Read-Alouds for the Beginning of the Year

Read-Alouds for the Beginning of the Year

Back to School with Children’s Books

Reading aloud can be a powerful way to build community and shared understanding at the beginning of the school year. My classes and I used to laugh and talk all year about the picture book Table Manners by Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky, and the first chapter book we read together, The Year of Miss Agnes. Here are some more books I hope you’ll find inspiring at the beginning of a new school year:

  • The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, by Laura Murray with illustrations by Mike Lowery, is a humorous take on the traditional tale that will appeal to young children. In this version, the gingerbread man gets left behind by his class as they leave for recess and tries frantically to catch up with them: “I’ll run and I’ll run, as fast as I can. I can catch them! I’m their Gingerbread Man!” You could use this book and the gingerbread man’s misadventures as a precursor to taking your class on a tour of your school or school neighborhood.
  • Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School, by David Mackintosh, reminds me of another one of my favorite books, Odd Velvet. The narrator initially describes the new student in his class—Marshall Armstrong—with disdain. Marshall is different in every way. He has to wear a special hat because of his pale skin, he doesn’t play the same games as everyone else, and horror of horrors, he does not watch television! When the class is invited to Marshall’s birthday party at his house, the narrator is positive it will be a disaster. But, Marshall’s unusual activities and interests make the party a grand hit. Without being didactic, the book encourages children to be more open to those who are different. This would be a great book to read as you explore concepts of friendship and how to include and invite others to play.
  • Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by one of my favorite author/illustrators, Jeanette Winter, tells the story of Nasreen, an Afghan girl who stops speaking and smiling after her parents mysteriously disappear. Under the rule of the Taliban, girls and women are no longer allowed to attend school, but Nasreen’s grandmother takes Nasreen to a secret school. There, the joyful process of learning leads Nasreen to rediscover some happiness. The book powerfully portrays how important education is and how people in many parts of the world have to fight to attain an education. You could use it with older children to talk about what school has meant or could mean to them. Use it to get to know students by asking what past learning experiences have left them intrigued or excited.
  • In Rain School, James Rumford relies on his early experience as a Peace Corps volunteer to give children a glimpse of what school is like in yet another part of the world. In a small village in Chad, rain washes away the school building each summer, so when the children return in the fall, they are greeted only by their teacher. They begin the year by helping her build their school building. Children will be intrigued by the story and the dedication to learning the teacher and children show. You could use the book to jumpstart a conversation about how students can help you “build your classroom” during the year ahead or about what students might appreciate about their school.
  • School for Bandits, by Hannah Shaw, gives a playful twist to the theme of being different at school. Ralph’s parents are frustrated that their raccoon son is “disturbingly well behaved” and does not show promise in carrying out the family tradition of banditry. So, they send him to “bandit school” to learn bad manners and other things bandits need to know. At first, Ralph is completely out of place with his polite ways and frequent aid to others. There seems to be no chance he can win the “Best Bandit in School” competition . . . but the book has a surprising ending. Younger children will find the school’s unusual goals very amusing and will find Ralph a lovable character. You could use the book to talk about what goals you and the class have for the year ahead. It could also inspire a discussion of how important it is for everyone to feel as if s/he belongs at school and of concrete ways students can help each other feel that way.
  • Waiting for the Biblioburro, by Monica Brown with illustrations by John Parra, is a charming picture book about Ana, who loves stories so much that she has already read all of the few books available in her small village. When a traveling library arrives on the backs of two burros, a whole new world opens up to her. The book’s message about the power of books, stories, and libraries would be a great one to use to introduce reading workshop, or the classroom or school library.

Read-Alouds to Inspire Hopes and Dreams

Here are some children’s books that would be perfect for launching a discussion of hopes and dreams—the first step in the Responsive Classroom approach to creating classroom rules with students:

