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Growing Reader

10 Classroom Read-Alouds and Activities to Start the School Year

by Lindsay Barrett

Teacher Reading Aloud to Students
Photo credit: FatCamera, E+ Collection/Getty Images

When a new school year begins, everyone shares a sense of possibility for what lies ahead. Teachers are perhaps the most excited of all, but we know that despite a sense of urgency to dive into your curriculum, time spent establishing expectations, routines, and a sense of community will pay out all year. Sharing great books helps accomplish multiple goals at once: You can hit the ground running by encouraging students’ critical thinking through rich discussion, while also coaxing them to come together as a group of learners and fostering warmth, wonder, and respect for each other and the work you’ll do.

Here are ten of our favorite picture books for the beginning of school, along with ideas for using them to start your year off strong.

  • All Are Welcome

    by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

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    A beautifully diverse group of young students arrives at the start of school to an equally varied cast of smiling teachers. Reassuring and empowering verses like “In our classroom safe and sound. / Fears are lost and hope is found” and “Gather now, let’s all take part. / We’ll play music, we’ll make art. / We’ll share stories from the heart” all end with the bolded refrain: “All are welcome here.” Use this book to initiate composition of a shared belief statement to post in your classroom. The final spread depicts a marvelous family potluck, which would also be perfect to emulate for your own back-to-school community-building event.

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  • Crunch, The Shy Dinosaur

    by Cirocco Dunlap, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli

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    It’s obvious from the opening pages that Crunch the brontosaurus wants a friend — but it takes several tries to find the right way to connect with him. The patient narrator offers plenty of advice: say hello in a “nice medium-sounding voice” that is “bold, yet gentle,” say your name clearly, and attend to his body language, remembering, “Sometimes it’s important to let dinosaurs come to you at their own pace.” After students enjoy this story for its sweet humor, nudge them to consider a broader perspective. How does it relate to making new friends at school? How might some peers need a different approach than others? Work together to create puppet shows or skits offering advice for making friends.

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  • Fruit Bowl

    by Mark Hoffman

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    With energetic speech bubbles and plenty of puns, readers gain a new perspective on a classic friendship conundrum: What do you do when someone new wants to join your group? Tomato wants a spot in the fruit bowl, but apple, peach, banana, and the rest of the crew think he should head to the vegetable drawer in the fridge. Old Man Produce, a wizened raisin, helps settle the dispute with some unexpected information. After reading, invite students to write and draw about the question, “What’s something about you that others may not expect?” Share responses to encourage “fruitful” discussion about open-mindedness in peer relationships as you start a new year.

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  • Take Your Octopus To School Day

    by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Diana Schoenbrun

    Sam approaches special days at school with impressive gusto — Silly Hat Day, Super Sports Fan Day, and more. He can’t help but feel crestfallen, though, when he feels outdone by a classmate each time. When the unexpected happens on Take Your Octopus to School Day, the whole class learns how great it feels to come together as a team. Use the text and illustrations of this book to begin to develop shared vocabulary about emotions; create a chart of “Feeling Words” and clues for detecting them in others. Giving students language to talk about their own feelings and those of others will enrich your classroom conversations all year long.

  • Click Clack Quack to School

    by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin

    Farmer Brown and the barnyard animals are back, and this time, they are preparing for a visit to the local school. The cows, chickens, and pigs are beside themselves with anticipation, but Farmer Brown sternly emphasizes that school is quiet, calm, and serious. They get a different perspective when it’s recess time, though! In keeping with the series tradition, Duck provides a bonus chuckle at the end. Use this lighthearted story to introduce a discussion of behavior expectations at different times of the school day.

  • The Truth About My Unbelievable School

    by Davide Cali, illustrated by Benjamin Chaud

    When Henry’s teacher asks him to show a new student around their school, he’s pretty blasé, claiming, “there really isn’t much to see…” Readers may think otherwise, though, as he points out the class pet (a giant jellyfish), the amphibious swim teacher, and the mashed-potato-spewing automated lunch server. Students will be clamoring for a look at the tree-top playground, and the surprise ending is a fun touch. This title is the perfect invitation to build school spirit with a writing or art assignment about your own “unbelievable school.”

  • Giraffe Problems

    by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith

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    Sharing titles with wide appeal builds classroom community by establishing “our” favorite books. This offering from the pair behind Penguin Problems is a prime candidate. Edward the giraffe feels self-conscious about his neck, which, among other things, is “too necky.” Then he stumbles upon — literally — Cyrus the turtle, whose own neck-related issues help reframe Edward’s woes. After enjoying the wit and wisdom of this tale, invite students to pool their individual strengths to create something wonderful for your classroom. (A mural-sized class portrait with inspired neck décor, perhaps?)

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  • Sarabella’s Thinking Cap

    by Judy Schachner

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    Sarabella’s constant whirl of thoughts aren’t a problem when she’s at home with her creative family, but they sure make school a challenge. When her encouraging-but-frustrated teacher begs her to “put on your thinking cap and focus,” he sparks a liberating idea. This story will resonate with children who feel like they don’t fit the mold of school expectations — and encourage empathy in those who easily do. Use this book to introduce differentiation and individual accommodations as empowering tools for learning. Invite students to make their own “thinking caps” with features that symbolize how they learn best.

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  • The Day You Begin

    by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

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    “There will be times when…” this celebrated author reassures children facing common moments of isolation, like speaking a different language than peers or bringing unfamiliar food for school lunch. When one student is reluctant to share about her summer vacation because all she did was care for her little sister, Woodson encourages, “There will be times when you walk into a room / and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin / to share your stories.” Share this story as a poignant invitation to your students to start telling and writing their own.

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  • Love

    by Matt De La Pena, illustrated by Loren Long

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    Creating an atmosphere of love — for oneself, each other, and learning — sets everyone up for a successful school year. The poetic text and accompanying paintings in this title suggest many forms, both expected and unexpected, that love can take. Work with students to create a bulletin board or class book with artwork and writing about what love is to each of you. Commit to showing and celebrating it each day of your year together.

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What are your favorite titles to read in the first weeks of school? Join our Teach Brightly Facebook Group and share your ideas with a community of educators!