Social Imagination and Book Choices

Warning: This post was originally supposed to be about Social Imagination in my book clubs this week, and it gets there… 750 words later. Come on.  Take the journey with me.

In Opening Minds, the author, Peter, H. Johnston writes about social imagination and reasoning (thinking through social concepts and situations that may or may not have or be happening right now). He states “social imagination directly effects the child’s ability to comprehend complex narratives.” As I was reading I reflected on my most recent meetings with my “group 4” and “group 5” reading groups.

These two groups are my highest groups and we just began new books this week.  We took a short hiatus from reading groups during our biography unit because everyone was doing so much research, but now we’re back at it. After reading both Opening Minds and Choice Words I knew I wanted my groups to be a little bit different than how they had previously ran.  I wanted them to actually be how they were in my mind: student lead, deep conversations, argumentative/opinionated, text referencing, solid discussion-type group sessions.  Today, they actually were those things!

I started the groups two days ago.  I gave them the books, an edmodo code, barely introduced them, asked them to skim/browse the book and to finally log onto edmodo and post their predictions.  I also asked them to describe the main characters.

Group 4 is reading Because of Winn Dixie (which is a- one of my favorite books, and b- the last book group 5 did last quarter).  They skimmed, predicted, and began reading chapters 1-3.

Group 5 is reading The Hundred Dresses which is honestly a book I hadn’t read before.  I introduced it and told them that we’d be reading it together and that I was just as much a part of the group as they were.  I thought that maybe by being a participant and not the teacher… by not knowing the book, I could feel what it feels like to be in one of my groups and it would be more authentic.

For both groups I posted the same question: “Describe Opal/Wanda (the main character).  Use details from the text to support your answer.”  The kids made their posts (mostly one sentences) and were done.  They genuinely did come back to the group today excited to read on, but no one had any idea how exciting our groups would actually be.

I began both groups by reviewing their posts and giving feedback (asking for support from the story, reminding them how to respond via reply, etc) and then I was honest with them.  I was honest with both groups.  I told them that I was bored.  I said that the way groups had been going was really starting to bore me and that I wasn’t excited about it anymore.  I told them that I had been asking questions that had answers and usually only one.  I linked it to blog comments such as, “great job!” and how the only thing they could say back was, “thanks!”.  I then linked it back to the question I asked them on edmodo: “Describe Opal/Wanda.  Use support from the..” blah blah blah.  I told them that yes, there was some variance between answers. Some students said Wanda shy and others said lonely.  Some students described Opal as excited and others said she was caring.  I told them that these were “right/wrong” answers and that we had just gotten so good at those kinds of questions and answers that it was boring– that it didn’t make me excited to talk about books.

Then I shared with them my vision.  I told them that I didn’t want to be the leader.  Everyone’s hands shot up asking to be the leader and I said that I didn’t want a leader at all.  I told them that I envisioned a group where we discuss the book and that everyone asks good questions.  I told them that I didn’t want to be in charge, that I wanted to PARTICIPATE.  I don’t think they took me serious.

During my group 5 (The Hundred Dresses) group I really was a participant because I was reading it with them.  I asked the first question based off of a comment one of my students made.  He said, “I think she’s more than lonely.  I think she’s being bullied.”  Then I asked what made him think she was being bullied.  He looked in the book, found an example… all great stuff, but it wasn’t enough for me.  I asked, “Is Peggy bullying Wanda, or are kids just being kids?” Boom.  Conversations.  Discussion.  Disagreements. I interrupted and said, “YES! YES!  This is what I want!”  Students were discussing what made someone a bully, what typical teasing in, that maybe she was just trying to get attention, but in the wrong way, etc.  They were imagining different social scenarios. They were engaging in social imagining they were reasoning.  I then added the question to edmodo so that they could continue the conversation and I asked them to notice (my new favorite word thanks to Johnston) the type of question that was and I asked them to ask another question in that style.  One kid got excited and asked, “Oh, do you guys think she really has 100 dresses and 60 pairs of shoes, or do you think she’s making it up?”  I’ll be honest with you, it was a good question and I hadn’t thought of it.  I’ve never heard so many, “Yeh, but on page –“s before in my life!  They were saying things like, “Yeh, but a person wouldn’t—- if—” and so on.  It was everything Johnston wrote about social imagination and my lit circle was off the chain. At the end of our (ten minutes longer than normal) group session I said, “Alright boys and girls, group four just started Because of Winn Dixie and we all know how great of a book that was.  I want their group to be better than our group was.  I want to have discussions like this with them.  What are some questions that you had or still have about that book.  Help me think of some questions for their discussion.”  The things we came up with were beyond genius.  I was so proud.

