148: The Power of Children’s Books for Older Kids, with Pernille Ripp

Today on the podcast, I’m talking to Pernille Ripp, literacy dynamo. She has soooo many wonderful insights to share about using children’s books with older kids that I’m splitting the interview over two shows. That’s right, double the children’s book joy!

Today we’re talking about why children’s books can play such a powerful role in secondary classrooms, how to use them to demonstrate writer’s craft and to introduce important topics, and how they can play into our ongoing conversation about the role of visuals in our communication today.

In the next show, we’ll be diving into two of the big projects Pernille has done with her students related to children’s books, and also zooming in on some of her top recommended books.

You can listen in on the podcast player below, or on any of these lovely platforms. Or, read on for highlights and links!

So before we jump into the interview, here’s a quick look at this week’s featured book in the “Build your Library” segment.

Build your Library

Today I want to share a new book perfect for your First Chapter Friday program or your next classroom display, Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End.

The book begins when the main character – Mateo – receives a call to let him know he will die that day. It’s the call he’s lived in fear of his whole life, because he lives in an imagined future in which a company called “Death Cast” alerts everyone on their death day so they can craft the last day they want. Mateo makes the hard decision to leave his safe cocoon at home, where he has mainly watched the world go by on his computer, and venture out to live deeply. He finds a friend through the “Last Friend” app and together they have a last day that is life-changing.

I found this book gripping, surprising despite the giveaway title, and full of powerful themes for teens to consider. I think if you read the first chapter for FCF, you’ll have a dozen kids in line to check it out immediately! (Not sure what First Chapter Friday is? Learn more, and grab the free sketchnotes template pictured above, over on this page).

OK, let’s jump into the interview!

Why use Children’s Books with Older Kids

Our students can feel so much pressure to be seen a certain way, as serious, capable, intelligent. When we introduce all types of stories to our students, it not only loosens the stigma about where exactly they should be as readers and what they should enjoy reading, it also allows them to develop their identity through interaction with all different types of texts.

For Pernille, centering reading and helping the kids value themselves as readers as the core of the classroom can really change the way kids feel about themselves. “You can feel it when you walk into our space,” she says, “that gravitational pull that children’s books and picture books have on our kids.”

When it Began

As Pernille studied to become a teacher, picture books were introduced to her as teaching tools that could be mentor texts, not as creation tools, community tools, or kid-centered experiences. But as she entered the classroom, she experienced the gradual realization that this was worth pushing back on. When she introduced a picture book as a mentor text, students sometimes asked to see it or read it, and she took note. Her students helped her realize that these short, impactful works could help her do powerful things. In thirty-six pages, she could start a conversation about a big topic like loneliness or racism with a text that felt safe, inviting, and quick all at the same time.

How much do you want this book wall from Pernille’s classroom?! Notice how many types of stories are layered together.

Children’s Books for Writer’s Craft

Perhaps you, like Pernille, have scoured the internet with search terms like “Best short stories for middle school students,” and discovered the same tired list that’s been in circulation forever. And yet, the need for quality short pieces is real, especially when you’re trying to approach many different topics and styles of writing, and feature many different protagonists and environments to provide your students the chance to see lives like theirs and lives unlike theirs – the mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors described so eloquently by Dr. Rudine Bishop.

Starting from week one, Pernille uses picture books to help students begin to connect and create their new community. As they read Woodson’s On the Day you Begin, Miller’s Don’t Touch my Hair, and Locke’s What are your Words?, they’re discussing foundational elements of how their community will interact, but they’re also seeing many different ways to showcase story.

When they begin their narrative writing unit a few weeks later, the picture books they’ve already read combine with new ones to show different ways of telling a story. They can read a short text, look at how it’s written, refer back to others that have come before, and talk about what the authors are doing, and HOW they’re doing it. Pernille will pull up key pages on her projector, highlight important moments, and anchor conversations about writing and author’s craft in this way.

Every time she reads a book, she’s always thinking of ways she could use both the content and the craft in her library. Check out her hashtag #pernillerecommends on Instagram, and this incredible list of lists of recommended books on her website.

