Kindergarten Research Project

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

061Yes, we have to do a research project in kindergarten!

Like it or not, the Common Core State Standards clearly require this work. For one standard, students must “participate in shared research and writing projects.” Another states: students must “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.” And a third requires that, with guidance, students “gather information from provided sources to answer a question.”

Talk about stress—students who are just learning to read and write, who have to do research and write a report. It’s a challenge for everyone involved.

So last year we approached this differently than in the past, and ended up loving it.

Finding Animals

We began by choosing a handful of animals living at the Detroit Zoo. We pulled books from the library and magazines like Ranger Rick, and created easy-reader nonfiction books about these animals. We had these available in the classroom.

leopard_amur_01We also looked for kid-appropriate videos and zoos that had viewing cameras on the animals. The San Diego Zoo, for example, has a lot of great animal cams.

We started off the unit talking about the three things animals need to survive: food, water, and shelter. We had a deck of cards, with each card listing one of the needs to survive. Students took turns pulling three cards. If they didn’t have one of each need, they sat down. If they received one of each, they were able to get back in line for another turn.

When more than half the class was sitting down, we started discussing what they noticed. We then led the conversation toward the students’ understanding that animals need food, water, and shelter to survive. This segued into a discussion about endangered animals as compared to extinct ones.

Thinking Like Scientists

The next lesson focused on scientists. We talked about how scientists would do research and what they might need or want to know. The class came up with these questions and then it was game on!

  • What does the animal look like?
  • Where does the animal live (habitat)?
  • What does the animal eat?
  • What are some interesting facts?

As a class, we were researching an animal to practice how to find the information. The students also split into small groups and chose an animal.

Before we started our research, we wrote on a chart page what we already knew, or thought we knew, about our chosen animal. Then each day we chose one of the driving questions to focus on. As a class, we found the answer for our class animal, and then the groups split off and went to work.

Some groups wanted to watch the videos, while others hunted through the books. They had a packet to complete together with the information they found.

The culmination of this research project was my favorite part. The students had to create a model of the animal, its habitat, and food source. We encouraged them to incorporate the interesting facts they learned, too, and instructed them to label items. When they were completed, we recorded a video of each group showing us what they created and answering our driving questions. Students were so excited to share what they had completed, and they were so proud of themselves.

We celebrated a wonderful learning unit by going to the Detroit Zoo and teaching our chaperones about the animals we studied. Needless to say, the parents were impressed!

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She recently became part of the Walled Lake Teacher Leader Fellowship. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

The Grammar Ambush, Part 2

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_196198283Three months ago, I wrote about being ambushed by a neighbor at a Halloween party. She wanted me—an English teacher—to answer for what she believed to be horrific shortcomings in grammar instruction at the local middle school. The incident left me inspired to rethink my own grammar instruction. I even put “figure out grammar mess” on my to-do list for the Thanksgiving break.

Spoiler alert: grammar instruction is still a bit of a mess in my classroom. But, three months later, I’m in a much different place with my understanding of grammar instruction and my goals for it.  

I ended my last post committing to trying grammar mini-lessons. So December 1, we took off. I took some sample sentences from students’ essays that had problematic punctuation, and I started class with a quick punctuation lesson. We practiced, we did exit slips, and I started keeping a little chart of who was getting it and who needed extra practice.

I was feeling pretty smug about the whole thing until I collected their next essays.  Same mistakes. They had applied exactly nothing to their own writing. Luckily, that depressing revelation coincided nicely with winter break, so I had some time to regroup and come up with a new strategy.

Not Just Rules

Over winter break, I did some more digging online and stumbled across this excellent blog post, which helped me rethink how I was framing grammar instruction for my students. Writer and teacher Allison Marchetti explains that Most students would say that grammar is a set of rules, so we have to work hard to undo this restrictive thinking and help them see grammar as a series of possibilities rather than limitations. 

My wheels started spinning. It’s not just “most students” who think of grammar as rules—I think of it as rules, too. I’d never really thought of grammar as a possibility. I see writing as a series of possibilities, but grammar? I had been thinking of them as two separate things.

