Carrying Social Studies Home in Book Bags

Cynthia K. Wilson, John M Hail, and Beth Hurst

Educators know that students whose parents are actively involved in the education of their children do better at school. While there is little debate on the benefits of parental involvement, the question looming is how? How can teachers strengthen the connection between studentsí home and school lives? How can the social studies concepts developed in schools be transferred more successfully to home or other settings outside the school? How can ìhomeworkî become meaningful and interesting so children and parents enjoy learning together? And, equally important, how can teachers create these experiences given their workloads and budgets? In this article we share our experiences in creating book bags for use in elementary classrooms as a way of connecting school, home, and social studies through literature response activities.


Social Studies and Literacy Connections

ìThe primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.î1 Childrenís literature has certainly played a dynamic role in the teaching of social studies for many years. Some students have ìpleasurable memoriesî of learning social studies in elementary school associated with ìliterature (trade books) rather than textbooks,î because the latter are written for accuracy and facts, whereas literature is filled with imagination, feelings, expressive language.2 The real benefit in using childrenís literature is that it adds depth and breadth to the content, so students will understand it better and imagine ways to apply that knowledge.

Teachers can capitalize on both social studies curriculum and literacy enhancement as they build additional ways to extend learning with the use of childrenís literature. The elements of good literacy teaching include fostering childrenís enjoyment of reading, increasing comprehension of various texts, practicing reading strategies, bridging prior knowledge with the reading material, expanding general learning skills, and responding to the information or story. Clearly, there is a natural connection between social studies learning and literacy development.

In preparation, a teacher can select the appropriate text, introduce the story and set the stage for reading, interact with students as they read, provide opportunities for responding, and evaluate the childrenís understanding. During the experience, the students are listening and responding, predicting and questioning, reading and discussing, and responding and relating to the story at various times and in multiple ways.3

Reading together can be a powerful component of any literacy program, and it may also be an easy strategy for take-home social studies activities. A parent, with direction from the teacher, can take an active role as the ìteacherî in literacy-rich, social studies encounters in the home. By strengthening the connection of social studies learning to literacy events both in school and in homes, teachers can extend the learning beyond the school walls and assist in the building of capable citizens in the future within our diverse world.


Parental Involvement

ìThe single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.î4 A review of 35 studies concerning parental involvement and reading found that childrenís achievements were increased through parental interaction.5 Reading to children and listening to them read for ten minutes a day made a positive difference in childrenís reading. Parental role modeling improved childrenís reading, and the more help children received at home, the higher the reading achievements were.6 Reading performances were substantially increased for inner-city school students when parents provided extra reading instruction at home.7 Combine this result with the parental involvement factor, and the chances for childrenís increased success in reading are greatly enhanced.

Getting parents involved sometimes takes some work. ìEffective parental involvement, especially of ëat-riskí children, is one of the most challenging educational practices to implement and sustain successfully.î8 Several principles seem critical to the success of parental involvement programs. Teachers should make the instructional activity (that parents and children do together) ìsimple, brief, easy to implement, and consistent from one day to the next.î9 The instructional activity should be enjoyable for parents and children and it can be implemented in an informal and interactive manner (guided both by parents and children). One way to help parents take part in their childrenís reading progress is through the use of book bags.


Book Bags

Book bags are containers that children take home from school that hold a book or two and one or more activities that children can do with their parents or with a ìreading buddy.î Book bags provide a means for parents to read aloud, or listen to their children read, or both, and then do a related activity that has been designed by the teacher to support or guide the literacy experience. These guided experiences are based upon skills or content that mirror classroom learning.

A critical aspect of using take-home books is the involvement of another person in the home environment. Reading partners may be parents, but in many cases they may be grandparents, older siblings, neighbors, babysitters, caregivers, or mentors (like Big Brothers). On one case, a fifth grader did not have an adult who was free to read with him at home. The boy’s mother worked in the evenings. After observing a positive interaction between the boy and the school janitor, the teacher paired the two together for an after-school book bag activity. They enjoyed the experience so much that it continued throughout the school year. Another example was provided by a grandmother who relished the opportunity to pick her granddaughter up from school on Wednesday afternoons for a “girls’ night out.” The two generations bonded by having supper together at a local restaurant and then working on the book bag activity for that week. One divorced dad used the book bag activity to provide the means and reason for him to maintain his relationship with his child. The father only saw his son once a month and was often uncomfortable starting the conversation or finding things to do together. The third grader was having difficulty in school, so his teacher (knowing the situation) sent a special book bag home with the young boy especially designed for a father and son. It was just what the pair needed and became the driving force for continued visitations.