  • Big Al by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Yoshi. Big Al is a large, scary-looking, but very nice fish who wants to make friends. All the little fish are scared of him until the day when he has a chance to prove how kind he is. If you use this book, you could have an underwater display for students’ hopes and dreams, featuring Big Al and the smaller fish to remind your students of the story that launched their own goal-making.
  • The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. A young boy named Liam discovers an almost dead garden in the midst of his dull, gray city. With water and attention, he brings it back to life, and the garden slowly spreads to the rest of his city. A hopes and dreams discussion based on this book could begin with students thinking about their talents, what they might accomplish during the year, and what sort of classroom environment they’ll need to nurture their talents and reach their goals.
  • The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick. The true story of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who as a young boy became enchanted with dinosaurs and grew up to be the first person to make full-scale models of them. This book is especially strong for launching hopes and dreams because Hawkins faced so many setbacks along the way, but he never gave up. You could refer to those setbacks throughout the year when students or your class are having trouble working towards their hopes and dreams.
  • The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small. During the Depression, Lydia Grace Finch is sent from her family’s farm to live with her uncle, a baker, in the city. She uses her talent for gardening to beautify her new surroundings and bring a smile to the face of her hardworking uncle. Lydia brought seeds with her on the train; you could talk about children’s hopes and dreams as being seeds that will grow as the year progresses.
  • Matthew’s Dream by Leo Lionni. Matthew, a young mouse, struggles to answer the age-old question: What does he want to be when he grows up? His dilemma is solved while visiting an art museum. He wants to be an artist. After writing about what they want to accomplish in the school year ahead, children could mimic Leo Lionni’s style in an artistic rendering to accompany their writing.
  • Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy. With simple but engaging text and cartoon-style pictures, McCarthy tells the story of an accountant, Walter Diemer, who despite knowing “lots about math but not much about gum” went on to invent bubble gum. The book shows how he persisted despite early failures, and you could encourage your students to think about obstacles they might encounter in trying to meet their hopes and dreams—and how they will overcome those.
  • This School Year Will Be the Best! by Kay Winters, illustrated by Renée Andriani. A student imagines possibilities for the school year ahead. Some are practical and possible. Others are more fanciful. (“We’ll have a chocolate fountain at lunch!” “We’ll take a field trip to someplace really cool.” “We’ll have SKATEBOARD day.”) Your class will be able to relate to all of them, and you could use the book as a springboard for what will make this school year the best for them. For a display, you could use the cover design with a large “This school year will be the best” in the middle with small pictures of children accomplishing their hopes and dreams all around it.
  • Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages by Marla Frazee. A funny “how-to” picture book for babies learning to walk that has lessons suitable for anyone setting a goal or starting out on a new adventure in life. Students can write about their hopes and dreams using the sentence frame, “Just as a baby is determined to walk, I am determined to __________________.”

However you decide to launch your hopes and dreams process, be sure to make it as meaningful as possible for your students. Revisit students’ goals throughout the year, help students make plans for how to accomplish them or assess progress, and make new hopes and dreams if need be.

Read-Alouds for Rule Creation

Classroom rules work best when students understand why rules exist and how rules will help them, as individuals and as a group. I have found several children’s books over the years that help inspire conversations about these topics. Here are some suggestions:

  • Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller. When his new neighbors, the otters, move in, Rabbit learns of the guiding principle, “Do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you.” He asks himself, “How would I like otters to treat me?” He comes up with some ideas, such as “I’d like otters to be considerate” and “I’d like it if we could share things,” which Keller illustrates with some hilarious asides and speech bubbles. You could use this book to start a conversation about how children would like others in the class to treat them.
  • Never Spit On Your Shoes by Denys Cazet. In describing her first day of school, Annie the dog describes her own teacher’s efforts to lead a rather wild class in a discussion of the rules. Some ideas the animals contribute are “Always keep your tools dry” (from a beaver) and “Just say no to catnip” (from a cat) and “Never spit on your shoes” (from a goat). You could use the book to launch a discussion about how the rules the class in the book developed did not really help them learn and enjoy school (as the pictures show!). Then encourage your class to think about what some more positive and helpful rules would be.
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann. Officer Buckle is dedicated to teaching children about safety rules (“Never stand on a swivel chair,” “Never leave a thumbtack where you can sit on it,” etc.), but his earnest presentations put children to sleep. All that changes when he starts taking his dog Gloria along, and behind his back, Gloria acts out what would happen if children didn’t follow his rules. Children start paying attention and become fully engaged in his talks! Use this book to launch a discussion of why rules are necessary, or to practice taking a list of many specific rules and putting similar ones into categories.
  • What If Everybody Did That? by Ellen Javernick and illustrated by Colleen Madden. Funny and engaging illustrations show what happens when a boy imagines possible answers to the question he keeps hearing from adults: “What if everybody did that?” For instance, we see the fat zoo animals that would result if everyone broke the rule about not feeding them, and the cluttered roadside and animals dodging flying objects that would result if everyone threw cans out of car windows. Reading this book could inspire a great class discussion about why rules exist. And, because at the end of the book the boy’s thoughts turn in a more positive direction (“What if everyone gave out hugs?”), you could also use it to start a conversation about rules that would make your class a safe and happy place.

Here are some great books and ideas for classroom rule creation with students in the upper elementary grades:

  • The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups, by David Wisniewski, can be used to start the rule-making process with fifth graders. Wisniewski portrays the multitude of rules grown-ups have developed and the reasons they give for those rules as mere pretexts for the real, top-secret story: behind each grown-up rule is an issue of critical importance to our national security. For example: The reason children have to eat their vegetables? Otherwise vegetables might regain world domination! Children will be drawn to the idea that there is an adult conspiracy afoot and to Wisniewski’s hilarious explanations. To use this book, you’d need to move into a discussion of what rules your class might need this year, along with the obvious and not-so-obvious reasons for those.
  • We the Kids, by David Catrow, takes the preamble to the constitution and makes sense of it through cartoon-like illustrations of three children and their dog on a camping trip. For instance, for the words “provide for the common defense,” Catrow portrays the dog standing guard outside, as the children play in the tent. This fun take on the preamble, along with School House Rock’s musical version, would inspire students both to learn more about the Constitution and to create their own meaningful set of classroom guidelines.

Learn more about creating rules with Rules In School: Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom, which offers practical techniques to help you set expectations, teach and reinforce positive behavior, and quickly get children back on track.


Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: First Day of School, Language Arts