Why? You.

With only three letters, the word why has launched some of the greatest discoveries of our time. It’s thrown us into deep emotional exploration, and it’s pushed the boundaries of our lives as we know it.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself this simple question: Why am I doing what I’m doing?

Why did I study English? Why did I learn French? Why am I a teacher? Why am I in grad school? Who do I care? Why do I work hard? Why do I get up in the morning?

I’ve never wanted to live life aimlessly or without direction. I’ve never wanted to look at my life and not know what I’m doing, or worse, not know who I am. That’s why I journal, blog, and share my heart with others — I want to know myself, and I want to be known by others.

Plus, I want the same for you.

I want you to be proud of all you’ve become and have hope for all you have yet to do. I want you to take charge of the direction of your life, so that you can make a ripple that is felt throughout the world.

I hope you find a question for your life, a purpose worth chasing after and never letting go. I don’t know what your question will be or when you’ll find it, but I know “what will make it a beautiful question for you, and one worth staying with, is the passion you feel for it” (Berger, 2016, p. 212). I hope your question drives you to live every moment fully and to find that, when all is said and done, you have no regrets.

In my life, I think I’ve already found many questions. In my future, I think I’ll find many more. Still, I think there’s one question that’s been with me since day one and will stay with me always: Why am I doing what I’m doing?

What’s my answer to this question? Well, it changes as I change, it moves where I move, and it goes where I go. It’s simple, yet so dynamic. It’s the same, yet always different.

What’s the answer?

The answer is always you. All of you.

Before we go back to school and the craziness kicks in again, I want to say thanks. Thanks for teaching me. Thanks for listening to my rambles. Thanks for embracing my writing. Thanks for reading about my learning journey.

Most of all, thank you for being here with me.


References

Berger, W. (2016). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

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A Little Less Wicked Problem

As educators, we think about so much: students, standards, professional development, authentic inquiry, relevancy, content, methodology, and so on. Education is a conglomerate of moving parts that compete for our time, attention, and research.

Not to mention each of these parts is full of problems, and they’re often what we call “wicked” problems.

A wicked problem contains “so many factors and conditions” that are “all dynamic,” so attempting to solve a wicked problem is essentially impossible (Koehler & Mishra, 2008, p. 10-11). The problem is ever-changing and evolving, meaning there is no right answer or ultimate solution. From our thinking and research, all we can hope to find is a baby a step toward making the problem a little less of a problem until we’re ready to think and research again.

Teaching Complex Thinking

In my graduate studies at MSU, my colleagues and I researched the wicked problem of teaching complex thinking.

To begin, we needed to get to know the problem inside and out. We turned to Berger (2016) and the Why/What If/How questioning method that he argues for in his book A More Beautiful Question. By starting with questions, we didn’t rush to poor solutions. Instead, we took our time unpacking the wicked problem of teaching complex thinking. Only then could we move forward with our research.

We consulted scholarly articles and reports about teaching complex thinking, all while continuing to explore our questions and ask more questions. To compile our initial understanding of the wicked problem, I created the infographic below.

Teaching Complex Thinking Infographic

Not only is this infographic useful for naming the parts of our wicked problem, but it’s also useful for regrouping. By putting my understandings into this digital, concise format, I made sense of my thinking so far; in turn, I felt ready to move forward.

Consulting our PLNs

Reading about our wicked problem was helpful, but we wanted to speak directly to educators themselves. Do teachers agree that teaching complex thinking is a wicked problem? Are teacher teaching complex thinking? Why might some teachers feel confident teaching complex thinking while others don’t? How are teachers finding success teaching complex thinking, or what is keeping them from being successful?

We created a survey to try to get to the heart of our wicked problem, and we sent the survey to our Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). From 134 responses, a couple findings caught our attention most. First, when asked which complex thinking skills are hardest to teach, the majority selected authentic opportunities for inquiry, opportunities for student innovation, and coding/computer science from our list of skills. Second, when asked which complex thinking skills are most important, the majority selected problem solving, communication, and engagement with real world problems.

