Friday, July 27, 2012

Thinking Together about Books: Building Social Imagination

The term “social imagination” was new to us.  The concept not so much.  Johnston defines social imagination as “the ability to empathize, and to imagine others’ thinking” (p.6).   Part of our Social Studies curriculum addresses this concept.   Last year, we said we were going to stop teaching this concept with the picture cards provided by our district and instead use picture books to teach these lessons.  Opening Minds reminded us of this goal, so this week our post focuses on teaching social imagination through text. 

In this section of the book, Johnston has nudged us to shift our thinking from teaching a social emotional skill through a book to nurturing a type of thinking in students through thoughtful conversation.  This is a small shift and maybe one of linguistic nuances, but we think it’s been established that language brings great implications. 

Bad News, I’m inCharge by Bruce Ingman is a book we’ve used as a catalyst for discussing community guidelines with first through third graders.  The main character, Danny, finds a treasure chest that bestows him kinghood.  Our students always laugh at the rules Danny the King makes, especially the rules imposed on adults.  Following a reading of this text, we engage our students in brainstorming guidelines for the classroom.  We’ve continued to use this book over the years because it rotates through our community members’ book boxes all year.  That’s right—the kids love it so much that it doesn’t spend more than a few minutes back in the classroom library.  Kids of many reading abilities can access the book because of its picture support and list structure.  (We revisit this book when we write lists.)

After reading Opening Minds, we dream of using this book to facilitate a discussion that goes beyond establishing guidelines, so that it may help us nurture social imagination and establish symmetrical relationships.  For example, we will ask students to discuss the implications of some of the rules that Danny makes.  What is the effect of having pets in school?  What impact would such an environment have on our learning?   What effect would it have on our community members that are allergic to furry friends?  Since there is no right or wrong, our conversation will honor all voices and establish a symmetrical environment.  We imagine this conversation will show that the teachers do not have the answers, but are sincerely interested in students’ thinking.  Additionally, this conversation helps us take on others’ perspectives, particularly in regards to learning needs, a dimension of social imagination.  Lastly, this conversation will likely facilitate a discussion on differences in individuals’ learning needs and help us increase students’ comfort with the differentiation they will see in our classrooms.

Bad News, I’m in Charge by Bruce Ingman
We used to…
We want to…
Use it for a springboard to write community guidelines (AKA rules).
Facilitate a conversation about guidelines that will help our community of learners and thus begin to establish symmetrical relationships
Extend the conversation by asking students what rules they would make if they were in charge.  This activity generates a lot of laughter as the book encourages them to impose rules on adults.
Extend the conversation to build social imagination by asking students to imagine what it would be like to be a person living in the environment  established by the rules. 

Let’s imagine how this shift to nurturing a thoughtful conversation may play out when thinking together about The Recess Queen by Alexis O'Neill and Laura Huliska-Beith.  The bossy, unkind behavior of the protagonist, Mean Jean, crosses the line into repeated, unsafe bullying behavior.  Our past approach with this book likely reinforced an analysis that supported fixed character traits.  With our shift, we think this story will be particularly helpful in asking students to discuss their false beliefs about bullies and discuss why Mean Jean may be acting the way she is.  (i.e. Is she a new student?  Are her parents getting divorced?).   Perhaps her behavior is showing how lonely and/or scared she is.   How might Mean Jean’s recess time have been different if she met a new friend at lunch?  

The Recess Queen by by Alexis O'Neill and Laura Huliska-Beith

We used to…
 We want to...
Use it for a springboard to discuss recess behavior and bullying prevention
Facilitate a conversation about problem-solving.  “What is the problem in the story?  How can this problem be solved?”
Extend the conversation about including others in play, particularly at recess. 
Extend the conversation by asking students to imagine why Mean Jean may be acting this way (new to the school/doesn’t have any friends, etc.) and support students in finding “conflicting worlds and false beliefs” (p. 72) that exist in the book.

As we embark on weaving social imagination development into our “thinking together with books (p.57),” we think the following sentence stems suggested on page 98 will be helpful to introduce and model with students.  

• I think [POSITION], because [REASON].
• In the story, it says [EVIDENCE].
• What if [SCENARIO]?
• Let [CLASSMATE] talk!
• What do you think, [CLASSMATE]?

We hope to report back that student engagement skyrockets through this approach.

As a side note, we’ve enjoyed perusing Books that Heal Kids for titles that may set the stage for a thoughtful discussion on moral development and civic engagement and thought you might, too.


  1. With teenagers, there is no option other than casual observation and conversation. The issues that teachers want dealt with include unauthorized personal technology use in the class--yes, they want a rule, a policy, and they want someone else, the principal, guidance, anyone else to deal with those kids who will not follow the rule. What should we do? As you say, have a conversation about how we should use personal devices anywhere, not just in the classroom. Talk about personal space, politeness, the conventions of eating in a restaurant, driving together, or standing in the movie line-up. What should we do?And then move to the next layer. What impact does listening to music etc have on me when I need to be thinking? Let the conversation flow. Do I have an opinion on any of this? Absolutely. Is it the right/only/appropriate answer for everyone? Not on your life. This is what it means to live in a democracy. I am so glad Johnston has opened the door to this conversation.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on social imagination.


  2. Thanks for stretching my thinking with applying the concept of social imagination, Julie. Yes, your ideas would bring a great conversation with students that bring devices to school. My thoughts had not gone in that direction, but imagining the impact of our actions on others has many, many possible teachable moments.

  3. I love the chart you have presented on how we used to use vs how we want to in the future! What powerful ways to talk about these books with students! Wow! I'm going to order Bad News I'm in Charge now and I already have The Recess Queen. I can't wait to share your thinking stems with some of our teachers. Thank you!

    1. I, too, can't wait to use the thinking stems. I am excited to see how they will support students in conveying complex thoughts across the day.

  4. Your post has really made me think! I am imagining books I have used in the past and how I can "update" my focus with these books, just as you did in your charts. You asked some really powerful questions that I plan to keep in mind as I start preparing for the new year!
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for reading our post, Laura. I can't believe how many times I've thought about making a "shift" while reading Opening Minds. So much information in this book will, as you say, "update" our teaching.

  5. Picture books provide such a great avenue for discussing social imagination. I have had autistic students in which this has really worked well to do. They begin to notice some of the body language cues that characters exhibit to understand their feelings. These, in combination with social stories, are ways to begin the conversation and develop social imagination.

    I have started a list of books that might be good for having conversations about the feelings of others, and am adding your suggestion of "Bad News, I'm in Charge" to the list (already had The Recess Queen).

    Thanks for sharing your thinking,

  6. Thanks for stopping by our blog, Cathy. I hope you blog about the books you may use (or use) to build social imagination. There is something intriguing about pointing out the conflicts between text and picture, like the example that Johnston shares with No David (p.72)that really intrigues me. In this example, while pulling the cat's tail David says "But she likes it" while the cat is visibly miserable. I'm on the look out for other examples like this. Please let me know if you know of any. Thanks!

  7. What detailed thinking about how you are going to adjust your use of books with your students. Having thought this out in such detail will almost guarantee that you will follow through. Thanks for the charts. They help clarify your thoughts.

  8. Jill, what you noticed is what I really see as the "power" of blogging. Wow! Did we think these thoughts through, so much so that I think these ideas will make it to the implementation phase =)