41tKTfGYXdL._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_Next, I read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing. I found a passage that took this idea of possibilities even further. She quotes an article by writer Philip Pullman in which he explains that we must teach students to be playful with language. Weaver agrees and suggests that we “rediscover this playfulness, this attitude that language and grammar are to be played with, toyed with, bent, expanded, crafted, enjoyed.” Her book digs into the nitty-gritty of parts of speech and uses all of the terminology that I remember drilling back in seventh grade English. By the third chapter I was knee deep in adjectival modifiers. My ambushing neighbor would be beside herself with joy.

But Weaver is quick to point out that it doesn’t really matter if kids can name or identify the tool they’re using. Yes! Agree! They can if they want to, or they can just play with the structures, experiment with language, and work on becoming more interesting, natural, confident writers.

Learning by Imitation

I’m starting to see a way forward, and this has become my new focus with grammar instruction. I’m not even using that term. Instead, we’re talking about craft and developing a confident, genuine voice. We’re talking about structuring sentences to give a little extra punch, or moving phrases to call attention to different ideas.

I’ve done this before as a writing teacher, but never with the frame of grammar in the back of my mind. I’m sprinkling in terms when they are appropriate, but using them as a way to explain how students can mimic a cool sentence they find in a piece of writing.

Last week, we read a piece by pop-culture writer Chuck Klosterman and examined the moves he makes as a writer. He’s an incredibly funny, inventive, and natural writer, so it worked well as a mentor text. We mimicked some, we practiced a little, and then I asked them to apply it to their writing. It was a tiny little lesson, but I’m already seeing results—certainly more results than my ill-fated punctuation mini-lessons.

I need to do more, and I want to be a little more systematic in my approach. I still have lots to think about:

  • Which craft moves do I introduce to my students?
  • How do I frame those within the context of grammar?
  • How do I continue to weave it into our writing workshop so that it feels connected and relevant?
  • How and when do I unleash this playful grammar on my tenth graders? My AP students are my willing, eager guinea pigs; my tenth graders will be a harder sell.

I’ll keep plugging along, I’ll keep researching, and I’ll keep experimenting. I’d love to hear what works with your students or any suggestions you have for me. How do you help your students think about the moves they make as writers? Tweet me your suggestions @TeacherHattie and join me in learning more on Thursday, April 14, for Constance Weaver’s webinar about her book! Click here for details and to register.

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.

#nozeros and the Growth Mindset

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_125746187Research reveals that a score of zero, in a 100-point grading scale, is pretty difficult for a student to overcome. For example, if a student gained a zero for not having turned in work, he or she would have to turn in nine assignments, earning 100 points each, to overcome the impact of that zero score.

Many teachers just excuse the task, rather than assigning a zero for no work done. But this suggests that the tasks themselves are not valuable, and that the student should not have a grade that represents their learning.

To avoid the zero mark, teachers should take another approach: providing an additional opportunity for students to show their work.


To act on these ideas, I started a lunch routine called #nozeros. (The name came from a kid’s suggestion for a classroom assignment, and it helped to entice the kids to the event.)

Here’s how it works. When students don’t turn in an assignment in class like a monthly reading log, I give them a lunch pass with #nozeros written on it. This requires them to spend a lunch in my classroom.

At first, students came reluctantly when they were given these passes. They expected a punishment-type lunch with the teacher.

Instead, they came and realized that I just wanted to give them a score on their work, and that I would help them if they liked. They could also work alone if they prefered.

If, for example, the missed assignment is a reading log, students write a claim about something that happened in their book. This task shows me that students have read the book, and it takes about a minute to complete. Students can leave when they finish, though some choose to stay and hang out.

These lunches have become something fun, and as my husband, a self-described average student, observes, “It’s not that they don’t want to do the assignment or can’t do the assignment. It’s that they forgot at night or don’t want to do it at home. They love this option because it gets their work in.” For me, the lunches make sense because I get work and students get a viable alternative to show that work.

