#DigiWriMo Slow Book Review: Reading the Visual

Someone, somewhere, in some space, mentioned Frank Sarafini’s book — Teaching the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy — and, well, if that was you, thank you. I had reserved it through our library system weeks ago, and it has just arrived … and right on time for November’s Digital Writing Month adventures, too.

I actually won’t do a full book review here. Instead, I have pulled out 30 quotes from Sarafini’s book that I will (try to) share one every day throughout November. Consider it a “slow book review” of sorts, where I hope my curating of Sarafini’s wonderful exploration of the changing world of writing and composition and the teaching of multimedia will inspire you, and me.

Us. Together.

We can get inspired, and what better month to do that and try our hand at digital writing, and share out our success and struggles and new understandings, than with Digital Writing Month, right?

Here is the first quote, which I will share out more widely tomorrow as DigiWriMo launches in my time zone (since we have all sorts of folks all over the world, Digital Writing Month posts may come earlier than it seems — or later than it appears — depending on your place in the world.)


Sarafini looks at not just the visual, as the title suggests, but also the various elements of multimodal compositions as a means to help teachers move this kind of literacy practice into their classroom in a meaningful and practical way.

I will be sharing the 30 Frank Quotes (I hope he doesn’t mind this informal name calling .. hey, I see he’s on Twitter, too. I will give him a shout out to join in DigiWriMo) via Twitter at the #Digiwrimo hashtag and in the DigiWriMo Google Community, and anywhere else I feel it might resonate. I will also be creating a collection over at Flickr.

Don’t just read the quotes. Live them. Teach them. Write them. And do yourself a favor: get Sarafini’s book. You’ll get inspired. Now I need to get my own copy and remove the sticky notes from the library version …

Peace (in the depth of digital writing),


Graphic Novel Review: El Deafo

Cece Bell’s graphic novel, El Deafo, is a powerful example of how the storytelling possibilities of a talented writer/illustrator working in a graphic form can create a powerful response from a reader. If every that was in doubt, read El Deafo.

Bell uses her own childhood loss of hearing, due to illness, as the hook to tell the rich story of identity and individuality, even as she brings the reader into the often-confusing world of growing up in an auditory world where you can’t hear everything that is going on around you.

As if childhood weren’t difficult enough …

But Bell never lets her character or us, the reader, wallow in any pity or disconnect for too long, as CeCe, the character, shows her pluck and fortitude, as my grandmother might say, to make friends, to help teachers understand her hearing impairment, and to navigate through the use of hearing aids and lip reading. CeCe is patient and understanding, and willing to go the extra mile to be accepted by others for who she is.

The moniker — El Deafo — refers to her exciting discovery that, as long as a teacher is wearing the microphone clip that sends signals to her hearing aids, she can hear “everything” that goes on (including times when the teacher uses the bathroom, bringing much humor to the book). Bell’s use of empty dialogue bubbles, or fading text, as well as even the animal-like characters that suggest Marc Brown’s Arthur series, are very effective here, on many levels.

Personally, I found the story even more interesting than usual, as I have a hearing-impaired student and I do wear a clipped-on microphone for part of the day. (I do take it off when I use the bathroom, just fyi). CeCe’s story had special resonance for me as I think about the world of my student, who does so well in the regular classroom and who only needs some supports to help him communicate with me and classmates (who speak into a microphone during class discussions.)

Bell brought me into the world of the hearing impaired in a way that none of the articles I have read nor none of the discussions I have had with hearing loss experts have been able to do. She humanized the experience, and in doing so, she made her character of CeCe a universal “kid” struggling to fit in while learning to accept and celebrate her differences.

Peace (in the graphic),

Book Review: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

Now, this is an interesting little book. If you just saw the cover —  with two cute animals in Indiana Jones-style gear examining a map on the wall by light of a torch — you might think it would be aimed at the elementary school age of readers, but you would be wrong.

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: Learn the Lost Art of Making Sense by Ali Almossawi (and illustrated by Alejandro Giraldo) is less a book led by graphics than a book supported by graphics, and it is packed with heavy philosophical thinking more attuned to high school or college. The illustrations support the text in a way that makes difficult ideas more accessible.

