How to Build Active Readers

Notes from the Classroom

Recently I was teaching a demonstration lesson at Oakland University. I brought one of my students, Brandon (a pseudonym), who was among the lowest readers at the beginning of first grade. He had been in an intervention group all year with his first grade teacher and an additional group with me. Now in the spring, we were working one on one, as he still had not yet met grade-level standards.

Brandon was right in the middle of reading a familiar text, The Clever Penguins, by Beverly Randell, when he suddenly stopped and said, “Wait, I think that the seal ate a lot of penguins. Do you know why? Look at his fat belly! And look.” He jabbed his finger repeatedly at an illustration. “I think he just kind of let her get away.”

At the time I was pleased that he was thinking so deeply about the story he was reading. However, I had no idea what my peers were thinking about Brandon’s responses to the text. Several came up during our break and inquired.

“How did he learn to talk that way about books?” someone asked me.

“Wow,” another said.  “How did you get him to search and use evidence from text to support his thoughts? This is an intervention student!”

Their questions made me pause. Just how did I help Brandon and my other intervention students think that they should be asking questions every time they read?

Steps to Take

In the classic How to Read a Bookauthors Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren remind us that as readers, it is our responsibility to be active and awake. That means it is our job to ask and answer questions while we read.

It is also the reader’s job to understand the structure of the text and to take notes in the margins. Additionally, it is not sufficient to read a text just once. We must reread it, and consider how it may link to other texts that we are reading.

So, how did Brandon learn to be an awake, active reader at the age of seven?

When working with intervention students, it is critical to build up their background knowledge of a variety of text types, literary structures, and vocabulary, and to do so using rigorous but engaging picture books in an interactive reading format.

A few steps to remember:

  • It’s paramount to intentionally teach conversation moves that help students grow their thinking about books; this should be done in a community of learners.
  • It’s also important to read and reread, in order to find evidence in the text to support one’s thinking.
  • Students move into reading their own books in a guided reading format, using leveled texts.
  • During one-on-one conferences, the teacher assists students to transfer their learning from the read-aloud setting to their own reading.
  • Along with learning word-solving skills, meaning now becomes an equally important tool that enables students to accelerate their literacy progress.

Bringing It All Together

So if asked again, “Why did Brandon approach the reading of what seems like a simple text with his questions and deep thoughts?” my answer would be:

  • If you include quality literature with opportunities for students to build their background knowledge, including selections linked to the classroom units of study, then students can connect the dots to see how their learning links up and can be used between intervention and classrooms–which indicates transfer of learning has taken place.
  • You will soon hear your students talk the way Brandon did, every time they read.
  • And you just might also hear, “I LOVE this book! Can I take this one home? Do you have any more like this one?”

My school year is complete, as many of my students are now engaged, active, grade-level readers.

Lynn and her co-presenter Christine Miller will be presenting on the topic “Intentional Teaching = Accelerated Learning” at the Oakland Schools Effective Practices Conference, on June 20 at Bloomfield Hills High School.

Lynn Mangold Newmyer has been an educator for 42 years. She is a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader and an Elementary Literacy Coach in the Walled Lake Consolidated School district. Lynn has presented at state, national, and international conferences and has taught graduate classes at Oakland University. She currently teaches her students at Loon Lake Elementary. Lynn emphatically believes that you can never own too many picture books. You can follow her on Twitter at @LynnRdgtch.

Filling in Context Gaps

Notes from the Classroom

The other day, my eight year old was brimming with questions about the Revolutionary War. As I went through each, I found myself using vocabulary that he needed me to explain, like alliance–after which he quickly said, “Oh, I get it! My buddy is my alliance on the playground.”

My son is lucky that I majored in history in college. Yet, as teachers, we need to recognize that many of our kids do not have these experiences when they’re young. This opportunity gap explains why some students arrive to high school prepared to grapple with text complexity, while others continually struggle.

The Common Core State Standards state that ninth graders must be able to “[c]ite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1). This ability to infer depends greatly on the student’s prior knowledge.

So how do we play ten years of catch-up in four years of high school?

Teach Kids to be Resourceful

As an academic interventionist, I’ve learned that many students who struggle to understand the course content are also struggling to read the textbook.

Many students simply read the text without paying any mind to the accompanying images, graphs, charts, and summary boxes. In Text and Lessons for Content Area Reading, by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke, the authors explain that reading is easier when “the text makes ample use of pictures, charts, and other visual and text features that support and add meaning.”