Now, I have no zeros in my grade book and a lunch routine of openness and growth with my students.

The Growth Mindset

This kind of routine is part of my conscious effort at establishing a growth mindset in my classroom. I want students to realize that they can do their best work—and that sometimes this takes multiple attempts.

amy 2

Exemplars of achievement levels

To help establish the growth mindset in my classroom this year, I also started modeling the work for my current students, and modeling work at all levels of achievement. All of my students’ work can be revised and resubmitted for feedback.

In addition to the #nozeros meetings, I opened my classroom at lunch time to offer kids one-on-one help if they desired.

One student, Matt, became a weekly participant, with a goal to increase his level of achievement on our weekly narrative writing piece. At these lunch sessions, we worked to increase the elaboration in his weekly story, and to grow his craft in areas like character creation, dialogue, passive voice, and modified structure. My descriptive feedback, which connected directly to his writing, allowed Matt to be successful.

As we continued to work on the assignment in class, I would gently encourage him to name the skills we worked on at lunch, and remind him to make use of them.

After several weeks, Matt, smiling, announced that he got a 4 (a mark of excellent achievement)—because he worked to get it. He wasn’t bragging, though, when he said this to our class. He was encouraging others to put in some work to grow their achievement. I smiled.

From these experiences, I’ve learned a few things as a teacher:

  1. Students are honest evaluators of their own work.
  2. Students will strive to meet expectations you set when they trust that you care about them and their work.
  3. Student can gain confidence through achievement on meaningful tasks.

It’s important to allow kids to do their best, even when the methods to achieve this may look different.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Authentic M-STEP Preparation

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

M-Step-Logo_473059_7Recently, I facilitated a webinar about preparing students for the ELA M-STEP. (You can access a recording, slides, and a handout online.) Preparing our students for the M-STEP, I believe, doesn’t have to be a tedious task, one that we scramble to find the time to do. Rather, it can be embedded into our daily practice, helping make it more authentic and more relevant for our students.

Before we can prepare our students, though, we need to prepare ourselves and have a clear understanding of the types of tasks students will be engaged in, and the skills they need to complete those tasks. To help in this work, sample-items sets for grades 3-8 are available on MDE’s website. This is a great resources for familiarizing both teachers and students with the task types and browser.

A careful analysis of the 7th grade sample-items set shows that students will be engaged in the following types of tasks:

    • Annotating
    • Choosing multiple options in multiple choice questions
    • Constructed response
    • Multipart questions (Part B contingent on Part A)
    • Writing samples, using information in the prompt
    • Editing a writing sample
    • Reading across texts
    • Choosing reliable sources and evidence

Many of the tasks above are different from the format of the MEAP test, so it’s very important that we take the time to carefully think about what students need to know and be able to do.

Sample 7th grade item

For example, in the 7th grade item to the left, students must be able to first distinguish between the content of the question and the directions. (You can click on the image to enlarge it.)

Notice that the item begins with directions to the students. Then there is some content that the students need to understand and use. Then, below that, there is the task. It is all in the same font and formatting, so students must learn to read carefully, to ensure they are not missing important information.

Practice Assessments

In addition to the sample-items sets, MDE has created a set of documents called the ELA Crosswalks. These documents were created to help teachers create classroom assessments that would be similar to those that students might see on the M-STEP, use the same kind of language as the M-STEP, and ensure that teachers are teaching and assessing particular standards.

ELA Crosswalks

The image to the right, also clickable, shows a claim, targets, and standards for reading. These have been created for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language.

Although there are now only performance tasks at 5th and 8th grade, it is worth preparing all students for different types of writing tasks of various lengths. Teachers College Writing and Reading Project has put together performance tasks for grades 3-8 that include readings, videos, writing prompts, and rubrics.  

While the first and best way to prepare for the M-STEP is through good instruction, we can help students do their best by ensuring that we understand what they will be asked to do, and help them develop ways to navigate various tasks.

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.