The focus on this topic is an intriguing one, particularly in this day and age of “Argument” writing and reading and analysis with the Common Core shifts. This small “picture book” is really a book about “logical reasoning” that looks at common errors of argument, deconstructing fallacies of making arguments along a continuum of thinking: from circular reasoning to appeal to irrelevant authority to the slippery slope to affirming the consequent.

Each single-page inquiry into bad arguments comes with a graphic and a caption and Almossawi notes in the preface that: “This book’s novelty also lies in its use of lively illustrations to describe some of the common errors in reasoning that plague a lot of our present discourse …. (the illustrations) are discrete scenes, connected only by style and theme, which better affords adaptability and re-use.” (page 3)

Even though much of the content was new to me (some of of it reverberated with a high school class I only vaguely remember and some of it reminded me of a workshop given by a Western Massachusetts Writing Project teacher on the art of debate), I was drawn in by the ways Almossawi explains these fallacies, and how the illustrations tell a story of the fallacy or connect to literature allusions in a single frame.

While I won’t likely be bringing much of this level of terminology into my classroom, I found the book gave me a more steady underpinning of the understanding of argument itself, and that knowledge should help with the teaching of argument to my sixth graders later this year.

It helps that we are in the year of the presidential elections, where arguments will be no doubt abound as will use of many of the “logical fallacies” outlined in this book.

I wonder how many Donald Trump has already broken? Genetic fallacy, anyone?

Peace (in the logical of the illogical),


Graphic Novel Review: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

My fifth grade son let the first book in Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales  that I brought home from the library sit around for a few weeks. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the historical perspective, or the dense pages of graphics and text. I thought the title alone — One Dead Spy — would draw him in.

Then, he picked it up and wouldn’t put it down.

Soon, we were ordering the second book from the library — Big Bad Ironclad — and now he is clamoring for more from writer/illustrator Nathan Hale (yes, that’s his name) who writes his graphic novels with Nathan Hale (the figure from history) in the lead role, trying to stave off his execution as a spy by weaving out stories of history. It’s more lighthearted than that seems, I realize, even though Hale (the writer) chooses some pretty, eh, interesting stories to tell (the Donner Party, the start of the Civil War, etc).

But, the stories from history are alive and enriched by Hale’s use of the graphic novel medium, effectively using history as the springboard for some fascinating storytelling. Each page is rich with humor and information, and packed with drawings. These are truly novels, in graphic form.

There’s also a cool Q/A with Hale about making comics.

And Hale has started making some videos about the making of the books, which are pretty nifty.

Peace (in the tales),

At Middleweb: Connected Reading with Connected Learners

Connected Reading review comic

Over at Middleweb, I reviewed a new book about “connected reading” by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks. They push our thinking about the ways that Connected Learning principles can take root with adolescent readers.

It is a thoughtful book that looks at classroom practice and the ways in which Turner and Hicks were doing the “connected reading” even as they were writing the book itself. (I am sucker for that kind of reflective writing)

Read the review of Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World 

The comic I share above was my way of putting connected reading practice into reality, as I mapped out how I came to review the book and then am asking readers at Middleweb to extend the conversation even further.

You can do the same.

Peace (in the read),

The Scent of Books and the Tangible Experience of Reading

I guess I have been more aware of the tangible nature of books lately, for whatever reason. It began with receiving The Marvels book by Brian Selznick and has kept in the back of my mind as I have been reading some Sheldon comic collections by Dave Kellett on my iPad with the Kindle app.

I’m noticing form and function as I read, and paying attention to the beauty with physical books, in contrast to the flexibility and accessibility of digital books. I’m no Luddite, of course. But I’ve never been an e-reader sort of person. I do use the Kindle app to read e-books when I need to, and appreciate some of its attributes of annotation and bookmarking. But it’s not my preferential reading experience, however. On airplane trips, I’d still rather lug around a huge novel than open up the app on my mobile device.