While we analyzed these results, my colleagues and I remembered some of our earlier research. Howard (2016), in her article, “Engaging Minds in the Common Core: Integrating Standards for Student Engagement,” found that “researchers suggest that by providing opportunities for higher order thinking, student choice, and creative ways to showcase knowledge, students will find engagement and motivation in the classroom.” When looking at the three skills teachers said are hardest to teach and the three skills teachers said are most important, we realized that offering students choice supports the development of those skills because student choice leads to empowerment.

For instance, by offering more student choice, teachers are providing authentic opportunities for inquiry and opportunities for student innovation. Because student choice motivates students to pursue their own interests and passions, it creates more room for authenticity and innovation in their learning. That motivation and ownership also increases students’ willingness to improve their problem solving and communication skills because they’re the true stakeholders in the project. Lastly, student choice is useful for engaging with real world problems because students have the freedom to pursue problems that matter to them.

A Little Less Wicked (For Now)

I wouldn’t say offering more student choice in the classroom is the best/ultimate/right answer to our wicked problem. Remember, wicked problems are essentially unsolvable, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Even though the problem of teaching complex thinking is overwhelmingly dynamic, it is undoubtedly important in 21st century education.

My colleagues and I know we must take baby steps toward making this problem a little less wicked. Our students need us to try.

Below, we compiled an explanation of the research process I’ve been discussing, but we also compiled resources and ideas for teaching complex thinking in practice.

We know how frustrating it feels to care about a problem but not know what do about it. Hopefully, our research gives you a place to start teaching complex thinking. More importantly, I hope our research encourages you to find even better ideas than ours.

When you do find those better ideas, let us know. I know from experience that wicked problems feel a little less wicked when we work together.


References

Berger, W. (2016). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Howard, C. (2016). Engaging Minds in the Common Core: Integrating Standards for Student Engagement. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 89(2). doi:10.1080/00098655.2016.1147411

Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2008). Introducing TPCK. In AACTE Committee on Innovation and Technology (Ed.),Handbook of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) (pp. 3–29). New York: Routledge.

Better Mindflow, Fuller Life

The end of summer is filled with barbecues, shopping, and reuniting with teacher friends, but it’s also filled with people asking this lovely question:

“So, are you ready for school to start?”

If you’re like me, you might say, “Yes, I’m excited to meet my students,” but in your mind you’re thinking, Well, I have 253 things on my to-do list and probably 78 things I’m forgetting, so no, I’m not ready.

Oddly enough, when I have so many items on my to-do list, I rarely get anything done. I often don’t know where to start because my list feels so overwhelming, or worse, I don’t feel better when I get something done because there’s still so much left to do.

Do you ever feel that way too?

Getting Things Done

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, knows that people struggle with tackling their ever-growing to-do lists. Not to mention we often wait until the last minute to do something, which leaves us saying, “I need more time!”

However, Allen also knows that we don’t need more time. If we had more time, he argues, we’d simply spend more of it feeling stressed and being unproductive. Instead, we need a system for using time effectively.

In his Tedx Talk, “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” Allen explains that by organizing our thoughts in a systematic way, we can apply 100% of our attention to each moment of our lives. In turn, we’ll experience life more fully because we’ll be ready to take on new adventures. Watch his Tedx Talk below:

To me, the most impactful moment of Allen’s talk was this question: “How sustainable is your life and work style right now in terms of the long haul?” (TEDx, 2012, 14:30)

When I looked at all the to-do lists in my planner, phone, emails, and post-its (plus the to-do list in my head that I always forget about), I knew I wasn’t experiencing the full, productive, and creative life that Allen was talking about.

I decided enough was enough. It was time to find a mindflow system that worked for me.

Trusting Trello

The great thing about Allen’s framework — writing everything down, organizing projects, and deciding on actionable steps — is we have many resources available to help apply it to our lives.