When I work with underperforming students, I first show them how to use these features. I show them how to preview the text, by modeling an image walk, observing headings and bolded words, and reading the end-of-the-chapter summary before actually beginning the reading. This helps build context for students who may be unfamiliar with the content.

Create a Collaborative Culture

Context in any subject area often begins informally through conversation. Creating a classroom based on discussion, then, effectively engages struggling learners by giving them an entry point. When I taught English 9, I incorporated frequent, low-stakes discussion opportunities. When students discuss content, they make their thinking visible, and teachers see what gaps need to be filled.

Early on in the school year, I introduced my students to the “think-pair-share” protocol. My students could anticipate and prepare to verbally discuss ideas, and soon this routine was normalized.

Some teachers may feel hesitant to put an underperforming reader on the spot, but there are ways to scaffold discussion:

  • I often had students spend a few moments writing down their ideas on paper before sharing with a partner.
  • I arranged my room in either pairs or quads, so that turning and talking was natural.
  • My students also needed processing time, in which they could ask questions and grapple with the content.

Authentic context is built upon multiple sources–not merely upon the teacher quickly rattling through facts. Having this time to discuss with peers and think aloud was important for resistant readers.

Model Strategic Reading

This year, I have worked closely with U.S. History students to engage with the content. Many of them tell me things like, “I can read this, but I don’t get it” or “I just can’t pay attention.”

I began to notice a difference in how my students were performing on tests when I taught them how to text code. This strategy, also from Daniels and Steineke, instructs students to label details of the text with symbols, engaging in an abbreviated reader response. Daniels and Steineke offer a general list of text codes that students can use to monitor comprehension, and I adapted this strategy to text code for content-specific details.

I worked with U.S. History students studying America’s entry into the first World War, for instance, and helped them develop the text codes (N and DW) shown here:

chart
As students went through the text, they used these codes, and categorized the actions leading up to the U.S. entry into WWI.

Text coding provides students with a framework, which is especially important for those who lack prior knowledge. It also serves as a scaffold to show students which details matter, helping them to pay better attention to the text and prepare them to annotate independently.

Moving Forward

Teachers can’t turn back time. But they can establish routines and norms that create growth for underperforming readers.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for students who lack contextual knowledge. Still, by teaching students to read strategically and collaboratively with others, we include–rather than exclude–developing readers in the secondary classroom.

lauren nizolLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.

Star-Crossed Lovers for a Modern World

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

sun is also a starStar-crossed lovers . . .  by the time that nearly every high school student reads Romeo and Juliet, the battle between love and tremendous odds has become one of the most common motifs in all forms of the media they consume.

Songwriters pen lyrics about trying to make love work–in opposition to fierce outside forces. Countless movies and television shows depict relationships blossoming, and sometimes subsequently wilting, as friends, family, and even pets put forth major resistance.

But the world of literature is the big kahuna for complicated romance, and YA literature has a corner on the market. It is only fitting that young people make the best star-crossed lovers (even Shakespeare thought so), since their relationships are under more scrutiny and supervision than those of most adults.

I’ve read some truly excellent YA novels that have come out in the last few years, and are about conflicted or ill-fated romance (Eleanor & Park, Like No OtherDaughter of Smoke & Bone). But The Sun is Also a Star tops my list. (I’m not alone; see Awards & Accolades in the Book Details section of this post).

The Plot

The day that Natasha and Daniel meet is one that is already slated to change both of their lives.

Daniel is headed to his Yale admission interview. If it goes well, he’s headed to Connecticut to become a doctor, just like his parents have always wanted.

Natasha’s family is being deported to Jamaica–tonight. She’s hoping to meet with a lawyer to figure out a way to stay. They are in the middle of major moments in their lives, but when they meet, they both have entirely new reasons for staying in New York. Do they dare disturb the universe and its plan already in progress? Or is being together part of the plan?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There are a lot of sappy teen romances out there. This isn’t one of them.

The Sun is Also a Star is a clever, sincere, hilarious–yet poignant–story about two young people who don’t have time or space in their lives for each other. But they just cannot help themselves. They come from completely different cultures and have completely different life philosophies. No one would ever put them together, and some are actively trying to keep them apart. But the universe has other plans.

As an adult, I appreciated that while this is a teen romance of the sweeping-off-the-feet variety, this relationship is not one dimensional. Their lives continue when they are apart. Their problems do not simply disappear because they have fallen in love. This is love in the real world: consuming, but complex.