A major concern for those starting a book bag program is the cost. Teachers are often challenged to run a classroom on a shoestring budget. Commercially produced take-home book/activity packets tend to be expensive. Many teachers are seeking creative ways to financially support their programs through local, state, or federal grants and funding projects, but this calls for additional writing and time. Selecting the literature and developing the activities also takes considerable time. Teachers may not have the luxury of writing and waiting for grant funding. Our suggestion is to jump in with both feet and build your own book bags on a ìknapsack budget.î Grants are great, but donít wait for them.


Getting Started

Our first recommendation is not to get overly ambitious and try to develop thirty bags overnight. You will get overwhelmed! When one of the authors first began using book bags she made just one, and then took a great deal of time introducing the activity to the class, making sure to explain its importance. The book bag first went home with just one student, the class ìstudent of the week.î It was loaned on Monday and returned by Thursday, completed and ready to share with the class. This sharing became a hybrid version of ìshow and tell,î giving students a chance to work on oral communication skills while uplifting their work. The Thursday due date allowed the teacher time on the weekend to replenish any supplies. By the end of the year, every student had a chance to take the activity home and share the results with the class. Each summer the teacher continued to build her collection of ìbagsî until she accumulated enough so that every student could check one out on Monday and return it on Thursday. Books were rotated throughout the year. Sharing became less important and the home-school connection more valuable as the number of bags increased.


Choosing Literature

The goal in selecting books ìis to provide books that will initiate positive parent-child interactions and meet varied parent-child needs.î10 Take into account the abilities and interests of your students, and consider what themes you are studying during the school year to give students additional experiences with the topics in social studies. Ask other teachers, get recommendations from students (this yearís students may have favorite books that will lead to wonderful additions for next year), give parents an opportunity to make suggestions, talk to your librarian or media specialist, and look at the book club reviews. For younger children, one or more picture books or ìeasy readersî may be used for a book bag. For older students, chapter books can be easily adapted using only one chapter or a section of a piece of literature. You will find that partners often read the entire book together because of the initial interest; so select dynamic passages or chapters to read together. Be careful not to ìrequireî too much reading, however. It can overwhelm the team and squelch the process before it begins.

Books donated by civic organizations or vendors may help offset costs for teachers. Using bonus points from book clubs can also help. In our community, families are encouraged to give books to the classrooms or school library instead of sending birthday treats or holiday gifts. One teacher put up a bulletin board with the title ìTreasures We Would Search Forî following a social studies unit on Treasures. The students and teacher decorated paper chests with a desired treasure written on the inside. The teacher had placed book titles under several hoping to arouse the studentsí interest in reading additional books on the theme. She was amazed when she received all of the books on the bulletin board following parent/teacher conferences.


Developing the Activity

A book bag activity should be fun for both reading buddies; if it is not, teachers will find the activities will not be completed. An activity that is ìtoo much like homeworkî will detract from the goal of getting parents and children involved. Activities need to be challenging enough to be interesting, but simple enough for parents and children to accomplish. Consider a variety of experiences such as cooking, writing, drawing, drama, discussing, cutting and pasting, singing, and interviewing. We encourage educators to incorporate experiences that address multiple intelligences or learning styles.11

Begin your book bag program with a letter to parents introducing the idea of book bag activities, telling how the bags will be organized and used, and describing the importance and value to their student, his or her family, and your class.

In a book bag, parents and children will find an informational letter (with clear directions and a list of what should be returned in the bag) and a comment page for partners to fill out. Laminate the letter if you can, for repeated use.