I turned to a resource called Trello, an online project management tool. In the past, I would’ve assumed that learning a new tech tool would only add to my stress. However, after hearing Allen’s Tedx Talk and learning more about mindflow, I decided Trello might be right for me. Here’s what I’ve found:

1. Trello is flexible and customizable.

In Trello, you create boards for different projects. For example, I have boards for my classroom, house, school work, and personal life. Then, in each board, you create lists to categorize your tasks. My lists change depending on the board, but in general, I create four: To Do, ASAP, Doing, and Done.

Trello French Exploratory
My Trello board for my French class

The ASAP list was a useful addition because it helps me prioritize my To Do list. I can write down everything on my To Do list, then move the tasks that need my immediate attention over to my ASAP list. Whenever I have a few minutes to get something done, my Trello board clearly reminds me what my next action step is.

Of course, my favorite list is the Done list. I’m especially happy when it’s the longest one on the board.

Trello done
My Trello board for grad school this summer

2. Trello has a phone app (and it’s equally as good as the website).

Trello app boardPersonally, I dislike when a phone app functions differently from its desktop version, so I love that Trello looks exactly the same on my phone and computer.

Plus, having access to Trello on my phone means I can jot down and access all my ideas at any time. For instance, my classroom Trello board has a shopping list. When I realize I’m running low on an item, I add it to my classroom Trello board. Next time I’m at the store, I know exactly what I need to buy instead of hopelessly wandering down the school supplies aisle trying to remember on my own.

3. Trello lets you collaborate.

My husband and I are about to move into our first home next Friday (yes, the weekend before school starts). As most homeowners know, there’s always a list of things you’d like to do to improve your home. My husband started our list on a Trello board, and we can track each others edits in the sidebar. Anytime I open it, I can easily see the most recent changes.

Trello house
Screenshot of the sidebar on Trello

 

We Deserve Better

Allen (TEDx, 2012) acknowledges that many of us will say, “I’m doing okay.” We’ll admit we’re stressed, but we won’t try to make organizational changes to improve our productivity and engagement.

For a long time, I was one of those people. Life was good, but since I’ve focused on mindflow, life is better.

Now I control my workload; my workload doesn’t control me. I visualize my to-do lists in Trello, so I schedule time more efficiently. As I finish tasks, Trello tracks my progress for me. It takes a weight off my shoulders, so instead of going over to-do lists in my head, I can turn off my work-mind and be fully present with my loved ones.

Teachers, I know how hard you work. Maybe you need to ask yourself: how sustainable is my current work style?

Maybe you’ll decide it’s time you were able to work hard and enjoy life, so you can live fully.

I believe you can live better, and that’s what you deserve.


References

TEDx. (2012, October 30). The Art of Stress-Free Productivity: David Allen at TEDxClaremontColleges [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHxhjDPKfbY

Alive in the Question

You know that one girl’s locker? It’s the one with bright colored magnets hanging up photos of her, her friends, and her dog. It has a mirror with a note on it that says, “Be your own kind of beautiful.” Her books are stacked at the top, and her soccer bag is crumpled at the bottom. It’s the type of locker where if you saw the door hanging open, you’d know without a doubt who it belonged to, because it’s so uniquely hers.

I love lockers like that, riddled with personality, passions, and values. I love seeing a glimpse into my students’ lives outside the classroom.

But why does it feel like so many of those things — students’ personality, passions, and values — never come inside the classroom?

A Frustratingly Beautiful Question

What should we do when facing a question without an obvious answer? Write down a bunch of possible solutions? Try and try again until something works? Ignore the question all together?

AMBQ coverWarren Berger, in his book A More Beautiful Question, suggests something that might sound counterintuitive: ask more questions. Questions, he posits, open “the floodgates of imagination” and pave the way for “divergent thinking” (Berger, 2016, p. 17). By asking questions, we go down to the root of the problem and reach out to all its possible solutions.

