Picture books are essential in the middle school classroom. Each is a short story that has a heartbeat that murmurs gently, waiting to be heard. My students sit in rapture listening, smiling, giggling, and nodding as they allow the words and illustrations of picture books to whisk them away to another place. Part nostalgic, part thought provoking, these texts teach in a way that can only be described as captivating.
Some say middle school students are too old to hear and read picture books. I say no one is ever too old.
Often time teachers, including myself, steer students toward chapter books during reader’s workshop, instead of encouraging picture book reading. Of course, this is so students can build their fluency and stamina by delving into plots that unfold over many pages. We may hear ourselves saying, “You must read a chapter book. No picture books.” I have often wondered if other teachers have felt the way I have after saying these words. I feel a twang of pain and there is a small voice inside my head whispering that students should always choose what they want to read, no matter the length of the book. After all, aren’t picture books just short stories? Aren’t they the texts we use to model reading strategies, locating literary elements, and building schema? Why would I steer my students away from them during reader’s workshop? It just didn’t make sense. I knew I needed to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop in a new way.
A week later, I had a plan. I decided that we would dive head first into a world of reading picture books.
When I told my students that they were going to read only picture books for a week straight, cheers erupted. They shouted with joy, saying they couldn’t wait to reread childhood favorites and books by beloved authors. Sprawled out on the floor, bins overflowing with picture books from my collection and the school library, my students read voraciously.
We called it the “25 Picture Book Challenge,” and each student set a goal of reading 25 pictures in a week. Even as we set the goal, I knew it might be impossible. But I couldn’t help myself. My heart beat quickly with the hope that each student would have 25 short stories in their repertoire of texts. I couldn’t help but feel giddy thinking about all the possible text-to-text connections students could make and all the plots, characters, and settings they would read about.
Delighted squeals of “I read 5 books today!” was music to my ears each day. Enthusiasm soared as the humming heartbeats of the picture books echoed throughout my classroom. Both my avid and reluctant readers enjoyed recording their book titles on their reading logs. Everyone was reading. The joy for reading was palpable, and my students and I looked forward to reader’s workshop each day.
My minilessons could have been about many different topics- fix-it-up strategies for comprehension, getting to know characters, thinking about conflicts and solutions. However, I chose to focus my minilessons on theme. I wanted my students to think about the big ideas in each book- focus on the central messages of the stories they were reading. Exploring theme with picture books was very satisfying. My students blanketed classroom charts with sticky notes about themes. We sorted their themes based on frequency, commonalities, and uniqueness. We categorized some themes, such as family, as “Broad Themes” and webbed them to brainstorm other themes such as “sibling rivalry,” “family traditions,” and “conflicts between generations.” My students made lists of book titles that related to common themes, and we noticed how different books had similar themes across different genres. It was the type of learning that I always hope to have in my classroom.
In the end, we toppled our goal. Our total reached over 2,500 reads at the end of one week. I rejoiced in my decision to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop. I knew I would never look down upon picture book reading in middle school reader’s workshop again.