What book do you think should be taught in an elementary school classroom and why?
From time to time a teacher will ask me this very question. Teachers are always on the hunt for the “greatest” book…that one special book that will push their students into the wonderful world of avid lifelong readers. This always sends book title after book title flying through my mind.
I could tell them that all students must know and love Ish by Peter Reynolds. This wonderfully simple book teaches students to just try…to go out in the world and try their very best. The illustrations in this book are playful and inviting, and I've never read it to a class that didn't love it. I could tell them to read Ish, but that’s not the title I give them.
Another possible great book might be Pink and Say or Thunder Cake or any of the other wonderful titles from Patricia Polacco. As a reader, her word choice draws me into the heart of each story she tells. I can see myself cowering behind a tree as Confederate Soldiers murder Say’s mother. As a writer I’m drawn to the way she combines sentences to create a stream of consciousness effect that I so badly want to imitate. I could tell teachers to read anything by Patricia Polacco, but I don’t give them her name, either.
From time to time, I want to hand teachers a copy of Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford. This fantastic book teaches students about tolerance, courage, strength, and the goodness that people have in their hearts. Word choice makes this an excellent mentor text for young writers. The last page has made it into my own “grown-up” list of great ways to bring closure to a story. Freedom on the Menu is one of my newest all-time favorite books, but that’s not the one I tell teachers to teach.
In truth, when teachers ask me about a book they simply must teach in their classrooms, I don’t give them a title, an author, or subject matter. In truth, I tell them that it really doesn’t matter what book they teach. What matters is that they, the teacher, truly love the book…that they teach books that mean something to them…a book given by a special friend…something they read as a child…a book that was a turning point for them…a book that speaks to their heart. A book that truly means something to a teacher is a book that students must know. When we teach with these books, our love for reading comes out loud and clear.
So what book do I use most often to teach? I use the Berenstain Bears. (Yes, I know that’s more than one book…but I can’t narrow it down to just one.) On the top of a book shelf in my office sits the collection of Berenstain Bear books that my brother, sister, and I collected as children. These books are tattered, torn, and our names are written all over them in our elementary school handwriting. I remember my parents reading these books to us to teach us about the world and making strong choices, but I remember loving them for the fun they showed. They made us laugh, cry, feel scared, uplifted, and courageous all at the same time. I use Berenstain Bear books with students in the hopes that they will love them as much as I did and still do. I teach with Mama, Papa, Brother, and Sister because they matter to me, and I sincerely hope they matter to my students.
And yes, I use all of those other books, too, and I use too many more to name…and I am always on the hunt for the next great book my students will love. Great books are how we engage students in the standards they must master in order to be ready to greet the world as a productive citizen. If the teacher loves it, the students will love it, too. The love we have for a book is what makes it worthy of teaching.