 

I’ve always been bothered by the lack of students’ personal lives in my class. I’ve always been disheartened when I see students’ eyes roll instead of lighting up with passion. In fact, writing about this problem makes me realize something important: fostering students’ passions is my passion.

That realization is exciting and frightening, because when we find a question that matters to us, we know how hard it will be if we can’t find satisfying answers. We might fear asking the question at all because we feel “exasperated, insecure, aware of [our] own ignorance…all because of the word why” (Berger, 2016, p. 40).

However, by taking on this method of questioning, we’re advocating for our “refusal to accept the existing reality” (Berger, 2016, p. 12). If we give up on our questions, we’ll never see the changes we’re desperate for — the changes the world needs.

What exactly is this questioning method? Berger (2016) argues for using the Why/What If/How sequence.

Why?

  • Why do students’ personal lives feel separate from their learning?
  • Why does it matter if students feel passionate about their learning?
  • Why aren’t students passionate about what they’re learning?
  • Why do students think school doesn’t connect to their personal lives?
  • Why doesn’t my current teaching foster students’ passions?
  • Why do I care about student’ passions?

The why questions can be hard to ask, but they’re necessary for seeing the bigger picture and getting to the root of the problem. By understanding the underlying issues of our initial question, we can better understand how to answer it.

What If?

  • What if students’ personal lives were at the foundations of our curriculum?
  • What if students’ passions were tied to our content?
  • What if there was more time for personal conversations?
  • What if we integrated students’ passions into our teaching?
  • What if we offered more personalized assessments and more student choice?

The what if questions drive innovation because we can think about all possibilities. These questions are without limit or constraints (saved for the how questions), so we might stumble upon new, alternative ideas.

How?

  • How might I show students I value their personal lives?
  • How might I model connecting my passions to our learning?
  • How might I integrate students’ passions into my curriculum?
  • How might I model connecting my passions to our learning?
  • How might I integrate students’ passions into my curriculum?

The how questions present the challenge of prototyping. These questions make us think about possible solutions in practice. While this stage doesn’t have the vibrant, imaginative quality of the why and what if stages, the how stage is where good ideas can become a reality.

To me, that is exciting because we can begin trying solutions that address our problem (which is often our passion, too).

Alive in the Question

Question Word ArtThese questions can frustrate me, but that’s also why they’re beautiful: they’re my questions. How to get to know my students, build trust, and foster passion — these are the questions that drive my teaching to new heights.

If I stop asking these questions, whether from fear or defeat, then I’ll never be the educator I want to become.

More importantly, I’ll never be the educator our kids deserve.

Berger (2016) puts it this way: “Keep yourself away from the answers, but alive in the middle of the question” (p. 214). Questioning is the oxygen for our passions. That best teacher in me — the driven, loving, passionate, and empathetic teacher? Questioning keeps her alive.

Maybe if we taught our students to join us in frustratingly beautiful questioning, they’d come to life too.


References

Berger, W. (2016). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

All images belong to Laura Allen.

If My Classroom Could Speak

This year, I’m moving to a new classroom. Currently it’s a blank slate, just a small carpeted room with two windows. It has tables, chairs, and a teacher desk for me to arrange, which feel like the fundamentals of a classroom space.

But are these traditional classrooms really the best for our students?

The Evolution of Education and Learning Spaces

Education in the 21st century is changing with society. With technological advances and increased global awareness, our world needs citizens who are prepared to engage in digital citizenship and responsibility (Ito et al., 2013). As Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000) argue, “the goal of education is…develop[ing] the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed…to think productively about history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts” (p. 5). Society needs complex, innovative thinkers who seek to improve the world as we know it; the purpose of education should adapt to this need.

If education is changing, then our classrooms should change with it. Kahl (2011) says, “The country’s strongest innovators embrace creativity, play, and collaboration – values that also inform their physical spaces.” The physical classroom speaks to students. Does my classroom agree or disagree with what I’m saying?

Creating a Classroom that Agrees with 21st Century Learning

Using a software called SketchUp, I designed my dream classroom. I say “my” with hesitation because the true stakeholders in designing a classroom are the students themselves. The space is about what they need, not what I want.

To create the best space for my students, I asked myself:

  • How might I create a flexible learning space that encourages making and experimentation?
  • How might this space represent the values of collaboration, digital citizenship, and global responsibility?
  • What if I had an unlimited budget to revamp my current tables, chairs, and walls?
Classroom 1
A flexible learning environment: rolling tables, swivel chairs, and carpet

There are three essentials in my flexible learning environment: rolling tables, swivel chairs, and carpet.

First, I chose rolling tables to replace my current ones. The Third Teacher suggests we “make classrooms agile,” so the classroom can adjust to students’ learning needs (Mau et al., 2010). Rolling tables can easily be configured into new forms.

Likewise, I chose swivel chairs to “give students furniture that lets them twist and lean safely,” permitting movement while learning (Mau et al., 2010). The lack of wheels on those chairs, however, provides some safety constraints for my 8th graders.

Lastly, I covered my floor in carpet, which was one of my biggest issues in my old classroom. A comfy, carpeted floor supports the creation of “a learning space that’s safe and comfortable to navigate” (Mau et al., 2010). Students can spread out on the floor or sit in a circle for reading stories together, whatever makes them most comfortable.

Classroom 2
Promoting collaboration in a student-centered (not teacher-centered) room

Next, I covered one wall with a whiteboard, leaving room to project a screen. The tables and chairs, however, aren’t oriented to the screen. Instead, students face each other, which supports collaborative learning. The physical focus of the room reflects my values: it’s not about the teacher’s instruction, but the students’ learning.

In fact, there’s no teacher-only spot in the room. Instead of a traditional desk, I used a computer desk and some bookshelves for storage. The Third Teacher says, “Free teachers from the traditional desk at the front of the classroom and encourage new settings for teaching and learning” (Mau et al., 2010). By removing my bulky desk, I can give that space back to my students.

Classroom 3
Natural light and cool colors for a calm learning environment

One of my biggest dreams is to have a wall of windows for natural light. In fact, “Increasing daylight in classrooms has been shown to cut down on absenteeism and improve test scores” (Mau et al., 2010). I added a bench along the windows as an alternative seating option.

Classroom 4
Space for connections: in person and digitally

Here, I added another whiteboard wall, as a place for students to “track progress in a visible way” (Mau et al., 2010). They can brainstorm and question with ample room for visualizing their ideas.

The extra rolling tables on the wall give students more choice in where they want to work. I didn’t place swivel chairs here so that students have a standing workspace if desired. Likewise, the seating nook with chairs and a couch provides more alternative seating.

My favorite part of this space is the technology available to “bridge the digital divide…regardless of [students’] socioeconomic background” (Mau et al., 2010). The white cabinet represents a charging station for a classroom set of Chromebooks. More technology means more learning about digital citizenship and global responsibility.

If My Classroom Could Speak, What Would It Say?

Of course, the only way to know if this classroom would be successful is by talking to the students and evaluating the classroom environment. Plus, there are missing elements in my dream classroom, though leaving it a little unfinished was intentional. I believe it’s important not to plan out every detail and corner of my room without knowing who my students are.

Why? Well, imagine your teacher learns that lilies were your grandma’s favorite flower, so the next day she places a vase of lilies in your classroom. Imagine your teacher sees the sketches in your notebook, so she asks you to draw something to hang on the wall. I want my dream classroom to tell stories like these: the stories of the students I’m designing it for.

If my classroom could speak, I hope it would never stop saying how loved my students are.

To me, that’s the dream.


References

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., . . . Watkins, S. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design (summary) (Rep.). Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Kahl, M. (2011, November 22). What Schools Can Learn From Google, IDEO, and Pixar. Retrieved from http://www.creativitypost.com/education/what_schools_can_learn_from_google_ideo_and_pixar

Mau, B., O’Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi, & Peterson. (2010). 79 Flashcards. New York: Abrams. Retrieved from https://mrsallenblog.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/1abb4-tttideasflashcards.pdf

All images belong to Laura Allen.

