wonders if she can make it through first grade without opening her mouth. As she tries to do just that, the suspense builds and clever illustrations reveal her hilarious attempts to save her tooth from Mrs.Watson. My second graders really enjoyed the interplay between the words and cartoon-like pictures in this book, and they were sophisticated enough to understand that the teacher wasn’t really after the children’s teeth, while empathizing with the first grade narrator.

A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade by James Preller, illustrated by Greg Ruth. Despite the “first grade” in the title, older students will be more likely to appreciate the humor and pirate lingo in this hilarious picture book. In it, a young boy goes off to school accompanied by an unseen or imaginary gang of pirates (he is in color, they are in faint tones of gray and white). His day is seen through pirate eyes and vocabulary. (“Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!”) You will have fun reading it, and your students will have fun listening, seeing the pictures, and imagining what their own day would be like from a pirate’s perspective.

Dear Mrs. LaRue:  Letters from Obedience School, by Mark Teague. This is an oldie but goodie. Teague tells a story from two perspectives—that of Ike the dog, whom Mrs. LaRue has sent to the Igor Brotweiler Canine Academy, and the real story. In one letter home, Ike complains that “the way my teach—I mean WARDEN, Miss Klondike, barks orders is shocking,” and the black and white picture shows a stern-faced warden pointing the way to solitary confinement. But, the accompanying color picture shows a different story, with a gentle teacher holding dog treats to happy dogs while Ike is sprawled at a table writing. Students love being “in” on the truth and might even enjoy writing their own “Ike” letters.

The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill. This is a book my friend Robin Smith recommended to me years ago, and I have to pass it along. You’ll only be able to start this one on the first day, but it will leave your children wanting more. The book tells the story of an amazing teacher who takes a small Alaska town by storm in 1948 and changes the lives of her students, including the narrator, Frederika, forever. Among other things, Miss Agnes gets rid of the old boring textbooks, encourages the students to create original artwork (which she then hangs up!) and enchants them with her tales of Robin Hood and Greek myths.

I can’t wait to hear what you choose to read this year! I wish all of you happy reading and a productive, happy school year!

Two of my favorites are:

  • First Day Jitters—It appears that a child is afraid to go to school, but in the end you find out it's the teacher!
  • Scat the Cat—a funny story about a cat's first day of cat school; the illustrations are great!
Never Spit on Your Shoes by Denys Cazet is the perfect book for Grade One first day.
I don't use all of these every year, but these are ones I've liked: *Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes--I read it to my 4th and 5th graders and then we talk about why I would have chosen this book--which leads into a discussion of how we want to feel in school and how we want to treat each other. *Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (I think--it feels like a long time since I've been in my room and have looked at these books!)--I use this one to talk about goals, and I get the kids to think about their own goals for the year (and beyond). *The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater--in this book the characters decorate their houses to represent themselves and their dreams--I have the kids think about their own dreams and we do some work to decorate the class so it represents themselves and their dreams. *Skin Again (I can't remember now who wrote it--a poet)--this one basically says "The skin I'm in is just a covering, it cannot tell my story"--which I use as a lead in to having kids tell stories about themselves that will help them get to know each other on the inside.
My absolute favorite is Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. I teach fourth grade and I find it is a perfect book to read for any grade level. It is a true story by the author who has learning disabilities and was helped by a teacher in fifth grade. It is a great way to open the discussion to how we all learn differently.
I always read the book "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" by Mark Teague. It's a great book about a boy with a wild imagination and his crazy summer adventures. It's a great lead in to how the kids spent their summer vacation.
Hi Natasha, Great picks. I too love to use Chrysanthemum for my 5th graders. Great discussions on peer pressure to act certain ways. I'll give the others a try.
I always read, "Don't Eat the Teacher!" by Nick Ward. Very funny. Always eases the jitters and nerves of meeting a new teacher.
I read "Never Spit On Your Shoes" by Denys Cazet. It is a springboard for helping us develop our class rules for the year. My students love the little character that keeps saying "WOW!". They try to find him on every page.

Many resources on this website appear to be for elementary level classrooms.  I hope to see more resources directly appropriate for middle school.  I like the idea of a read-a-loud. 

Janet, the Responsive Classroom approach is designed for elementary teachers and schools, so most of the resources and ideas you'll find on our website were developed with grades K-6 in mind. Here is an article about using read-alouds from Developmental Designs, a similar program that's specifically for middle school: