Graphic Novels Not Called “Maus”

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_215485291A real conversation, repeated yearly:

“I really wish we could find a way to reach these struggling readers.”

“You know what might work really well? Graphic novels.” (That’s me, in a very hopeful tone.)

“Oh, good idea—we have all those copies of Maus!”

“Well, yeah…” (That’s me again, giving up the gun, so to speak.)

I’ve previously argued that being too tied to the classics alienates a lot of our fledgling readers. But in some ways, the tunnel vision about worthy graphic novels is an extension of that classics-oriented mindset.

Maus is a tragic, intelligent, powerful story told with heart-tugging visuals. Teachers who use it in their classrooms are rightly proud. They are exploring an important fictional work, in a historical context that students should understand deeply. At the same time, they are teaching students about a new genre of literature that most of them otherwise might never be exposed to.

But Maus is also heavy and sort of depressing. It’s a book that demands stone-faced seriousness.

That’s all to say, Maus’s visual nature doesn’t necessarily make it an appealing alternative to a traditional novel.

A Successful Experiment

After years of mumbling about graphic novels at department meetings, I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is. A few weeks ago I brought into class my collection of Flight graphic novels, my copy of Batman: The Long Halloween, and the award-winning Concrete graphic novel.

On the first day, a girl forgot her Kindle at home and asked to borrow the Batman book. “I just need something for today,” she said insistently.

She conveniently forgot her Kindle for the rest of the week and finished the book.

A couple days later, a student in my 6th hour selected the same graphic novel, tore through it in two days (graphic novels are quick reads), and then exchanged it for Concrete, which he took home and finished in a single night. In both cases, I ended up enjoying extensive conversations with the kids about literature. An English teacher’s dream, if ever there was one!

Graphic Novels as Success Stories

The best part of this experiment, though, has been the reaction from my co-departmental class. These are students who collectively read at around a 4th-grade level.

Mark (name changed) was the first student to borrow the Batman novel. Mark is a well-intentioned reader who would spend his entire 15 minutes of independent reading time slogging through perhaps three pages of a traditional novel. He would then chat with me afterward, mostly to check his understanding of the strange scientific concepts that inhabit Michael Crichton’s works.

shutterstock_274167122It was inspiring and tragic to watch him try to tackle a book that matched his interests, but which was simply beating him down in terms of comprehension. I wasn’t about to tell him to quit; he’d come too far for me to do that to him.

Turned out, I didn’t have to. Batman saved him, and suddenly our conversations were two-way streets. He’d confidently tell me about the story elements that he loved, instead of asking whether he had the details right. He has since moved on to his second Flight story collection and chats with me practically every other day about the pleasures in them.

And it’s a good thing he moved on to another graphic novel, because the moment he set down Batman, his friend Daniel (name also changed) picked it up and plowed through it. Daniel had been reading the third book in the A Child Called It series, which seems like too much heavy-handed literature for any reader to take on before graduating high school. But Daniel has embraced the graphic novel format, and it’s gratifying for both of us to experience his actually turning pages when he reads.

Start Simple

My personal collection clearly isn’t going to meet the demand. And so I plan to apply for a grant for graphic novels to add to my classroom collection. But if you’re only curious to try this out, start simple. Besides the titles I mentioned above, there are countless great titles in the genre. Persepolis and American Born Chinese are both fantastic reads featuring minority voices.

More mature readers might even appreciate the political complexities of Alan Moore’s cult-classics Watchmen and V for Vendetta. They pair just as well with Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 as they do with an ice cold Coke and a bag of potato chips. In other words, hand your students some graphic novels and see what it leads them to!

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.  

Routines, Goals, and Risks for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

AARI LogoNow that I’ve covered the elements of a strong learning community, I want to delve deeper into some of the practical strategies you might use when building a community in AARI, the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, which brings students quickly to grade level. The students you have in your class might start out afraid and guarded. And so it’s appropriate to look closer at routines, protocols, goal setting, and risk taking.

Use Routines and Protocols to Promote Community

Consider teaching your students ways in which to talk to each other. I learned the 7 Norms of Collaborative Work from an Oakland Schools consultant (Jen Davidson), and I have used them with teachers and students alike. You could start small, with just the first three, and challenge your students to pause, paraphrase, and pose questions. You will probably have to adjust the language for students and use a “sounds like”/ “looks like” approach to show students how to carry these out.

Use thinking routines. Consider using some of these routines to check in with students each month, or at the start or end of your books.

Set Goals and Share them to Encourage Community

Try posing some questions for students. What has been a struggle for you in reading? What do you hope to get out of this class?

Develop shared goals. These include improving nonfiction reading through inferential questions and text mapping.