Extreme Chair Makeover: Part III

A few weeks ago, I started a project: learn how to reupholster a chair using only online resources. In Part I, I shared some of my preliminary research; in Part II, I gave a small update. Since then, I bought fabric and spent hours reupholstering my found-on-the-curb chair.

The Project

The video below outlines the steps I took when reupholstering my chair. My most helpful resource was Four Generations, One Roof because it gave me a framework for beginning this entirely new project. Unfortunately, every chair is different, so what works for one chair doesn’t always work for another. Still, I found a few common ground rules.

Find an anchor point. The anchor point was the first spot of the fabric that I adhered to the chair. The best spot for an anchor point was in the middle, allowing me to pull and place the rest of the fabric in a way that prevents puckering and completely covers the old chair.

Find the right adhesive. I intermixed using a staple gun and a hot glue gun. The staple gun was effective when the wood frame was accessible. The staples created a solid hold when pulling the fabric. However, I sometimes needed to tack down fabric when I didn’t have the wood frame for support, which is when I used the hot glue gun. The glue also created a clean edge for a more professional look than the staples.

Find the best fold. Whenever I found my fabric didn’t easily fit the chair, I used pleats to tighten and shape it. I also used folding to create neat hems on the top layers of fabric, so I didn’t have exposed staples or frayed edges.

The Learning

My Successes

Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000) explain that a trait of experts is their flexibility: they can adapt knowledge to specific circumstances. As I said, my chair was different than the ones I found in my research. I consulted sources for advice and suggestions, but then I tailored my learning to my situation. It took some experimenting, but I found a system that worked for me. Considering I knew nothing about reupholstering prior to this project, I feel successful in my adaptable learning. It’s a sign that I progressed from my starting point as a novice.

My Struggles

My success also brings me to my greatest struggle: I had no room for iterations.I learned as I went, which is something I’m proud of, but that also made it difficult for me to overcome challenges. Once I cut the fabric, I couldn’t piece it back together; once I glued it down, I couldn’t take it off. (Not to mention I couldn’t go back to the curb to find a new chair.)

In his book A More Beautiful Question, Berger (2016) tells countless stories of failed prototypes leading to discovery. Often in the design process, we need to find ways not to do something before finding the best way to do it. Although I had help through networking, I made decisions on my own for my specific context. The information I found online helped me make good choices, but I could do better with another try.

The Network

My biggest downfall was mistaking “networked learning” for “self-taught online class.” I watched tutorials and read blog posts, but I never thought to use the comment button to ask for help with my specific chair. Instead, I marched ahead on my own. While it’s not always bad to try something independently, networking provides us the opportunity for rich conversations about learning. We don’t have to do it alone.

I wonder how often my students struggle without realizing I’m here to help. Even though most of our learning happens in person, some students act like they’re watching a one-sided tutorial that they have to figure out alone. I want my students to see learning as an interactive process, in which they take the lead but still have me for support.

How can we cultivate this type of learning environment? Well, I guess that’s my next networked learning project. First, I’ll charge up on coffee from here in my new chair. Then, prepare to see comments coming your way.

Coffee
We can still talk over coffee in virtual conversations, right?

References

Berger, W. (2016). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.

All images belong to Laura Allen.

Turning a New Page with Picture Books

“Every child is born with a crown… Our crown will always be with us, wherever we go, whatever we do.”

I heard these sweet words from Nancy Tillman’s story, “The Crown on Your Head,” not from a bedtime story, but from somewhere less expected: an edtech conference.

STEAMlab 2017

steamlab.jpg
Working on a QuickFire at STEAMlab 2017

At STEAMlab 2017 in Lansing, MI, I attended a session called “Voice, Choice, and Paper Airplanes.” To begin, the presenters read Tillman’s story to us. They read slowly and showed us the pictures.

Most of all, they looked right in my eyes, and I had a glimpse of the love their students might feel.