Mentor Texts: Reading Like Writers

Book Reviews Common Core Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_151419089Secondary teachers continue to switch from old units designed around novels, to new Common Core State Standards units focused on skills and genres. As they do so, an instructional method that can support this shift is the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.”

When a class reads like a writer, the teacher takes a descriptive approach, rather than a prescriptive approach, to instruction. It might help to think of this as an inquiry-based lesson. Instead of a teacher saying to her students, “Your essay must contain a thesis statement that sounds like this,” she might guide her students as they read another text, asking questions like, “When in this paragraph does this writer tell us what claim he’s making? How does he do it?”

It is clear that the secondary ELA world is catching on to this instructional method. It’s deeply rooted in our Common Core State Standards. Rather than requiring just the comprehension of texts, our anchor standards require students to analyze texts for word choice, structure, or “how purpose shapes the content and style of a text” (R.6). This analytical reading goes hand-in-hand with the descriptive approach taken when classes are reading like writers.

As our state makes the switch from ACT to SAT, the focus on analysis is even more apparent. The Teacher Implementation Guide produced by the College Board includes in its recommended instructional strategies the direction to “ask students to investigate the ways authors use word choice, structure, and other techniques….” Likewise, the new SAT essay does not simply ask that students be able to write their own persuasive essays; it requires that they analyze another writer’s argument.

A Book Focused on High School

It’s clear that this inquiry-based approach to reading and writing is profoundly important to secondary teachers. This is an enormous instructional shift for many teachers, especially for those in high schools. As they tackle new units and new assessments, they’ll need support. Some of our go-to mentors like Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson have been writing about this instructional method, but the vast majority of writing that’s been done around mentor texts has focused on elementary classes.

41dIMvzIynL._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_That’s why it’s so exciting to see the recent publication of Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. So many other great mentor-text resources have left secondary teachers like myself to adapt the work for my high school students. But this book is written by two teachers with a decidedly high-school lens.

As the authors put it in their introduction, “This book was written to help you understand the potential that writing with mentors has for your students.” The book starts with the writers’ understanding of the use of mentor texts. Throughout the subsequent chapters, the book transitions to students’ understanding, use, and ownership of mentor texts.

The first two chapters offer the most foundational support for high school teachers who are making the paradigm shift, from prescriptive instruction to reading like a writer. These early chapters outline the classroom essentials needed to foster this instructional approach. The authors describe creating conditions, space, and time for reading and writing, as well as the concept of choice.

The second chapter digs into how teachers should approach the planning and internalization of this method, or as the authors call it, “Developing a Mentor Text Habit of Mind.” This chapter offers concrete suggestions for the finding and building of mentor-text collections, as well as for storage, organization, and planning. It is essential reading for secondary teachers who are just starting to get their toes wet in this kind of analytical reading and writing.

A Book for Novices and Veterans

The subsequent chapters focus on how to use mentor texts throughout the writing process, from planning to publishing. Throughout the book, the authors include plenty of resources to support teachers at all levels of understanding. Included in these resources are examples of texts that the authors have used as mentors for various genres and purposes. These texts are explained throughout the chapters and again collected in an appendix, complete with URLs and QR codes for quick access.

I’ve only had this book since its publication this fall, but with all of my highlighting, markings in the margins, and sticky notes, it’s already looking pretty well loved. It seems like every time I turn around, I’m recommending it to someone new.

That’s because whether you’re a teacher who has been using mentor texts for years, or one who is just starting to grapple with the new units and standards, this book offers valuable support for a trusted instructional approach, one that’s guaranteed to help our students grow as analytical readers and writers.


Gallagher, K. (2011). Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Portland: Stenhouse.

Gallagher, K. (2014). Making the Most of Mentor Texts. ASCD , 28-33.

Marchetti, A., & O’Dell, R. (2015). Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) 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.

A Great Graphic Novel to Engage Students

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

nimonaThe world can be separated into two groups—those who read graphic novels and those who don’t. Many adults still struggle with the value of a graphic novel. They wonder: Isn’t a graphic novel just a glorified comic book? How literary can a book full of pictures be?