Putting it All Together

A book bag does not necessarily need to be a ìbag.î It can be any container that is easy to obtain, inexpensive, and (possibly) meaningful to the story. A popcorn tub with a handle from a movie theater fits nicely with the Popcorn Book by Tomie dePaolo. An old lunch box relates to There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback. Containers may be donated from local businesses or discovered at professional conferences. Large discount stores will often give away damaged or returned items such as backpacks, craft baskets, pails, etc. One local wholesale company for beauty shop products sends over 100 plastic totes (manufactures shipping containers) in various sizes, shapes, and colors to schools in our area. Finding free containers is relatively easy if teachers and parents are on the lookout.

Inside a book bag, one should find: the book or text to be read, a letter to parents/reading buddies (which includes the directions for the activity and an inventory list of the contents of the bag), all supplies needed to complete the activity, and a response page for students and reading partners to write on. Include all the supplies in the bag; never assume that parents can provide the appropriate materials.

Develop a response page for parents and students to sign and fill out. We found this page gave parents a way to share their opinions and suggestions, to record their childís literacy development, and to help them be accountable.

The sign-out policy for the book bags can be similar to a simple library book tracking system. Children can sign out the bag and sign it back in, noting the date of each event. Parent volunteers or aides can take an active roll in scheduling and/or replenishing supplies. The end results are stronger connections between home and school as parents or others work with children, and increased literacy/learning through parental support.


Seven Examples

We have developed the following book bags on our knapsack budget and invite you to use or modify these and/or create your own. All of the book bags begin with reading buddies sharing the literature aloud and together with discussions about the text during the reading. The parent letters should emphasize the ìtogethernessî of the activities. Response pages should be easily completed, and we encourage you to have a place for both reading buddies to sign.


Me on the Map

by Joan Sweeney

Subject: Geography. This book introduces mapping skills by placing a child on a series of maps in a progressive manner through the story.

Bag: Small backpack with travel decals.

Contents: The book, maps (city, county, state, and country), drawing paper, and crayons.

Activity: Reading buddies use the maps to locate a place the student has visited, write down the x and y coordinates of that spot on the map, and then talk about what the student did at that place. They draw a picture of the place and write a descriptive caption. For example, they might draw a picture of the student on vacation, or visiting the city library or sports arena. On the back, the partners draw a simplified map. Ultimately, the teacher can bind the maps and illustrations together to form a class travel log.


Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

by Deborah Hopkinson

Subjects: Sociology, anthropology, and history. This story describes how an African American slave created a quilt which included, within the pattern, a map to help other slaves find their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Bag: Pillowcase with a map drawn on it with permanent markers and closed with a belt or rope to resemble a knapsack.

Contents: The book, two square pieces of fabric or white construction paper, and permanent markers or fabric crayons.

Activity: After the story, partners discuss a time in their lives when they helped someone else. Each person can create a quilt block about their experience that will be added to a class quilt at school. (An easy way to do this without sewing is to punch two holes in each corner of a block, overlap the blocks, and tie together with yarn). Adding a journal entry describing their experiences to accompany the quilt blocks is a great support activity.


The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush

by Tomie dePaola

Subjects: Anthropology, sociology, and history. In this book, Little Gopher, a Native American boy, learns that he has special talents that are important to his tribe as he documents tribal life for future generations.

Bag: Drawstring mesh potato or citrus fruit bag.

Contents: The book, water-based paints, paintbrushes, crumpled-up brown paper, items from nature (seeds, grass, leaves, sticks, stone, etc.)

Activity: A student, with the help of the reading buddy, identifies a special talent or quality that he or she possesses. This can be any positive trait, such as: good listener, cares for her pet cat, loves to dance, helps other kids, throws a baseball well, or helps with the cooking. The partners create a stone, bark, or buckskin (brown paper) painting similar to those done by Little Gopher to share with the class.



by Kevin Henkes

Subjects: Sociology and civics. Chrysanthemum, a little mouse, learns to cope with other children who make fun of her name.

Bag: Plastic water sprinkling can (with wide top opening)

Contents: The book, chrysanthemum seeds (optional), construction paper, magazines, glue, and markers.

Activity: Partners create acrostic poems or statements using the letters of their names, such as (for ìMaryî), Many/ Apples/ Ripen/ Yellow. Younger students cut out the letters of their names, glue them to the construction paper, and attach a picture (clipped from a magazine) of an object that begins with each corresponding letter. Older students write their own descriptive acrostic poems using the letters of their names to highlight their own special features. For fun, partners could plant the seeds and grow Chrysanthemums.