Kristin Hundt and Katie Tasch Bielecki are teachers. They don’t spend all their days reading picture books to adults at edtech conferences, but they do often read picture books to their students.

I’ve used picture books in my English classes to talk about archetypes and plot devices, but I’ve never read my students a story like “The Crown on Your Head.” I’ve never looked them in the eyes and said, “Your crown means that you are magnificent.”

But why don’t I?

Three Cheers for Picture Books

Here are three reasons why I believe teachers should consider integrating picture books into students’ learning experiences.

#1. Picture books can support content in an engaging, experiential way.

Children’s books are simple and complex at once. As an ELA teacher, I can connect these stories to my lessons. Many picture books are riddled with deep, meaningful themes conveyed through symbolism and rhyme. “The Crown on Your Head,” for instance, is a starting point for analytical conversations about self worth and empathy, wrapped up in the symbol of an invisible crown.

Instead of beginning a lesson by defining the term “theme” in their notebooks, students can experience theme when hearing a story. Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000) say, “It can be difficult for [students] to learn with understanding at the start; they may need to take time to explore underlying concepts and to generate connections to other information they possess” (p. 58). A simple storybook lets students explore a learning target in a personal way. Paired with meaningful activities, children’s books can prepare students for further learning.

Though children’s books appear elementary, they carry sophisticated topics within them. We only need to equip students with the critical lens to discover those topics for themselves.

#2. Picture books can encourage global citizenry.

Not only can picture books connect to content, but they can also promote global awareness and 21st century citizenship.

Hundt (2016) writes in her blog post:

PictureBooks
Hundt’s collection of picture books (Hundt, 2016)

“Within these pages are characters of many colors from many countries… Within these pages are topics like growth mindset, meditation, student feedback. And within these pages are global issues of education, immigration, world hunger, and power.”

If we carefully choose our selection of picture books, we can find stories that represent diverse people and experiences. Many stories wrestle with serious problems from around the world and in our own communities. Part of the beauty of a picture book is its concise way of conveying the importance of these global issues that Hundt mentions. If we could spare a few minutes of class, students would have the opportunity to empathize with people unlike them.

Of course, any research project could lead students to similar discoveries. We can teach our students to find facts and figures on world hunger, for instance. But at the end of the day, what drives people to action on global injustices? Is it a number? No, it’s what the number represents: human lives.

Every story, no matter how short, holds the power to inspire us. Why not give students more opportunities to discover their passions?

#3. Picture books can show kids how much they matter.

While there are research-based reasons to support using picture books as a teaching tool, I think it’s always important to return to the heart of our work: our students.

Imagine being 13 again, and your 8th grade ELA teacher asks you to gather around while she reads to you. You probably roll your eyes a little, but then she starts reading. She’s animated and passionate. The story is cheesy, yet you find yourself wanting to see the picture before she moves on. Then you hear the words, “Every child is born with a crown… Our crown will always be with us, wherever we go, whatever we do.” Your teacher looks right at you, and you start to wonder if there really is a crown on your head.

I know that’s a romanticized view of what could happen, and it wouldn’t happen for every student. But what about the one student it happens for? What about the kid who’s having a rough day or who thinks no one notices her? If just one story reminds a hurting student that they matter, then every story is worthwhile to me.

The Next Page

The reasons above revolve around starting points for lessons and projects, but what could happen next?

Students could bring in stories they want to share and be responsible for facilitating a discussion about it with their classmates. They could create stories of their own (on a website like StoryJumper, for instance) about issues that matter to them, using elements they’ve learned. They could go read stories with elementary classes or out in their community.

There are plenty of possibilities, but the truth is we don’t have to know what to do next.

Instead, we can give students the pens to write the next page for themselves.


References

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.

Hundt, K. (2016, October 5). Mary Poppins and Picture Books [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apabooks.org/2015/08/12/what-is-human-systems-integration/

If not stated otherwise, all images taken by Laura Allen.