Another way that children’s books can teach communication in today’s visual world is through their illustrations. They are a powerful way to show how images and words can work together to share big ideas, and this is such a present theme in the world today.

Using Children’s Books to Start Conversations or Introduce Themes

Children’s books can be a great way to introduce big ideas coming in a unit, or start conversations around upcoming important themes. They can also make it easy to start conversations around issues that feel fraught. In Pernille’s experience, the conversations we agonize over starting are often ones kids are already having in the halls, but with kids having such different lived experiences, it’s important to prepare for how to handle their responses.

For example, Katherine Locke’s book, What are your Words, provides an opportunity for the class to talk about pronouns, but also get to big fundamental questions of identity, the layers of people’s identity, the labels that come to people and what they see as important vs. what others see as important. Many questions will come out of a conversation like this, many brave questions. Pernille tries hard to make space for those questions, and for where those questions are coming from. And she also works hard to be prepared to handle topics of identity intentionally and carefully.

With questions of identity, she makes it clear that students can’t question other people’s identity – identity isn’t up for debate, you can’t disagree with how someone else defines their own identity. So she is thinking in advance about how to handle questions that could be harmful or could be seen as harmful. She tries to come in with enough historical knowledge and knowledge of the school community to handle questions that may come up. And she knows what her hard lines are for what she will show students they cannot say.

OK, this conversation is to be continued on the next podcast episode! I can’t wait for you to learn about Pernille’s epic nonfiction book project and the way her students put on plays based on children’s books, so be sure you’re on the lookout for episode 149 coming soon.

Connect with Pernille Ripp

Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities.

She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She is the recipient of the 2015 WEMTA Making IT HappenAward; and the 2015 ISTE Award for Innovation in Global Collaboration.

In 2010, Pernille founded The Global Read Aloud, a global literacy initiative that began with a simple goal in mind: one book to connect the world. From its humble beginnings, the GRA has grown to connect millions of students in around the world.

She is the author of Passionate Readers -The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child and  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students, now in its second edition, and Empowered Schools, Empowered Students, both focusing on creating learning spaces and communities where students thrive and all stakeholders are empowered and passionate about learning. She has also authored Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration published in 2016 by Solution Tree.  Her work has also been featured in many print and online journals including Edutopia, The New York Times, School Library Journal, The Guardian, and MiddleWeb.

There are a lot of ways you can connect with her! Such as….

Visit Pernille’s Website.

Become a part of her Patreon community.

Follow along with her wonderful book recommendations on Instagram.

Join The Passionate Readers Facebook Group.

And now for the final segment of today’s podcast episode (because I promised on the podcast to share a few photos)…

The Scoop from Slovakia

Here in Slovakia, as elsewhere in the world, all eyes are on Ukraine, our neighbor to the East. Slovakia has pledged to take in any migrating folks who would like to come, and yesterday on the highway we saw so many cars with Ukrainian plates coming up from Hungary and through Bratislava. Our children’s school and my husband’s school have students from both Ukraine and Russia, and of course everyone is working hard to try to give the kids opportunities to talk about what they are going through and ask their questions. We’ve talked a lot about it with our children.

My family had last week off, so we drove south through Hungary and into Croatia for a spring break trip. We visited the sea-green waterfalls of Krka national park and met its many cats, walked the white stone walls of Dubrovnik, and made a foray over the mountains to Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovinia, to see its UNESCO Heritage bridge and wander the marketplace that stretches across both sides of the river. There we met an incredible artist with a little daughter our daughter’s age – they share a love of all things Frozen – and spent time in his studio talking with him before choosing a painting. He even let my daughter help with one of his works in progress.

We were delighted by the dramatic coasts, lovely citrus trees, and delicious food of the area, but also very aware of how recently this region, too, had been at war. We saw roofless buildings, memorial signs, military memorabilia, and many, many cemeteries. I began reading Zlata’s diary, a journal written by an eleven-year-old living in Sarajevo during the war, and reading her description of the siege of Dubrovnik after seeing that stunning, historic city was gut wrenching.

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