If the story itself were not enough, author Nicola Yoon also includes chapters that depart from the narrative, and which function as informative asides. This adds tremendous depth and oft-needed background to the plot.

One of these asides, for example, might focus on a minor character with whom Natasha interacts for only a few minutes, giving history and explanations about how their momentary interaction has a lasting impact. Later in the story, after the reader learns that Daniel’s South Korean parents own a black-hair-care store, one of these chapters briefly but compellingly explains the fascinating history of the South Korean hair trade, which led to nearly all black-hair-care shops in New York being owned by immigrants from South Korea.

There is a reason that this novel made seemingly all of the “best of” lists in 2016, and was a finalist in multiple award categories, including the John Steptoe New Talent Award (a sub-category of the Coretta Scott King Award) and National Book Award. As YA star-crossed lover novels go, it’s hard to beat.

Book Details:
Title: 
The Sun is Also a Star
Author: Nicola Yoon
Reading Level: AR = 4.7, Lexile = HL650L
ISBN: 9780553496680
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: November 1, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 Printz Award finalist, 2017 John Steptoe Award for New Talent, 2016 National Book Award finalist and at least five starred reviews!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Selling Reading to Kids Who Hate It

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_307383305Strong words, right? Whenever I see the words hate and reading this close together, my skin crawls.

And yet, I have known many students who have resisted reading with a vengeance. But instead of throwing my hands up, I learned how to strategically market books to students who fought the process.

Give Books Street Cred

“Wait-wait. He read this? He read a book?”

This was a student’s response when I book-talked Boy 21, by Matthew Quick, to him. I ended my spiel saying how much his friend and fellow “non-reader” liked it.

The student was shocked that a.) his friend had read a book and b.) he had actually liked it. That conversation did more for the student than my simply telling him that Boy 21 was one of my favorite books from that summer. Of course I love books. I’m the English teacher. But a resistant reader, reading the book while he was home sick–instead of watching Netflix?

Books need street cred.

Talk a Lot About Books

More than ever, resistant readers need exposure to new books. They also need repeated invitations to read.

When I taught seniors, I made it my point to talk about a new book every day for the first unit. I wanted kids to see my genuine interest, engagement, and happiness that a book gave me. Even though some kids’ eyes glazed over, others were quietly taking note of my recommendations.

In fact, in his final reading reflection, one student described how my daily book talks unexpectedly piqued his interest. This student had struggled to find a book to hold his interest. Add this to frequent absences, and it was easy to view him as a disengaged student.

But by the middle of the semester, he ended up selecting Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to read. Talking freely about a wide range of books opened a door for membership into the reading community–for a student who did not see himself as a reader.

Let Them Hear Other Resistant Voices

Penny Kittle's interviews of high school students. Click to view on YouTube.

Penny Kittle’s interviews of high school students. Click to view the interviews on YouTube.

Every semester, I introduced independent reading to my classes using Penny Kittle’s interviews of resistant readers. Kittle’s interviews are raw, and students freely share their disdain for books.

At one point, a boy confesses to all the fake reading he had done over his schooling. Kittle follows it with simple empathy: “Has reading always been hard for you?”

I always loved watching kids react to this clip. First, it was interesting to watch many nod their heads when the student began talking about the fake reading he had done. But most of all, I noticed how freeing it was for students to watch another be vulnerable about his reading baggage. I would watch relief cross their faces as they realized that they are not alone in their vulnerability.

If I say reading is hard for me, kids don’t buy it. But if they hear others say so, it has a deep resonance. And then when they hear that same voice share a book they love: it’s magic.

Let Them Quit

The worst thing teachers can do for a resistant reader is force them to read a book they hate. The main reason kids tell me that they don’t read: “’cause it’s boring.” What they really mean is that they don’t like to read boring books.

When students quit, it is key to have another book waiting in the wings. Recently, I book-talked Twisted to a student who admitted he doesn’t read alongside his classmates at the daily read. One of my big selling points was that he could quit if he disliked it. We set a deal: if he read three chapters and disliked it, he could come back for another book. When he left, he assured me that he’d give it a try.

Kids who struggle to read often need to experience a book that makes them feel successful. Repeated invitations to read, exposure to a wide variety of books, and reading autonomy are empowering ways to position non-readers as readers.

lauren nizolLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.

