Back-to-School Books that Teach Classroom Lessons
- Grades: 3–5
There is a big basket of books on my teacher shelf labeled Back-to-School, and they have some of my very favorite titles in them. My back-to-school books are special because they teach lessons, or have meaningful lines in them, that everyone in our class knows and uses throughout the year. For example, when the class is acting up, I might remind them they do NOT want Viola Swamp to pay a visit. Whenever I’m standing on a chair trying to hang something from the ceiling, I can always count on someone to remind me of Officer Buckle’s safety tip #77. This week I wanted to share a few of my favorite back-to-school stories with you along with some of the extension activities we do that help establish a safe and respectful classroom environment.
The Kingdom with No Rules, No Laws and No King by Norman Stiles
Way back about a million years ago, when I went from teaching middle school to first grade, a kind co-worker trying to rescue me from my cluelessness handed me a large file full of things to do on the first day. The short story, The Kingdom with No Rules, No Laws and No King was in the pack. The humor and irony in this story were way over the heads of my 6-year-olds, but I loved it. I have read it on first day of school ever since. Originally published in a collection of short stories, Free to Be…You and Me, by Marlo Thomas (and Friends), it tells the tale of a boy named Benjamin who is forced to come up with some rules for his lawless kingdom. Without rules, Benjamin has tired of his mother stealing his ice cream, baseball games where the players do whatever they please and every car trip ending in an accident. One day he realizes, there has to be a better way.
I love this story because it leads to the discussion of why we need rules in school. We collectively determine that there are only two reasons for rules, safety and respect. Using chart paper, we make a list of rules we think we will need in our classroom during the school year and categorize them under the headings Safety and Respect. Because I let the students generate the list, our classroom rules are different every year. The chart stays up about a week and we add and subtract rules as the need for them arises. Afterwards, I type up the list and make copies for the class. Each student signs a copy and keeps it in their desk where I can ask them to reference it if need be. If a student is misbehaving or not following one of collectively decided rules, I simply need to remind them, there has to be a better way.
The Teacher from the Black Lagoon by Mike Thaler
This funny story is a great way to get students to relax and acknowledge their fears on the first day of school. Many students can relate to the tale of a boy who imagines worst-case classroom scenarios after he discovers his teacher is Mrs. Green, who is a “real monster” according to the rumors he’s heard. Read this book with your class and you can discuss what perceptions they may have had coming to school, stories they had heard about their new teacher (you!) and the importance of making your own decisions about people including their classmates. Scholastic offers a discussion guide that you can use with your class if you would like to do extension activities.
First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg
First Day Jitters is the perfect follow-up to The Teacher from the Black Lagoon. This time it is Sarah Jane who has herself worried, expecting the worst from her new school. She refuses to get out of bed, certain that no one will like her. When she is finally forced to go, she discovers it is not as bad as she imagined. Every year my class loves the surprise ending, even if they know the book and it is not really a surprise.
At the end of this book teachers have a great opportunity to let your students see you as a real person with anxiousness and fears on the first day. I tell the class that I have trouble sleeping the night before school starts every year which they find surprising. Sharing that sort of information with your children makes you that much more relatable and approachable to them.
Scholastic Printables offers a wonderful discussion and activity guide that comes from the resource book Teaching With Favorite Back to School Books by Immacula Rhodes.
Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard
I have many books in my room I have branded classics, and this is one of them. Every school-aged child should know and fear Miss Viola Swamp. When the book begins, the children in Room 207 are the worst-behaved class in the school. They refuse to listen to their teacher, the sweet and kind Miss Nelson. One day Miss Nelson is gone and in her place is the awful Miss Viola Swamp. Miss Swamp scares the children into being good and they realize how much they miss Miss Nelson. When she comes back, they are so overjoyed to see her, they become the best class in the school.
There are so many possibilities for extension activities for this book, but my absolute favorite takes place in my absence! On the first day I have a substitute teacher, I leave a Miss Nelson is Missing class book activity I created many years ago. In the story, after Miss Nelson is missing, the students go on a quest to find her. They speculate many different outlandish things may have happened to her; perhaps she was gobbled up by a shark or carried away by a swarm of angry butterflies. My students each create a page guessing where I might be. This activity really causes students to have to think outside the box which can be challenging. Upon my return it is always fun to read the book with the class and to discover the fate some wish upon me.
Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann
You just can’t help but love Officer Buckle. He is a man on a mission to make schools safe. He has an ever-increasing list of numbered rules he presents during school assemblies. The only problem is, no one listens to him until he gets a canine partner, Gloria, who grabs the audience’s attention. When Officer Buckle realizes it is Gloria the students are learning from, and not him, his feelings get hurt.
This is another wonderful book to use as you establish classroom rules and teach teamwork. Officer Buckle’s rules are mostly common sense like keeping you shoelaces tied and wiping up spills, but these can sometimes be the most difficult rules to get your class to follow.
Scholastic also offers an Officer Buckle and Gloria activity guide that you can use with this book. My favorite after-reading activity is having students generate a list of the safety rules they may not always follow like forgetting to hang up their backpack or keeping hands to themselves in line. The rules seem more memorable when the students pose or act out the rule and I take their picture. I use artistic effects on Photoshop to turn the picture into a cartoon drawing and use a speech bubble. We hang these around our room for reminders of the everyday rules we need to follow to keep ourselves safe.
In the past, I have also put together a class book with each student contributing one safety tip. I would have students brainstorm ideas for their tips in pairs, even allowing them to walk around the building in order to look for possible infractions. When all the pages were completed I would bind them with spiral rings and add it to our class library. Throughout the year, if I see something happening that could potentially end in a mishap, I’ll often ask students, “Now what would Officer Buckle think of that?”
Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller
Laurie Keller has become one of my favorite authors, and Do Unto Otters is a back-to-school must as we create our classroom community. From the list of books I’ve written about so far, you can probably tell I enjoy using humor in the classroom and Keller’s books are always funny with whimsical art which students in the middle grades love. The message in this book is very clear, treat others the way you would like to be treated. In this beginning, Mr. Rabbit meets his new neighbors, the Otters, and he is afraid he will not get along with them because he doesn’t know a thing about otters. The wise owl, however, tells him to simply remember the golden rule, to do unto otters the way you want otters to do unto you.
Scholastic has a discussion guide for this book that includes several different before and after reading activities. The author, Laurie Keller, also has a site dedicated to ideas and activities that go along with this as well as her other books. This year, I plan on having students create an Ott Gallery showcasing the character traits highlighted in the book which include being friendly, polite, honest, kind, cooperative, fair, apologetic, and forgiving. Using Do Unto Otters early in the year helps foster a kinder, gentler classroom enviroment all year long.
What if Everybody Did? by Ellen Javernick
This book takes me back to my childhood when my mother frequently asked me, “What if everybody jumped off a bridge?” Character education can be bolstered in your classroom with this book about a boy who commits a serious of what seems like small infractions. When he sneaks a lick of frosting from a wedding cake, throws a soda can out of a car window or feeds a little popcorn to the bears at the zoo, an adult admonishes him with, “What if everbody did that?” Rich discussions always follow the reading of this book and it becomes easier for students to envision what would happen if everybody did the same small thing. It can also be fun to act out what it actually does look like in the classroom for a few days following the reading of this book. If someone cuts into the line, I might tell everyone to go ahead and get in line wherever they like. If students are talking while I’m giving directions, I’ll tell everyone to go ahead and talk. My class quickly draws their own conclusions that small actions add up and it is best to do what’s right for the common good.
Why It's Smart to Reread Books and Use Other People's Wheels
My favorite back-to-school books are usually not new to the students. When you teach the middle elementary grades, students have often heard these books before. That’s okay! Go ahead and read them anyway. Whenever a student tells me that they have heard a book before, I’ll tell them I know they watch the exact same episode of Sponge Bob ten times, so hearing the same book twice won’t hurt a bit. I also discuss with students that every time they read or hear the same book, they may get information out of it they missed the first time.
You may have noticed I’ve linked study guides created by others to many of these books. There was a time when I used to always create my own. In fact, I tried making everything from scratch. With only so much time in my day, I have evolved into a huge believer in using someone else’s wheel instead of trying to reinvent a new one all the time. Search engines are a teacher’s friend. If you can find it somewhere else, and it’s good, use it and share it with another teacher!
If you have favorite books or extension activities please share them with me and other teachers in the comment section. I can hardly wait to read what other teachers are doing with back-to-school books in these first few weeks of school.
A Few of My Favorite Back-to-School Resource Books
Going back-to-school isn't just for the kids. My teacher resource library is huge, and these are a few of my favorites at the beginning of each school year.