Don’t forget to revisit these goals throughout the year. Also, post them in a place that students will look at every day (like their work folder or a bulletin board). If your students are tech savvy, you could have them tweet their goals or use some other platform to share the goals and be held accountable.

Take Risks as Readers and Be a Vulnerable Teacher

Draw on your previous struggles. Youshutterstock_117860992 (2) are probably not a struggling reader. But you probably have struggled with learning something new or tackling something difficult. You could try something new, or bring in your graduate school work and explain what is difficult for you–anything to show that improvement takes time, practice, and strategies to succeed.

Give students an initial success. In order for students to take risks in reading, they have to feel comfortable. For this reason, I often started my teaching in AARI with a much lower-level book, so students can experience some initial success in the class and become experts at the texts’ structures.

Try a new book, one you’ve never taught before. (You can always borrow a set of AARI books from the Oakland Schools Library.) If you are new to AARI, don’t be afraid to tell students the areas in which you are struggling. Being vulnerable goes a long way with struggling readers.

All of these areas, when used to help students soften and open up, lead to strong communities. You are setting up your students for success when they have a group they can turn to for support and growth.

Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.

Shared Experiences for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_183163214Even if your group of struggling readers is blossoming, it’s important to consider how your community can continue to grow and thrive. That’s especially true for classrooms organized around the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, which brings students quickly to grade level.

Several steps can help build a set of shared experiences, which in turn can enhance your classroom’s community:

Promote a book-club atmosphere. First and foremost, remember that by reading a book together, you have shared an experience together. When you question and ultimately critique the author with your students, you are empowering your students within a book-club community.

Use extension activities to excite students. Challenge students to find YouTube videos that relate to your book’s topic, and that you can watch in the last few minutes of class. Nothing builds community like watching documentary science videos of scary eight-legged creatures if you are reading A Look at Spiders. Just remember not to get carried away, and always bring students back to the text.

Take to the open road with a field trip. Field trips can be expensive, and if you have a small group of students, they may not be realistic. But don’t rule them out! Maybe your district has access to a ropes course. You could head off to a local bookstore. Or maybe you could go to the local retirement community or elementary school, in order to read aloud the books you have gone through. Anything that builds bonds and positions students for success can be beneficial.

Institute a game day. Sometimes being silly together is just the experience needed to solidify a community. Here are some of my favorite board games to play with students. And remember to actually play with your students!

shutterstock_184237007Break bread together. One Friday a month, my classes would have what came to be known as “Food Fridays.” It usually started with my bringing in some snacks (think Costco/Sam’s Club granola bars or crackers). Some years, it took on a life of its own. Students would initiate elaborate sign-up sheets, and they would bake brownies and frost cupcakes. Other years, the kids were just happy to have a little something to eat while we worked.

Consider sports. Maybe instead of food, bond over sports. One year, we had a monthly “Fun Friday,” in which I would take students to the auxiliary gym for the last 20 minutes of class, and we would shoot hoops.

Check out some community-building websites. There are a bunch listed on the AARI Moodle. But if you don’t think the activity is fun, don’t do it! Building community is about building authentic relationships with students—so if you aren’t willing to participate, pick something else.

Repeat and revisit fun times together. Try returning to favorite activities or games throughout the year. This maintains your bonds and steps away from the hard academic work you will be accomplishing together.

You, the teacher, are the reason a community is created! Don’t forget this. Know that it takes work to maintain a community. Know that you have to become a part of that community. Some days you might plan to do an activity unrelated to AARI; other days, your community building will be embedded in your questions or text mapping.

Regardless, community building is not something to do only once in the fall, only to check it off a to-do list. It is an ongoing, ever-evolving process that needs adequate attention in your daily lesson planning throughout the year.


Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.

The Grammar Ambush

Notes from the Classroom Research & Theory

shutterstock_201882445It happens to my husband all the time. He is a police officer, and it is rare that he can make it through a party without someone asking him how to get out of a recent ticket. It almost always starts the same way.

“Oh, you’re a police officer? Well, let me ask you this . . .”

I’ve seen it happen so many times that I should have realized when it was happening to me at the neighborhood Halloween party.

“Oh, you’re an English teacher? Well, let me ask you this. When is my son going to start learning grammar? This is ridiculous. The garbage they’re sending home from his school is unbelievable! He doesn’t even know parts of speech!”

I quickly scanned the room for exits. It was a Friday night. I was exhausted. I really didn’t want to try to defend the English curriculum of a school where I don’t teach, in a class taught by a teacher I don’t know. However, this was my well-meaning neighbor who is really just a concerned parent, and who wants to make sure her child is prepared to be a good writer. And besides—for all I knew, some poor teacher from another district was defending my curriculum at a Halloween party in Novi.

I did my best to explain the concept of teaching grammar in context. I talked about all the research that shows kids don’t retain much when we teach them abstract terms and expect them to memorize constructions outside of their own writing. Then I tried to push the conversation toward reading. I explained that her son should be reading, reading, and then reading some more so that he can see what good writing looks like.

I’m still thinking about the conversation. Many parents want to see the traditional type of grammar instruction that they grew up with. And who can blame them? They did it that way and they turned out just fine. They’re concerned that their kids aren’t going to know how to communicate professionally.

Teaching Grammar in Context

Unfortunately, the problem with isolated grammar instruction is that it doesn’t work. Research since 1960 has shown us that “relatively few students learn grammar well, fewer retain it, and still fewer transfer the grammar they have learned to improving or editing their writing.”

So what do we do instead? Thumb through some teaching books or do a quick Google search, and you’ll find “mini-lessons” hailed as answers. Start writing workshops with quick bursts of targeted instruction, the lessons say.

But that’s tough. If I want to teach my kids a quick lesson about correctly punctuating clauses, they first need to know what clauses are. They need to know what subjects and verbs are, and they need to know what conjunctions are—both coordinating and subordinating. Say any of those terms in a tenth-grade classroom only if you’re into watching eyes glaze over. I’m not into glazed-over eyes, so my grammar mini-lessons have always been haphazard at best.

shutterstock_302927471After Thanksgiving, my AP Language students and my ELA 10 students are starting new writing assignments. Now is the time, I think, to deliberately use grammar mini-lessons.

I’ll use their independent novels for samples of grammar in context. I will also hold them accountable to show me they can write with these grammatical concepts in mind.

And, I can’t forget about the other part of this grammar issue: communication. The Halloween ambush reminded me that I am not doing a good job of communicating the message to my students or parents. I need to be explicit about the expectations I have for my students’ grammar, and I need to let their parents know that grammar instruction is a valued, consistent part of my curriculum.

My students’ next major writing assignments will be submitted and graded by the end of December. Look for part two of this experiment in explicit grammar instruction. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Everything’s an Argument, Right?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

argument definitionWe hear it all the time: ELA is frustrating and maybe an easier subject, because “there’s no right answer.” It’s all argument and evidence. Math and science, on the other hand . . . they’re objective. Who can argue 2+2, or that the sun is 93 million miles away?

I recently said this to a group of ELA teachers, in a conversation about the best ways to teach argumentative writing. I suggested that we have an advantage because of this. All ELA classrooms come with a built-in culture of argument, right?

Nope, apparently not.

My colleagues informed me that, in fact, a culture of argument is not inherent to ELA classrooms, and it might be really rare. 

So how does this kind of culture develop?

Teacher-Centric Cultures and Norms

This is a hard question to answer, because for the most part culture is invisible. It’s in the background.

Yet, part of the answer for me came last summer, when I attended the Oakland Writing Project’s Summer Institute. At the institute, our focus was on creating a culturally responsive classroom. I learned a lot about how the majority culture, which I took for granted, might have been giving different messages to my students who didn’t share my status. 

My status is as a teacher and a member of the majority-white, male, straight, middle-class culture. This sets me up to be tone deaf. I assume that my cultural values take precedence, always; that my unconscious is my students’ as well. But it’s not, and if I’m not aware of that, I stifle voices. I stifle argument.

As their teacher, I set standards, rubrics, and grades. I am the sole arbitrator of what’s a valid argument and what’s not. Despite my attempts to avoid being their only audience—check out the Tumblr Experiment—they still look to me as their teacher, and that can kill a culture of argument.

So what do I do to foster a culture of argument?

Creating a Culture of Argument

First thing I’ll advocate is getting off the stage. It’s a real ego massage to stand in front of an audience and have them write what I say. But I’m starting to see that as a barrier to a culture of argument.

shutterstock_223920001My colleagues and I have been using the Harkness method for a couple of years, and we’re beginning to see it pay dividends. Some of our colleagues in other disciplines are trying it now. The hardest part about the technique, they’re learning, is shutting up and resisting the urge to steer the conversation. Though students still look for affirmation–as soon as I weigh in or nod, that’s the end of argumentation. My status trumps their argument. It’s something I then have to undo and tell them that I am not their audience.

I’m also looking for different argumentative writing assessments. Many of us have pointed out that the five-paragraph model isn’t of much use beyond those classrooms where it’s valued. Sure, it has its uses. But maybe it’s time to open up the conversation about the supremacy of the literary essay.

As a teacher, this is hard. I’m very comfortable grading essays. I also wonder whether I’m doing my students a disservice—by setting them up to think that the culture we value is valued in other classrooms.

I live in abject fear of the graduate who comes back and tells me that she’s struggling in college, since I didn’t stress the three-part, evolving thesis. I don’t want to let students down.

But I’m making a bet that the larger culture beyond my classroom, beyond all classrooms, will value strong argument over status. I might be wrong, and so I’ll end this by opening up the question: What do you do to to create a culture of argument?

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Power = Powerful Writing

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hWhen I began blogging with my 5th graders a few years ago, it was only to participate in the Two Writing Teachers “slice of life” challenge, which encourages writers to describe real experiences. My goal was for my students to put their best writing forward and to make some connections
with an outside audience.

I began at the beginning, so to speak. We started blogging on the first day of school last year and continued all year long. I used the blog as a portfolio of writing progress, and I was able to give blogging homework, which enabled me to teach more responsively and to easily create strategy groups as needed.

Through this experience (and the experience of trying to edit 50 blogs each night), I shifted my mindset and my understanding of blogging’s purpose. The one thing I hadn’t done, I realized, was really turn my students loose with their blogs.

Until this year.

A Revelation

I gave my students this freedom on the first full day of school. For that first day, I booked the technology (ipad carts) and we dug in. Of course, one session is never enough to get a post completed in the beginning of the year, so I booked the carts for a second day.

There were several students who were finished on day one, so I paused the class and went out on a limb. I told them, “This is your blog space. You may do whatever kind of writing you wish in it, within school guidelines.”

There was a quiet pause while this sank in.

“Can we write fiction stories?” someone asked. “What about fantasy?”

“Poetry?” another student asked.

shutterstock_275856317When I said “yes” to all, a new excitement filled the room. Soon students were busily typing stories that were mostly fiction, a genre our writing curriculum doesn’t touch in 5th grade. As they wrote, I was struck by something: They had passion and excitement for writing. The length of the writing alone was impressive, but there were paragraphs and dialogue! Students wanted to know if they could end with an ellipsis and “to be continued.” They were excited to write in this way and to read the writing of their classmates. I’d found gold.

Maintaining Momentum

Right now we are riding the wave of this new freedom; having the power to write anything, at will, has unleashed some powerful writing from my students. Sometimes the quietest voice in the room resonates loudly in a blog. Students are literally looking at each other and saying,”Wow, you wrote that?”

So now my challenge is to maintain this level of enthusiasm while weaving in the “must do’s” of curriculum. I’m not quite sure how to do this yet. I do know that having an authentic audience is critical to the process, so I’ll be reaching out to make connections with another classroom soon.

In the meantime, I think that I’ll go back to the source: my students. If I can continue to tap their interests and give them freedom, who knows what power will be unleashed?

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

The Next Hunger Games?

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

testingWhen teens go crazy for a book or a book series, it’s a school librarian’s dream come true. But with the success of one series, next comes the pressure of finding something similar to keep the reading momentum going. For the last few years, I’ve been chasing The Hunger Games and Divergent, digging through dystopian lit in search of the next epic YA page-turner. Well, dystopian fans and those who love them: look no further than The Testing series, by Joelle Charbonneau.

The Plot (Book One, No Spoilers)

Malencia (Cia) Vale is thrilled to learn that she has been chosen for The Testing, the rigorous process that candidates endure to qualify for the one remaining University. She has longed to follow in her father’s footsteps, and to leave her small, quiet Five Lakes Colony to see Tosu City, as well as the wider world that an education from The University can bring. But as she leaves, her father warns her to be extremely cautious. The Testing and the people who run it are not always as they seem. When the extreme and potentially dangerous Testing process begins, Cia sees that the stakes are much higher than she thought–and that her father might have been trying to protect her from hidden evil.

The Answer to Your “Hunger Games problem”

shutterstock_145222582The Testing series has many similarities to both The Hunger Games and Divergent. Yet it is different enough to hold even a reluctant reader’s interest.

Readers will find a similarly powerful female protagonist, one with a specialized set of skills that makes her particularly exceptional in her new environment. Governmental corruption and conspiracy drive the action to continually new heights. Readers experience plot twists that drive the story at moments that otherwise would be routine. Hints of romance bloom between Cia and her old Five Lakes friend, Tomas, but never distract from the primary story. The books have similarly high levels of violence as The Hunger Games. The book covers even bear some resemblance to their dystopian predecessors.

With this series, teachers and parents will once again find their students reading for fun and asking for books as gifts. And with the film rights optioned by Paramount, the odds of seeing this trilogy become a movie series are high. I’ve field-tested the series with the students at my high school, and it has been a huge success. All of my copies are currently flying through the 9th grade at rapid speed.

Book Details

Interest Level: Grades 7-12 (violence is prevalent, making it questionable for younger readers)
Reading Level: Accelerated Reader 5.6; Lexile 830L
ISBN: 9780547959108
Format: hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
Awards: YALSA Quick Pick Top Ten 2014, Anthony Award 2014

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School. 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.