Classrooms Chalk Talk: The power of picture books


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The brightly clad secondgrader in neon sneakers sprinted over to me as I entered the classroom.

“Ms. Watkins! I jumped off the high dive yesterday, just like Jabari!” She was referring to the character in Gaia Cornwall’s “Jabari Jumps,” and she made what educators call a “text-to-self” connection.

Of course, I was thrilled that she responded to one of my purposefully selected picture books for our Wednesday read alouds. Jabari is a child of color who has an experience that many children can relate to: fear of jumping off a diving board for the first time.

I had made the assumption that “Jabari Jumps” would “merely” be a gorgeously illustrated book about a child’s grit and triumph. It was so much more! I also shared the book with a group of first-graders, and like their older friends, they were riveted. I heard many stories of fear and courage in these very diverse classrooms.

After watching local children’s author Grace Lin in a TEDx talk about mirrors and windows in children’s books, I now think constantly about whether or not I am reading literature that reflects my students’ own lives or allows them access to another perspective.

I traced the term “mirrors and windows” to a seminal 1990 article by African-American children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop. Now I can’t stop! There are so many voices to hear, so many reasons to share them with children.

I am an English as a second language teacher, and my primary goal is to help students develop expressive language, both oral and written. I try to choose books that prompt some kids to say: “Me, too.” Others might recognize a classmate from a group that has been underrepresented in children’s literature.

Why am I so passionate about picture books for all? To start with, they are great equalizers in the classroom. I often preview picture books with a small group of English learners before sharing them with the whole class. I frontload vocabulary and lead them through the arc of the story.

This practice gives them a heads up on the important page turns, and they delight in knowing the surprises before their classmates. When the English learners respond to carefully phrased questions or identify objects in pictures, their voices are heard.

The same can be said for all students, especially those with standardized test scores that sternly report, “Not yet.” When given the opportunity, their visual literacy illuminates. I am continuously amazed by details that a student will point out after close observation of a picture. These comments lead to conversations about the action in the story or the intentions of the author and illustrator.

Related and no less crucial, the skills of observing, thinking, and sharing ideas are precisely what we teach in the science curricula. By spending a significant amount of time looking at illustrations, we all strengthen our visual intelligence.

I am reminded of a recent reading of “Yard Sale,” written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Lauren Castillo. Many children made connections about moving to a new house or apartment. One child, however, suggested the possibility of the family selling their belongings due to financial hardship. So there it was, a very real situation brought to light by a child who hasn’t even learned cursive yet.

Useful websites for picture book recommendations include Common Sense Media, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, mirrorswindowsdoors.org, and weneeddiversebooks.org.

Molly Watkins is an ELL teacher at Crocker Farm School in Amherst and a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. She dreams of building a wall of picture books in the guest room.