Excellent Debut Fiction about Detroit

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

american streetWhat’s more fun than reading a book set in a place with which you are intimately familiar? To read about restaurants, buildings, and even street names that you know personally is a small thrill.

Reading a book set in Detroit, my closest “big city,” adds an additional layer of excitement. I’ve lived within half an hour of Detroit for my entire life. I attended graduate school there, and I visit frequently. I have a certain amount of suburban pride for all that the city has to offer–despite never having lived within city limits.

I recently read a fantastic debut YA novel called American Street, which is about a Haitian immigrant who settles in Detroit. It offered recognizable street names and locations that connect me to the city, while showcasing the realities of a daily life that I have never actually experienced.

The Plot

Fabiola and her mother have been planning to leave Haiti for years. But when they finally make the trip, her mother is detained at the U.S. border.

Fabiola is forced to navigate her way to Detroit, and to live with family she has only known over the phone. Her aunt is mysterious and often ill, disappearing into her room for days at a time. Her cousins are legendary. Known around their school as the 3Bs, they strike fear into the hearts of anyone who crosses them.

Fabiola feels most at home with this side of her family, but she also fails to understand the complicated world in which they live. She wants to stay in the U.S. But she also misses Haiti and her mother, about whom no one else seems to share her concern. She’s living at the crossroads of Joy Road and American Street, and she has reached the crossroads in her life as well. Where does she belong?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Fabiola is a sympathetic character, and it’s so easy to relate to her consistent inner conflict. She wants to connect with her family and make new friends, but she can’t help but feel like she’s on the outside, looking in. As a reader, one’s own circumstances may be different, but everyone certainly knows the feeling of being pulled between two strong forces.

Plus, Fabiola opens up the city of Detroit in an entirely new way. She sees it through the eyes of strangers, navigating places familiar to me, but foreign to her. Her perspective of the city is fascinating. While she recognizes that it has many flaws, she draws direct comparisons to her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an area which has also seen some struggles and setbacks. Author Ibi Zoboi, through Fabiola, is able to assess the community very matter-of-factly, without melodramatic judgment or the overwhelming historical perspective (a fall from greatness, or rejuvenation after that fall) that is often represented in books about Detroit.

And I have not even mentioned the incredible writing! The language is poetic. Hints of magical realism in the plot evoke a mystical mood. And tons of beautiful metaphors, most particularly with the street intersection of American and Joy, make it clear that this book is something special.

Book Details:
Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
ISBN: 9780062473042
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Awards and Accolades: five starred reviews before release!
Source: Advanced Reader’s Copy (full disclosure: I received a free galley in exchange for my honest opinion)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

When to Pull Back Writing Support

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_426591961James was spread out on one of the counters, with all his papers and materials circling his laptop. He smiled as I approached.

“So I heard you are starting over,” I said.

“Yeah. I found stronger evidence for this prompt,” James said. (The student’s name has been changed for the sake of this post.)

“That’s really thoughtful of you. Great writing move!”

We talked through his planning ideas and how he was going to use his evidence, and he shared with me some specific examples of how in his bioethics essay he would defend the use of GMOs.

After we were ready to wrap up our conference, I remarked, “You know, I don’t think you really are going to need our support much this semester.”

Moving Beyond Support

As an MTSS interventionist, it can be challenging to know when a writer is ready to move past support. This year, I was hired by my district to coordinate academic interventions for students whose data reveal that they have a skills deficit. In particular, I work closely with Tier Two and Tier Three students to develop content literacy skills. I began working with James a month into the school year, coordinating support in his U.S. History class, then his Biology class.

With James, I observed his growing independence when he showed me that he was thinking carefully about his writing. When writers are given opportunity to talk about their writing, it allows for us to assess what they need most to move forward. And since I only see my students periodically for support in and out of their classes, it’s these conversations that drive everything I do to support a developing writer.

So what do I look for most in a writer when I am deciding to pull back support? Intentional thought and active engagement. Does it mean that students won’t need an occasional conference to lead them to clearer drafts or prompt them to consider new ideas? Absolutely not. But when writers can explain their process, explain their thinking, and explain why their choices matter, it’s time to let go. The best writing lessons are born out of risk, and students won’t take those risks if they are waiting for our stamp of approval.

Letting go can be scary, but it need not be abrupt. Building an instructional practice around dialogue allows for gradual reduction of support. Conversation is vital because it helps teachers to identify what kind of support an underperforming writer still needs. Moreover, conversation sniffs out a mismatch between perception and skill, leading the way to targeted feedback and more.

