Structuring School Opportunities

Picture Story Books & Leadership of Small Groups

Once I stopped being a student, the recipient, and became a teacher, the leader, I saw immediately that student engagement was my responsibility, not theirs.

If I lead a song, or choose a piece of music to dance to, or lead a problem solving discussion, getting them engaged is my job as the leader. Otherwise, the view must be that fault lies with the students — you know the ones not paying attention to me, who obviously need counselling or should not be in this class. Not engaged in my activity? That’s my problem. So, I plan for engagement in everything I do with adults and with young children.

Once I get children engaged in a common topic I can shift to being responsive, going with the flow. For example, I had a transformation demonstration ready for a small group who held an intriguing conversation started by the child who remarked on a ding in the table top. Happily, my preparation slipped to a future date. They were engaged; I followed. At all levels of education, engagement is key. So an essential to the leadership of small groups is work directly for group attentiveness to the same topic. Before engagement, of course, the children and all learners must be comfortable and feel emotional comfort, too. Attending to the beginning and the end of an activity is leadership — somewhat like being a drum major in a parading band: if the band turns left and the drum major does not, she is no longer the leader.

Comfort first, then engagement, followed by whatever the activity is, and closure to highlight the pleasure of this group experience.

Four Stages of Small Group Leadership

  1. Warm-up is the transition between whatever the children were doing before they arrived and this new time of being together doing something else. All of us need a time to shift gears and mark a change into a new social context. We are no longer on the playground or painting or blocks. We are here. It is group time with just us and it’s cool. The leadership intention is to warmly respond to initiations from every child. The children should experience the reality that it is their time to talk and the adult’s time to listen. I begin warmup time with an observation common to all the children, such as what I saw each doing earlier or what clothes I am wearing. A statement works better than a question simply because the aim is to get an initiation from each child, not a response. Initiations are always more complex and interesting.
  2. Engagement is simply a trick that focuses everyone’s attention to some aspect of the upcoming activity. I am looking for common focus on the topic at hand. I have found three ways that work, and I always plan this part carefully ahead of time.
    1. One engagement trick is to tell a personal story, something that happened to me or something I saw related to the topic. If the activity is making toast, I could share what I call a “true tale”, such as the time the toaster jammed and filled the kitchen with smoke. In the context of the video below I could describe my current problem with snoring and waking up my wife.
    2. Another is to present an object that relates to the activity, such as a slice of bread. Plop that on the table and you have almost guaranteed engagement. For the book Peace at Last a teddy bear would work. A cuckoo clock might work even better.
    3. A third is to call up an emotion, such as fear, happiness, sadness, etc. I have burned myself on the toaster and it really hurt. In the video you can see how all the children’s emotionally relate to my yawning.
  3. The activity — one of the four kinds of activities I suggest below.
  4. Closure is a brief statement expressing pleasure in the experience we just shared. The final memory of the small group time ought to be one of pleasure in being together and sharing a fun event with others.

Picture Storybooks & The Eliciting Method

I offer the Eliciting Method of presenting a particular kind of book — usually wordless books, books with a predictable pattern in their story line, or books with the story clearly depicted in the drawings, where the text is secondary. With the proper kind of book the adult does not have to read the text in order to understand and the children will, over time, be able to tell the story in their own words.

Eliciting Method is designed for small groups, which is different than how one would read to your own child, one-on-one, or how one would read a book to a large group of children where there are too many people to be able to talk at once. Following a convention of prompts, the children take the initiative to describe what they see and know. This video demonstrates both the Leadership Agenda as the group experience unfolds and the Eliciting Method in action.

The Eliciting Method

Wait a brief amount of time, at least 5 seconds, for a child to initiate a comment about something the book presents. Respond warmly, building on that comment — adding new vocabulary and context (expansions), possibly pointing it out to others (connecting), or commenting on the same topic from one’s own perspective and experience (subjective talk — I am the subject). Imitating the child’s comment is less interesting to the group, since they already heard those words spoken.If the children say nothing, model talking about what you might expect them to notice or comment on the key event or protagonist.

I recommend reading the same book again in a few days or in the succeeding week. A book of the quality of Peace at Last, can be presented a half-dozen times. I have purchased every wordless book and every pattern-repeat book I have ever seen — a precious collection.



Wordless Books

JonArno Lawson, Sidewalk Flowers
Brinton Turkle, Deep in the Forest
Peter Spier, Rain
Mercer Mayer, A Boy, A Dog and A Frog and Frog Goes To Dinner
Tomie dePaola, Pancakes for Breakfast
Ruth Carroll, What Whiskers Did
Alexandra Day, Good Dog, Carl
John S. Goodall, The Surprise Picnic
Emily Arnold McCully, Picnic and School
Molly Bang, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher
David Wiesner, Tuesday

Predictable Pattern Books

Judy Astley, When One Cat Woke Up
John Burningham, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar
Jill Murphy, Peace at Last
Ruth Carroll, Where’s Bunny?
Marjorie Flack, Ask Mr. Bear
Ann Herbert Scott, On Mother’s Lap
Joan L. Nodset, Who Took The Farmer’s Hat?
Nancy Tafuri, Have You Seen My Duckling?
P. D. Eastman, Are You My Mother?
Werner Holzwarth, The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit
Eric Carle, The Very Busy Spider and The Very Quiet Cricket
Sue Williams, I Went Walking

Examples of Visually Comprehendable Storybooks

Watty Piper, The Little Engine That Could
Don Freeman, Corduroy
Virginia Lee Burton, Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel
Robert Mccluskey, Make Way for Ducklings
Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, A Letter to Amy,
Jon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat


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