Books for Babies: Creating a Culture of Community & Early Literacy

Last May found me desperately looking for a project for my third graders as our year wound down to a close. We were a couple of weeks away from the last day of school, state testing was finished, and my kids were feeling the restlessness that typically comes with spring. I knew I wanted to do something that would be fun for them, use the reading, writing, and research skills we’d learned during the year, and involve our community. If I could find a way to talk about the importance of creating a culture of literacy, a particular passion of mine, I knew I would have the perfect project.  

In this roundabout way, my class’s favorite activity of the year—Books for Babies—was born. Now we spend the last weeks of the year working to get books into the hands of new parents before they leave the hospital with their babies. Together, we learn about and support early literacy, and reinforce the grade-level skills my students have been working on all year. Best of all, Books for Babies is a project that can be easily replicated in any classroom.

We begin by researching the importance of reading to babies. I typically print out articles from reputable sources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics or Parents magazine about the topic (also see this article from NPR, and this from Scholastic) but another option is to supervise kids as they conduct their own research online. Then, as a class, we closely read the articles, making careful note of the arguments and evidence that are presented to support reading to infants. As with any close reading, I pose an essential question—in this case, it’s Why is it important to read to babies?—and we read with pencils in hand, discussing and underlining evidence that will help us answer the question. We also annotate in the margins, noting when our reading leads us to make connections or synthesize across texts.

With research in hand, we begin writing letters to new parents (who are selected by the hospital and unknown to us), persuading them to read daily to their babies as soon as they arrive home from the hospital. Since opinion writing is a key mode in our state, and it’s one we work on extensively, this move to persuasive writing later in the year is natural for students. In the letters, the students introduce themselves, explain why they’re writing, and then construct their reasoning for early literacy. They also end the letter with a Twitter hashtag so that, if parents choose, they can tweet out pictures of the finished projects; my kids love to check the Twitter feed to see their work in the real world.

When we begin the writing process, we also sit down with a Scholastic book club flyer, and each student selects a book that he or she would like to gift to the new families. This is one of the most fun parts of the process, and I love to watch the students bend over the order forms, talking in their groups about which book they’ll pick and why. The choice is never easy. Once their selections are made, I place the order, and the books arrive just as we’re finishing the final drafts of our letters.

At this point, we’re ready to assemble the projects. Each student signs his or her name inside the front cover of the book, usually adding a sweet “Welcome to our world!” message. They then decorate plain white craft bags (we’re careful to keep the décor gender neutral), and tuck their letters and books inside. I reach out to local hospital administration early in the process and arrange a convenient day and time to meet, so all that’s left is for me to do is deliver our book bags to the hospital. We’ve heard, through social media and hospital staff, that the book bags are a huge hit with the new parents.

In the end, we created a project that hit all of my requirements:we research and closely read, use our argumentative writing skills, give back to our community, share our love of reading, and have fun along the way. Because of that, it’s one of those activities that I know I’ll turn to time and time again.  What better way to end the school year?