Intentional Positioning

When I told him he didn’t need me, James looked surprised.

“Really?”

A big smile stretched across his face, followed by his quickly agreeing. James knew he was ready too, but he needed an affirmation.

Years ago when I first began working with resistant and underperforming writers, I came across a theory on positioning. Positioning theory supports the idea that social interactions create identities, and these identities are fluid. As a result, educators have the power to reposition a student’s identity in negative or positive ways.

When I sat down with James to conference about his biology paper, I saw how his posture changed the moment I remarked that he wouldn’t be needing my support much longer. Our conversation revealed to James that there was a mismatch between how he felt as a writer and his actual skill level. Changing a student’s perception about himself alone can raise achievement in an underperforming student, and intentional positioning is the final and arguably most important phase of the intervention process. Students have to accept the good we see in them.

The final proof that James was ready to move beyond my support occurred when James’ English teacher told me how she watched him independently and proficiently compose a response to Fahrenheit 451. When I told James that his teacher had positive feedback on his writing, he proceeded to tell me his thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, his assigned novel for English 9. We had a brief but rich conversation about Montag’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, and just how timely the classic dystopian novel is for 2017. Here, giving his voice value positioned James to fully take on the behaviors of a strong reader and writer.

Without prompting, James was independently making meaning and composing on his own. He knew enough to quit an essay that didn’t yield compelling evidence. His genuine responses about a complex text reflected his growth and development as a reader and writer.

And our conversation made clear that it was time for me to let go. So I did.

laurenLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters from Eastern Michigan University in English Education. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  

Historical Fiction—Hot off the Press

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

51UN6ZK2TYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_-1I love historical fiction. Strangely, the reason I seem to love it most is that I find it humbling in two ways.

First, the characters of historical fiction are almost always experiencing horrendous events or struggling against impossible odds that I have never had to face. Second, though I consider myself to be reasonably well versed in U.S. and world history, historical fiction routinely smacks me in the face with some historical event, time period, or consequence that I somehow completely missed. How, before I read Orphan Traindid I never know about the organized movement of thousands of young children into middle America during the Great Depression?

And how was I naively unaware of the largest maritime disaster in history before I read Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Salt to the Sea?

The Plot

This brand-new piece of historical fiction follows four narrators during World War II: three teenage Prussian (now the area containing countries like Latvia and Lithuania) refugees and one young German sailor. Each carries a troubling secret that he or she has never told anyone. The three refugees meet on the road, each coming from a very different background and set of circumstances. They are all headed for the Baltic Sea, hoping to escape an encroaching Russian army by boarding a German ship headed toward relative safety. Unfortunately, it seems that safety does not always come as advertised.

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is so much to this book and its characters that make it fascinating and exciting. But it is also a well-researched fictional account of what may have occurred leading up to and during the worst maritime disaster in history. We’re talking about nearly six times as many deaths as the Titanic, and yet I had never before heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff or its epic demise.

I initially picked up this book because I am a huge fan of the author, Michigan native Ruta Sepetys, and her works Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy. This book did not disappoint. I was immediately captured by the fascinating and mysterious cast of characters: a talented art restorationist mixed up in the Nazi art-thievery plot; a nurse-in-training who is compelled to step in as local doctor wherever she goes; a naive and self-important German boy, bound and determined to serve the Reich in any way that will garner praise. How can one not be drawn in by these varied tales that come together so seamlessly?

The fast, short chapters, which each character tells in succession, added a sense of suspense and action that really kept me turning pages as well. I regularly hear from history teachers that they are always on the lookout for World War II novels that aren’t necessarily focused on the Holocaust, and this one is sure to be a hit, particularly because of its high-interest content but relatively low reading level. It’s a great classroom-connection novel and a fantastic find for historical fiction lovers everywhere!

Book Details

Reading Levels: AR = unknown , Lexile = HL560L
ISBN: 9780399160301
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Awards: None yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it received some eventually. It’s only been out for 3 weeks and it’s already got 4 starred reviews!
Source: NetGalley (I received an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

The Great Graphic Novel Project

Notes from the Classroom Research & Theory

51D+o50FXIL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_The Great Graphic Novel Experiment is in full swing in my classroom. In fact, it has become the focal point of my passions this year. I’ve been so vocal about it that my wife and kids actually bought me a couple graphic novels for my birthday. I’m “all in,” as Matt Damon says in the film Rounders.