Those of us who read and enjoy graphic novels know the truth—a good graphic novel can provide a reader with just as much literary merit as any other book. And when it comes to engaging reluctant or challenged readers, the possibilities inherent in a strong graphic novel only continue to grow.

So how does one target the good graphic novels? Follow a book blogger who reads them, of course! I just finished a fantastic graphic novel that has been nominated and/or won numerous awards (see Book Details below), and was even on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, amongst a cohort of standard prose novels. Read on to find out what makes Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson, so wonderful!

The Plot

Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain. He has been one ever since he was kicked out of the The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, after being betrayed by his childhood friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. They are now sworn enemies.

When snarky, shape-shifting Nimona shows up to become his evil sidekick, Blackheart is unenthusiastic. He does not now nor has he ever needed a sidekick. But Nimona proves to be rather useful, turning into ferocious beasts when they are faced with danger, or masquerading as an innocent child when they are working undercover. He may have to keep her around after all.

To Blackheart’s great surprise, the open book he thinks he has found in Nimona has a mysterious past, the kind of legend that may be her downfall. Will they be able to overcome these new obstacles together?

​Why It’s Worth Reading

Graphic novels can cover so much ground and come in so many different packages. It is instantly clear that one reason to read Nimona is the artwork. Beautiful, full-color illustrations accompany the story from start to finish.

But the story itself should not be overlooked. What starts off reading as an obvious hero-vs.-villain comic book, complete with fight scenes and crazy weapons, becomes a more humorous and complex tale with every page. Nimona’s attitude and hilarious dialogue set her apart as a character to remember, and the conclusion is surprisingly heart warming, despite both Blackheart’s and Nimona’s attempts to stay disconnected and distant from the other characters.

Not to be too practical here, but if fantastic images and an exciting, yet touching, story aren’t enough, there’s also the time factor involved in reading a graphic novel. Though you can spend as much time as you’d like pouring over the art as well as the text, reading a story propelled by pictures is never going to take as long as one driven strictly by text. You might be able to make it through a graphic novel in less than half the time it would take you to read a prose novel. Plus, some interesting studies show that your brain will access this kind of story in a completely different way as a result of the visual component.

If you’ve been thinking about trying out a graphic novel, grab a copy of this one. It’s a fast, exciting, even slightly moving way to dip your toes into the graphic novel pool.

​Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 3.1, Lexile = GN350L
ISBN: 9780062278234
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Awards: Tons! Long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Web Comic, Harvey Award for Best Online Comics Work, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Digital/Web Comic, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Graphic Novels & Comics.

pic of me Bethany 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.


Finding a Balance with State Testing

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_334073204As I write this, January is nearly over and we are starting to hear a little buzz about our state’s standardized testing. This buzz will likely turn to a loud roar as we get closer to April. In many districts, this testing is like a heavy weight that sits on the shoulders of students and teachers alike. Though I am blessed to work in a district that does not pressure us at all, I too feel the weight.

This year I am working on a webinar for Oakland Schools about Elementary M-STEP (our test), and it has caused me to think deeply about all of this: testing/not testing, prepping/not prepping, and my responsibilities as a teacher to my district and to my students.

First and foremost, I am here for my students. I need to provide the best education for them in ways that meet their needs as a diverse group of learners. I have a wealth of resources at my disposal, and I feel generally well equipped for the task at hand. I am able to teach my students about reading and writing in ways that push them to think deeply about text, and that move them to better understanding.

All of that comes first. Then I look at the test.

Here’s what I don’t do: I don’t consistently have my students read long passages of text online, where they have to scroll and scroll and scroll to complete it. I don’t have them read and answer questions by choosing the correct bubble. I don’t have them answer questions from screen to screen that connect to each other.

But maybe I should.

Why? It’s simply not fair to teach my students how to read and respond to text in long passages, but to never teach them how to read online and answer questions that are inferential. It’s not fair to give them copies of articles that they can read and highlight, along with graphic organizers to help them create a piece of writing, and then throw them into a test where they read everything online, and where they have a blank piece of paper to use in whatever way makes sense to them.