So, yesterday, when one of my students brought in a gift from parents — the new illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the entire class surrounded her in wonder at this beautiful book that has amazingly colorful illustrations. She said her mom pre-ordered it back in February, and she has been waiting (not really patiently) for it arrive. She was so excited, hugging the book as if she never wanted to let it go.

At one point, she opened the book up and put her nose right down into the spine. She closed her eyes as she inhaled deeply. We all watched her, curious.

“I love the smell of new books,” she said, smiling but sincere. “There’s something about that new book smell.”

A friend was standing next to her. This friend is another book lover whose father, I know, collects antique books. This friend nodded, in agreement to the comment, but then added an ancillary thought of her own.

“And the smell of old books, too. There’s something mysterious about the smell of old books,” she said, almost wistfully, as if she was imagining herself wandering through an old bookstore. I thought of my own childhood adventures in old book stores and in libraries, about the undiscovered stories and yes, the scent of those collections still linger in my memory.

I nodded in agreement to both of them. In the back of my mind, I thought: no e-book reader will never get a comment about the sense of smell like that and the way that sensory experience provides an emotional connection to a book. (Should I say “never” here? Who knows what sensory experiences they might build into the e-reader in the future? I should know better, perhaps and yet …)

There sure is something tangible and experiential about physical books — the ones with the covers and the paper pages. It’s the scent of a shared love of stories, of the ideas of writers, of other readers before you, of characters that move you and settings that draw you in. It’s the sense of magic about to unfold, and I still believe that the reader-to-book experience doesn’t quite cross the lines in the age of digital e-readers.

Peace (under and inside the pages),

PS — Ironically, Apple announced that is now has interactive Harry Potter e-books available (no doubt, part of some marketing effort connected to the release of the illustrated book). While I admit to being intrigued to what those might look like, I’d be more apt to shell out the cost for the hardcover illustrated Harry Potter that my student owns.

Book Review: The Marvels

Recently, I wrote of receiving The Marvels, the newest book by Brian Selznick, in the mail and being taken aback by its physical presence. It’s a beautiful book, with golden pages and an delightful cover. The book has the weight of words and drawings. I couldn’t wait to read it with my son.

I did, and I have to admit: The Marvels, though it has lots of charm, does not quite hold up to Selznick’s previous books — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. Those books showed intricate storytelling, fusing the image elements of his books (which shine in The Marvels, too) with the text. Both were like literary puzzles for the reader to wonder about, as he brought the fictional ends together to tell a single story.

Here, in The Marvels, there is again a mystery, and things are not what they seem, but my son and I were less taken in by the story itself, for whatever reason. I won’t give the plot away, but the novel is loosely based on a real event and people, and their story of an unusual life. I was interested but not intrigued. That’s all the difference in the world, right?

I can sing long praises for his drawings, of course, because they are an art form unto itself, but I wish the story text had been stronger to hold it all together. It’s still a book worth checking out, as is anything Selznick does. It’s not bad. It’s good. But it’s not great. Given his past few books, this one just didn’t rise to my expectation level. Maybe that is me, the reader, more than him, the writer.

Until next book …

Peace (on the pages),

Slice of Life: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way

(This is a piece for Slice of Life, a weekly community writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers.)


I found this in my email bin this morning, and I was quite happy. You see, I have started to contribute each month to support a few artists that I like via Patreon, which is a crowdsourcing site that puts into practice something I like to believe in: your audience will not only find you if you do creative things, but they will also help support you in order to support your art. (I did a book review last week on Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want to be Free — in which this idea was a central tenet of how artists can survive, and thrive, in the digital age.)

At Patreon, I pitch in a dollar each month to support a few folk — including Audrey Watters and her insightful pieces about education and technology; David Finkle, and his work on creating comics about teaching called Mr. Fitz; and Dave Kellett, whose Sheldon comics I love to read every day for their wit and humor. It was Dave who sent out some free ebook gifts as thanks to his supporters. Audrey and David Finkle often send out material that we get to see first, or works in progress.

A dollar doesn’t sound like much, but if a lot of people pitch in a dollar, it can make the difference between an artist making art or flipping pancakes for a living. Kellett, for example, wanted to remove advertising from his website for Sheldon, and so the Patreon campaign is designed to replace the income from ads through direct support from fans.