The beginning of Group 4’s session went very similar and I won’t bore you with my excitement and details, but what I must say is that I didn’t realize that my students could think from so many different perspectives.  I’m not sure they realize(d) it either.  I asked the question, “Do you think Winn Dixie was lost or abandoned?” and they began talking about the types of people who own dogs, how people treat dogs, the reasons a dog would be lost and what the owners would do, why someone would leave a dog, and the list goes on.  #proudteachermoment

This post got away from me, but I’ll make one thing clear: students comprehend complex texts better when they have a strong social imagination.  A lot of kids already have the ability and capability of thinking things through socially and through multiple perspectives, but they may not do it independently at first. Learning is social. We as teachers have to probe, guide, and sometimes lead them through using their social imaginations.  We need to model ways to reason through situations. All of this is much easier with authentic and genuine book choices.  By beginning with books, the transition to real life situations will be much easier and natural.  See below for a short (because this post is already bookstatus) list of some that I’m familiar with.  Feel free to add to the list in the comments below!

(Some) Books to Encourage Social Imagining and Reasoning:
Because of Winn Dixie
100 Dresses
My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother
Thank You Mr. Falker
Smokey Nights



  1. Way to go, my friend, in allowing yourself a #proudteachermoment! You deserve it! What an exceptional example of the power of social imagination. I really think ownership and the elimination of the role as “leader” encouraged, motivated, and interested your students in ways that we often can’t as teachers. I’ve had just a few rare moments like that with my own reading groups and it truly shifts the feeling and productivity of those groups. How exceptional! I did want to add that, though 100 Dresses can be quite antiquated, it has truly spawned some of the best discussions in my room. I’ve taught it for two years. The most powerful for me with that book was having students adopt different viewpoints (someone as Wanda, someone as Peggy, etc.) and converse through their lens. Some of my students wrote Pixton comics with a character from 100 Dresses interacting with a character from another text to address a certain social issue. It was interesting! (I also have a few “home-made” activities for 100 Dresses, if you’d like.) To add to your list, The Junkyard Wonders and Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Polacco are excellent for these discussions, as well as comparing messages in texts. Just a Dream and The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg are pretty neat read alouds regarding character development and cause-effect (Dream). I have also enjoyed The Tale of Despereaux in read-aloud groups, though I used it for fifth graders. It just has such excellent characterization, character motivation, and themes. Everything relates back to imagery and themes, which relates to cool discussions! Keep doing what you’re doing and I can’t wait to hear more success stories from your classroom 🙂


    1. Yes I would love any resources you’re willing to share! I feel like over our summer break we should get together and compare notes on our reading groups. We could even hold reading groups together and have the groups communicate via twitter/skype/penpals if you’re interested. I just get so excited about good books and good conversations! Thanks for reading and for your response!


  2. “Students comprehend complex texts better when they have a strong social imagination. A lot of kids already have the ability and capability of thinking things through socially and through multiple perspectives, but they may not do it independently at first. Learning is social. We as teachers have to probe, guide, and sometimes lead them through using their social imaginations.” This is so true. This really takes me back to when Johnston showed how we so often view kids as individuals when in reality, society always functions best when people are working together – collaborating – pushing back – sharing ideas, etc. It is so powerful that you are starting this with kids as young as 3rd graders! Think of all of the things that they will be able to do after just a couple years of this kind of thinking! We may not be able to teach kids with that great of social imaginations if they keep running with it! And I think that would be a good problem to have!


  3. “I asked them to notice (my new favorite word thanks to Johnston) the type of question that was and I asked them to ask another question in that style.” This is just incredible to me! This is the kind of process that many adults (including myself I hate to admit) think that young children could not be capable of! But it is with a growing social imagination in a classroom like yours, in which you encourage challenges and teaching one another, that students can accomplish this kind of thinking. I really loved the examples that you gave for each group. Rather than asking simple, single-answer questions, your students are creating questions that will spark a discussion, or maybe even a debate. I can’t imagine what your kids will be capable of in 5, 10, 20 years having started to practice this kind of social development and questioning early on.


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