by Livy Traczyk
For years, teachers have lined their bookshelves with children’s stories that spotlight uniqueness—picture books that help kids understand their innate specialness. Such books are essential in talking about the gifts and talents that make children different from one another and instilling in them the pride of being exactly who they are.
Cheri J. Meiners’s newest book, Feel Confident! (available September 2013), makes a refreshing contribution to this category of books by empowering both children and adult readers.
As all educators know, a good lesson-based reading requires more than engaging illustrations (and by the way, one of my favorite parts of this book is the ethnically balanced portrayal of lively adults and happy children), it also requires knowing what you are going to say and when you are going to say it. This is often easier said than done.
When I was in my first year of teaching, I took books home to prepare for the next day’s storytime. I’d pencil in notes on each page to remind myself of the teachable moments I wanted to “organically” employ, knowing that in the heat of the moment—when Johnny pulls Susie’s hair in the back of the classroom while she interrupts to tell the entire class she needs to go to the bathroom—I would likely forget to slow down and actually teach the words I was reading.
As I became more confident in my abilities, I made fewer notes, but I still struggled to come up with innovative activities to relate to the books. I wish I had then what Free Spirit offers now: books with four pages of discussion topics, activities, games, and tips that reinforce the lessons from the book, especially when the book is like Feel Confident!, which seems deceptively simple but contains ten explicit confidence skills that are ripe for discussion.
The book opens with a young girl talking to her dad folding laundry on the couch. She tells the reader, “At every age, each person is important and has something to say,” which she learned from the man holding her clean T-shirt, who says, “You were special. And you still are!” Easy enough, right?
But the key here, the back of the book reminds us, is to reiterate to children that while all people have feelings and ideas, they might not verbally express them like the characters did in the book. When I had a discussion with students who thought their younger siblings weren’t communicating because they couldn’t yet talk, I taught them that even babies have feelings and ideas, and that a hug meant they loved you. In just three sentences, Meiners created the space for a class to talk about how others respond or interact in a variety of ways.
I was most interested in how the book dealt with the concept of making decisions for oneself. The protagonist says, “I’m able to think and decide for myself. When I make good choices, I can feel proud of myself.” I wasn’t sure how I would enact this in my classroom, but then I read one of the suggested activities, “‘Journey of Confidence’ Virtual Vacation,” in which the students act out a trip to an exotic place of their choosing.
Throughout the imaginary journey, the teacher gives opportunities for students to disengage from the trip if they are no longer finding it fun and/or are nervous about it. At the end, the students who chose to sit out get to talk about whether they wished they could’ve rejoined later when they realized that the journey ended up being really, really fun. The lesson? As we become more confident in ourselves, we become more eager to try new things, like riding a bike, and in turn we don’t miss out on having fun.
Building confidence is not for the faint of heart; it is an undertaking all teachers do naturally and sometimes as a byproduct of other lessons. But, tools like Free Spirit’s Feel Confident! allow educators to be confident themselves as they lay the foundation of individual worth for their students.
What confidence-building books do you use in your classroom? What activities do you use to build students’ confidence?
Livy Traczyk is an author, an illustrator, and a literacy tutor residing in Minneapolis, MN. She holds a bachelor of arts in English literature and creative writing from St. Norbert College. She has published two children’s books with AppleTree Early Learning Institute, where she also taught preK to at-risk children. Livy is currently collaborating with a social worker to create a series of multicultural books based on difficult home life issues, with the goal of providing language, understanding, imagery, and comfort to kids who are often unseen in children’s literature.
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