The teacher in me says I need to offer the best instruction for my students. But the teacher in me also says I need to give them exposure before test day to the format they will experience.

Prepping for the Format

shutterstock_142403371A colleague got me thinking about metaphors for all of this. The one that comes to mind for me is that we need to get students’ feet in the water, to ease them in before we throw them in alone and ask them to swim.

So, this year I will keep teaching our units of study and engaging my students in rich text. We will continue to have great conversations and write about our understanding and thinking.

But we will also go online and read and write. We will experience formats that are new and different.

On test day my students might not know everything, but when they look at the format, they will think, “Oh, I know about this. I can do this.” That’s the mindset that will unlock their best thinking.

To view the recent M-STEP Test Prep Webinar that Beth facilitated and to access the resources she shared, click here.

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. 

Read. Read. READ!

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

JunkyardWondersjcktA few months ago, after soliciting ideas on social media, I selected The Junkard Wonders, by Michigan author/illustrator Patricia Polacco, as the Official Book of the Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016. The story compels readers to realize that no matter their ability, they are geniuses.

The message of The Junkyard Wonders is that we ought to seek out our genius, nurture it through hard work, and use our genius to contribute to the betterment of others and the world. We all belong, and we all have something to contribute to our communities, the book suggests.

This is a message that everyone needs to hear constantly. But no group needs to hear this idea more than our children—especially in the form of stories, read out loud.

As humans, our brains are hardwired for stories. We tune in naturally to the familiar architecture of a story arc, with its problems, solutions, characters, and settings. Joseph Campbell writes about the Hero’s Journey as a global story archetype, one that is common to all cultures around the globe. Our stories have always helped us not only to communicate, but to make sense of our world and realize our place in it. By reading aloud, we share these stories, and in doing so we create community.

People have also known for years that stories develop children’s vocabulary, improve their ability to learn to read, and—perhaps most important—foster a lifelong love of books and reading.

Associating Reading with Pleasure

main-centermastThe ability to develop a passionate reading life is crucial, according to Jim Trelease, author of the best-selling The Read-Aloud Handbook. “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain,” he writes in the Handbook. “You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”

This reading “commercial” is critical when competition for a child’s attention is so fierce. Between television, movies, the Internet, video games, and myriad after-school activities, the pleasures of sitting down with a book are often overlooked. In addition, negative experiences with reading—whether frustrations in learning to read or tedious “drill and kill” school assignments—can further turn children off from reading.

A child who does not have a healthy reading habit may suffer long-term consequences. As Trelease succinctly puts it, “Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much, cannot get better at it.”

This is a relatively simple idea, and comes down to the importance of building a habit. Additionally, reading aloud is, according to the landmark 1985 report Becoming a Nation of Readers, “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”

Excitement in the Classroom

rick j-1

Auburn Elementary students after a read-aloud of The Junkyard Wonders

Recently, I read The Junkyard Wonders aloud to 5th graders at Deerfield and Auburn Elementary Schools, in the Avondale School District. The kids were enthralled with the story and connected easily with Polacco’s message of optimism, hope, and perseverance against all odds.

The next day, in an unrelated visit to Auburn, I stopped in the same classroom. What was most remarkable was that as soon as I entered, I was swarmed with kids who were thrusting their books in my face.

“Mr. Joe, have you read The Crossover?” came an inquiry from an eager 5th grade boy.

“I’m reading El Deafo. Have you read this book?” spat another.

“Look what I’m reading: Wonder. I love this book. Have you read it?” another asked.

I was flabbergasted that a read-aloud from the day before, to complete strangers, had created this instant reader-to-reader bond. I was reminded of out-loud reading’s intense power to stimulate a desire in the listener to grab a book and read more.

I felt part of a community of readers who talk about the stories they’ve read, try to make sense of them, and connect them to their own lives. Kids were so hungry to share their books with me. And they were hungry to communicate their excitement about stories—and to urge me to read, read, READ!

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

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.