But since we aren’t sitting across from each other at a poker table, I want you to be all in too. So today I’d like to offer you some pleasure reading—and some (less-pleasurable, I’d imagine) research reading—so that you can share a graphic-novel reading experience with your students, too.

More Than Heroes

The first step toward embracing graphic novels is to recognize that they have been broadly misrepresented in pop culture. Even my own previous article featured a superhero image to accompany it.

Most of the best graphic novels, though, are not about superheroes. While my students have been busy reading the selections I brought in from home, I’ve been busy racing through every graphic novel my media center owns, in order to find more titles to add to the list. I haven’t come across a superhero yet, but I have come across an incredibly beautiful story about high school relationships and the difficulties of family life (Blankets), a modern account of life in Iran (Zahra’s Paradise), and even a touching story about how young people deal with the horrifying transition to adulthood (This One Summer).

nimonaI could go on, but I think the broader point is more important: these are stories that will speak to any reader. I passed along two of the aforementioned titles to other people in my department, who sent back rave reviews—and then sent along new titles of their own! Nimona, a work of fantasy, and the graphic novelization of Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are now in my queue.

Imagine that, visual storytelling that appeals even to adults! I’ve found that to win people over to graphic novels, one needs to break them from the idea that graphic novels are inherently sophomoric—great until perhaps 9th grade, but then, really, not on par with “real” reading.

Aside from my low-level readers’ growing list of completed books, the most rewarding part of this experience has involved meaningful book talks with fellow teachers and other adults. You might be startled (as I was) to see how many graphic novels are authored by writers who have also penned more traditional works, from novels to screenplays (Neil Gaiman, anyone?).

The Cold Hard Facts

But, of course, if I’m going to ask you to dedicate your class’s attention to such an endeavor, I need more than an impassioned appeal. Lucky for me, the emerging field of research about graphic novels is robust. Besides being high in interest, most graphic novels also offer tangible benefits, especially for students still building their reading skills.

Meryl Jaffe, an instructor at Johns Hopkins University, claims that such novels are excellent for weak readers because they provide “concise text,” paired with images that help readers “decode and comprehend the text.” For a high school student who still reads at a 4th grade level, scaffolding that sort of success, while also providing a pleasurable reading experience, is something like discovering a mythological beast suddenly rendered into flesh!

UBB-MarathonbyBoazYakinAnd what’s more, other research hints that such visual reading may also maximize a reader’s ability to retain information. That might not seem like a key merit for pleasure reading. But consider how many graphic novels have been written about historical events and culturally relevant topics: Marathon, about the Greek tale of that famous run; Templar, about what became of that famous secret society; and Americus, about censorship in literature. They’re all fiction, but still dense with contextual facts that the research suggests students will retain.

It’s doubtful these texts will replace traditional instruction. But how enriching this is—for struggling students to discover that they are suddenly and significantly more informed about a real-world topic.

Some Resources

I’m hopeful that I’ve made the case for graphic novels as a new part of your recommendation list. If choice is your concern, recognize that there are dozens of resources out there to help you find what’s best for your kids. I’ve listed a few sites below that I found to have interesting selections, as well as additional resources that address the benefits of visual reading. Or email me! I’m happy to help you find a selection.

The resources:

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Book Review: Notice & Note

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51rafqDiIDL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Over the summer, I learned I would be teaching a class of struggling 6th grade readers. They would have me for regular ELA, but they would also travel together to a reading support class right after mine. I did not have experience teaching a class solely of struggling learners, so I reached out to a colleague on the west side of the state, Megan Perrault (@megankperreault), and asked her for recommendations about how I might approach this challenge.  

Megan is an amazing reading teacher, and she recommended Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst’s Notice & Note: Strategies of Close Reading. This book had been on my “to read” list and was quickly moved up in the queue based on Megan’s recommendation.

Notice & Note initially impressed me with the thoroughness with which Beers and Probst researched and tracked common elements within young adult novels. I also appreciated how they piloted and revised their work based on the experiences of real teachers in real classrooms.  

The premise of Notice & Note is this: the majority of YA novels have six common elements, which Beers and Probst call “signposts.” If students can notice and think about why these signposts are showing up, they are doing the work of close reading and are understanding the text better. Each signpost has one question that readers can ask themselves, to help them think deeply about why that particular signpost is showing up. This really helps to focus students’ thinking.  

