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Books that we just MUST talk about

This is the third blog post in a mini series of posts Christy and Kassia are writing about different ways to launch a hands-down conservation across math and literacy and in social conversations. Read the first one here, and the second one here.

Kassia and I are both really into children’s literature. Neither of us would pretend to know everything about every new picture book that is published, but I think we would consider ourselves book-enthusiasts. It seems at least a couple times a week, we have a mini text exchange like this:

Kassia: Have you seen this one? A great book to pair with We Are Water Protectors

Christy: No! I haven’t yet – I would love to though!

Kassia: I’ll bring it by!

We are also really, really interested in cheese. Another typical text exchange goes something like this:

Christy: I am craving cheese. When can we go to a restaurant again and order one of these?

Kassia: I have some Ritz crackers and cheese sticks I could leave on your porch for you…

Christy: I’ll take it.

Unlike our mutual love of cheese, which is rather non-discriminatory, we are a little more selective when choosing read-alouds to inspire student conversation. We seek out books that kids will not be able to resist talking about. But perhaps even more importantly, we are really choosy when we think about how we will launch and facilitate that conversation. How we launch a conversation can make the difference between it being round-robin sharing or a dialogue in which students are both interested in sharing their ideas and listening to others. In this blog post, I will just share one example of a set of purposefully chosen books and the corresponding launches that sparked some great Hands-Down Conversations. 

How we launch a conversation can make the difference between it being round-robin sharing or a dialogue in which students are both interested in sharing their ideas and listening to others.

The Texts

Books that offer us a perspective on an issue are one type of text that inspires conversation. I like to try to pair such a book with other texts that touch on the same issue, preferably ones that offer a few different perspectives and/or different bits of information for us to consider, so we can build our understanding of the issue across texts. As we first explore an issue, I like to start with fostering a debate-centered conversation and then after reading a little more, try to move the students towards building a theory around the issue together.

Brave Girl, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated Melissa Sweet, is a piece of historical fiction that has a special place in our household. The heroine is Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish immigrant, who is described by the author as a force to be reckoned with. In our house we are always on the lookout for representation of strong Jewish girls and women, since we are striving to raise two of them. The book tells the story of how Clara was instrumental in organizing the New York City garment industry workers in the early 1900s to protest unsafe working conditions and unfair compensation. This book struck me as a good possibility for a Hands-Down Conversation, both because it addresses an important issue in our world – the ability to organize and fight for our rights, and because there are some ambiguous questions circling underneath the text, such as “When is the right time to say ‘no’ to an employer?” 

Joelito’s Big Decision/La Gran Decisión de Joelito, written by Ann Berlak and illustrated by Daniel Camacho, is a fabulous paired text about the issue of workers’ rights in a more modern context. I was grateful that this book was brought to my attention recently by a colleague in my school building. In this story Joelito and his family come across workers (including his friend and his family) striking for fairer compensation at their favorite fast food restaurant. Joelito and his family have to make the decision of whether or not to cross the picket line to get dinner that evening. This story takes on a different perspective of this same big issue – that of the consumer, and begs us to ask ourselves, “What is a fair distribution of wealth?” and “What is my role as the customer?”

The Launch

After reading these texts and thinking about the big ideas and issues circling in my own head, I wanted to choose a conversation launch that would get students talking. I wanted the launch to be short and accessible. I wanted it to invite students to use the texts and their personal experiences as evidence to support their thinking. And above all, I wanted the launch to make it clear to students that multiple answers and perspectives are welcome in our conversations. I decided my first launch should get us into the issue by stirring up a little debate and highlighting the ambiguity.

The debate-encouraging launch I settled on was: 

When is it a good decision to go on a strike or protest something?  

This launch encourages debate because it is ambiguous. Every individual will have a different definition of the word “good.” A good decision for me is not automatically a good decision for you. It gets us into the meat of the issue and some different perspectives at play.

A subsequent Hands Down Conversation launch after reading both texts and being ready to dive in deeper might be: 

What are you starting to believe about striking and protesting?

This launch encourages theory-building around the topic. It invites children to consider both texts and their personal experiences, look for patterns or similarities, and then try naming what they are theorizing and believing about the issue.

In Chapter 2 of Hands Down Speak Out, Kassia and I share some more examples of how we sometimes launch conversations with a debatable idea/question, and sometimes try to encourage working theories… in both math and in literacy!

The Conversation

Listening to the conversations that followed proved the power of both the texts and the launch. I heard students connecting the ideas in the texts to the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests they had observed and taken part in within our communities. I observed students having open conversations with each other debating whether a protest about fair pay is as important as a protest over human life. Students brought up hearing their adult family members talk about being unfairly compensated, and they wondered aloud how they would deal with that problem if they were an adult who needed to stay employed. And I saw students working together to try to unpack the way our society works; the relationship between employer and employee and the wide discrepancies between what different groups of people earn in America. These types of conversations prepare our students to be active participants in their community and their country.

These types of conversations prepare our students to be active participants in their community and their country.

This is just one text set that we’ve used to spark conversation. These two particular texts are probably slightly better suited for 2nd-6th graders due to their length and style of writing, but in a future blog post we will explore some more primary-focused texts. We would like to hear if you try out using one or both of these texts with your students. And we would love to hear about your favorite books and how you launch Hands-Down Conversations about them. Or…your favorite type of cheese. Feel free to comment here or send a shout-out on Twitter!