Train To Somewhere

by Eve Bunting

Subjects: History, geography, and sociology. This story is about the ìorphan trainsî that ran from New York to the Midwest as part of a social program that aimed to place boys and girls in caring, adopted homes from the mid-1850s to the early 1900s.

Bag: Small overnight suitcase or bag.

Contents: The book, and only the parent letter and response sheet.


Activity: Reading partners decide what they would take on a journey to a new home and family if they were orphans on the “train to somewhere” and could take only one suitcase. Pack the suitcase with “all the worldly possessions you can fit into the suitcase” and bring it to school to share. Younger children can describe why items were selected; older students could label the items for a display.


From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

by E. L. Konigsburg

Subjects: Economics, history, and geography. The story of two children who run away from home to live in a New York City museum.

Bag: Coffee can with belt fastened around it to form a carrying strap (if you feel ambitious ó decorate the can to look like a bank where Jamie might have saved his money.)

Contents: The book, summary of Chapters 1 & 2, partners should read Chapter 3 together (or partners can read all three chapters together), ìMy Daily Expensesî tiny book model and direction page, paper.

Activity: Each partner makes a little book and decorates the cover with ìMy Daily Expenses.î Label each page beginning with Monday (on the back of the cover page) and continue through Sunday. Write down all your expenses for each day: cost of meals, treats, entertainment, and transportation. Calculate a total for each day and a grand total for the week. How do the partnersí expenses compare to each other, and how did they compare to Claudia and Jamieís?


Thurgood Marshall: Supreme Court Justice

by Garnet Nelson Jackson

Subjects: Civics, history, and sociology. This book describes the life of Thurgood Marshall and illustrates how experiences of his early years played a significant role in shaping his later life.

Bag: An old briefcase.

Contents: The book, construction paper, markers.

Activity: Partners identify an issue where there is
disagreement between the student and parent (for example, bedtime, allowance, time watching television or playing video games, and chores). A T-chart is created in which each partner states his or her case by listing his or her arguments. The issue should be clearly stated at the top of the chart. Students will affix their list on the left side of the chart and parents on the right. When the book bag is returned to school the chart can be shared and discussed with the entire class.



1. Jesus Garcia and John Michaelis, Social Studies For Children: A Guide To Basic Instruction (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2001).

2. Richard Anderson and others, ìBecoming A Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading,î (Washington, DC: The National Institute of Education, 1985).

3. Patricia Davis-Kennedy, The Effectiveness Of Parental Involvement On Reading Achievement, (1996) ED398561.

4. Irene Fountas, and Gay Su Pinnell, Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996).

5. Becky Miller, ìParental Involvement Effects Reading Achievement of First, Second, and Third Graders,î (1986) ED279997.

6. Jon Nebor, ìParental Influence and Involvement on Reading Achievement,î (1986) ED286150.

7. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards For Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS) 1994.

8. Donald Richgels and Linda Wold, ìLiteracy on the Road: Backpacking Partnerships Between School and Home,î The Reading Teacher 52, 1 (1998): 18-28.

9. Timothy Rasinski, ìFast Start: A Parental Involvement Reading Program for Primary Grade Students,î (1994) ED378544

10. Annette Shuck, ìParents Encourage Pupils (PEP): An Inner-City Parent Involvement Reading Project,î (1983) EJ274251.

11. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).


Childrenís Literature Cited

Bunting, Eve. Train To Somewhere. New York: Scholastic, 1996.

dePaola, Tomie. The Legend of The Indian Paintbrush. New York: Putnam, 1988.

-----. The Popcorn Book. New York: Scholastic, 1978.

Henkes, Kevin. Chrysanthemum. New York: Scholastic, 1991.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Sweet Clara and The Freedom Quilt. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Jackson, Garnet. Thurgood Marshall: Supreme Court Justice. Columbus, OH: Modern Curriculum Press, 1994.

Konigsburg, E. L. From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Dell, 1967

Numeroff, Laura. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Sweeney, Joan J. Me on the Map. New York: Crown, 1996.

Taback, Simms. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. New York: Scholastic, 1997.


Cynthia K. Wilson, John M Hail, and Beth Hurst are associate professors in the School of Teacher Education at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.