The Signposts

In a nutshell, the signposts are as follows:

  • Contrasts & Contradictions—When the character does something out of character
  • Words of the Wiser—When an older, wiser character gives serious advice
  • Again & Again—Something that keeps showing up
  • Aha Moment—When the character suddenly realizes something
  • Memory Moment—When the story is interrupted to tell the reader a memory
  • Tough Questions—When the character asks himself/herself really difficult questions

I was originally planning to only introduce the signposts to my 6th grade class, but once I saw the power they held, I also began using them with my 8th grade readers. Both grade levels are engaged with the signposts and are thinking deeply about the texts they are reading. Maybe the best testament to the power of noticing the signposts is when students get that look of discovery on their face and call me over because they have noticed a signpost on their own.

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

After I had read Notice & Note, Megan and I were at professional development together, and she mentioned the Notice & Note Facebook group. Now, if you know me, you know I’m all about Twitter when it comes to anything related to teaching.

But this Facebook community is amazing! The group has a very active 8,600+ members, and I navigate the page often. As someone who is teaching the signposts for the first time, the resources on this page have been invaluable. Members have shared tons of files and their experiences with the signposts. And for each signpost, I have found either a picture book or video clip to help introduce the concept. These have been a big hit with students and have helped them understand the concepts prior to working with them in their novels.

Just this past fall, Beers and Probst published Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. Stay tuned for a review!

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.  She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things.  She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine Library Media Connection.

Making Reading Interventions Relevant

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163383446As a teacher who works with struggling readers, my favorite time of year is the end of the semester. It’s then that I assess students’ progress. When I give them their results, some can’t believe it. Some want to call their parents to share the good news. And some even cry. They all beam with pride.

What’s not to love?

The time of year that is a close second, though, is the just-past-halfway-point. Yes, I know that this is when students and teachers tend to count down toward the next break, with nothing but survival on their minds. But in the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, things are starting to get exciting.

AARI is a program that quickly brings struggling students up to grade level, using a variety of research-supported techniques. During the first few weeks of AARI, we learn a lot about an author’s purpose. We also learn how authors achieve their purposes through the organization of their texts. We focus heavily on text structures and “mapping” a text’s organization, which shows the relationships between facts and information.

It’s at this point in the year, this just-past-halfway-point, when my students start to recognize text structures in their books—on their own. I love this because it shows me that they’re ready for more. They’re ready to start transitioning to grade-level texts.

The Real-World Connection

There are other signs that they’re ready. Sometimes a student will burst into the room at the beginning of the period and exclaim, “You’ll never believe what we’re doing in Chemistry! The teacher gave us a chart, and he didn’t even realize it was a matrix!”

Seeing kids make these connections to their learning is what makes my work so vital. It’s why even as I’m launching the first weeks of the class, my focus is always on my endpoint: helping students use their intervention in relevant, real-world applications.Sequence Word Bank

This real-world focus starts early. Toward the beginning of the semester, we start talking about our text structures in the “real world.” I start this discussion by asking students what clues readers have in other, more difficult texts.

Together, we make anchor charts of “clue” words and phrases that writers use to signal that they are using a particular text structure to organize their thoughts. We post these in the room and add to them as we encounter more. Having these word banks arms students with tools to start recognizing text structures when the texts aren’t so easy.

Starting Small

Once students have these tools in their tool belt, I start introducing higher-level texts. They’re gaining proficiency, but they are still struggling readers, and they’re not ready for the full independence of working with long texts on their own.

So I start to give them a little taste: an appetizer, if you will. To do this and to make the reading relevant to them, I get my texts snippets from their content area textbooks.

I bring these “appetizers” in to class and “serve” them at the beginning of class as our warm-up. To scaffold their reading, I give them a focused purpose. They may have to answer a question about the author’s purpose, or they may have to identify a text structure. It helps them to see that their practice work with the easier texts is helping them to approach the more daunting texts they see in their classes all the time.

Lessons for ELA Classrooms

Finding this balance is crucial not only in intervention classes like AARI, but in all reading. We know our students have some pretty high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards and assessments like the redesigned SAT. Teachers want students to be able to access their texts, but they also know the value of exposing them to more challenging options. To help achieve this balance, I’ve found that these steps are key:

  • Arm students with tools to help them bridge the gap between accessible and challenging texts. Word banks are a great start.
  • Introduce more difficult texts slowly and in small chunks.
  • Gradually build to a combination of high-level, high-skill texts that require more stamina.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.