I was happy to support Sheldon Comics even without the ebooks but now … now, I need to get these on my iPad for pleasure reading …

Peace (in the giving and in the receiving),


At Middleweb: Forging Partnerships

in it together cover 150

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with my Western Massachusetts Writing Project (and musician) colleague, Michael Silverstone, and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian, about their new book, In It Together, that looks how to establish and build school partnerships with families and organizations in order to enrich the learning lives of all students.

Here are a few quotes that I think speak to what they are talking about:

… expending energy in the direction of collaboration leaves you with more energy than you started with. It’s kind of a paradox. I’ve come to know that isolation depletes my energy sooner or later. I’ve had supremely satisfying times in my own little classroom world, but after a while, going solo gets draining. — Michael Silverstone

Tapping into the experiences of our families greatly helps us in building these connections, and the possibilities for doing this are wonderfully endless. For example, some students might have a parent or sibling who is deployed, and others might have a family member who fled their home country. Both groups have depth of knowledge on this topic of study and can greatly help our instruction to come alive. — Debbie Zacarian

I think the Q&A format brought out some interesting insights from Michael and Debbie that is worth a read as the school year begins and we look to the community of our classroom and beyond for support and inspiration.

Check out the piece at Middleweb.

Peace (making connections),

Book Review: Information Doesn’t Want to be Free

Information cover final web

I realize the irony here, that I paid top dollar for Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age — when I probably could, with just a bit of searching and tinkering, find a free and pirated version of the book somewhere and be reading Doctorow’s engaging missive about copyright law and information flow in mere minutes of a search.

I could of done that, but I didn’t.

Here’s why:

  • First off, I want to support McSweeney’s, Dave Egger’s publishing arm that also supports youth writing programs around the country with its 826 Valencia network.
  • Second, I want to support Doctorow as a writer, although I suspect he is doing just fine without my meager money … this is a principle thing about supporting artists at work.
  • Third, I like the tangible feel of a book in my hands (and this one traveled with me from my sons’ baseball games, as its short chapters were perfectly tuned into the breaks between innings.)

And it turns out that my move to avoid the free, pirated copy of the book is right in line with Doctorow’s ideas around the Information Age, and how artists can still find and reach an audience that is willing to pay for art, even if it is freely available elsewhere. This is part of his point: in the age of the Copy, how do musicians and writers and artists still make art that is meaningful and make a living at it, too?

Amanda Palmer’s foreword (coupled with her husband, Neil Gaiman’s companion forward) continues to resonate with me in context to Doctorow’s ideas around copyright and publishing, and how innovation is always bound to upend the status quo, and the status quo is always going to fight that change with lawyers and money and political influence.

Palmer writes about her time as a street performer in Boston (she was one of those lovely painted statue people that we gawk at) and her observations of passersby, and how while many would ignore her, the few that observed and appreciated her art, and put some money into her collection bin, was more than enough to sustain her with a regular income.

“Like clockwork, people were generous. Nobody asked them to be. I just stood there, literally silent, waiting for them to tip me out for the weird, loving act of randomness I was making to humankind …. People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.” (Palmer, page xiii)

Doctorow not only shows how the current system of stifling customers from access on their own terms to the art they love is stifling art creation itself, he also shows how a revamping of copyright law might be one of the fixes. He also freely and open admits that not every artist will find a niche and that there is no real “fix it” for all of the disruption. But a closed system of art, he argues, is bound to fail on many levels and leave media industries crumbling.

Instead, he argues for the idea of “blanket licenses” (such as are used in bars and music establishments for the use of playing copyrighted music by cover bands and the jukebox and karaoke machines) that would compensate artists and publishers for media on the Internet while broadening reach to different audiences. He notes that while the publishing industry has traditionally taken advantage of the complex analytics to pad their own pockets, this age of information is also the age of data analysis, and that there should be a way to determine fair use of media, set up a payment system with ISP providers and provide compensation for the creators of art.

Will this work? I have no idea. It sounds good on paper, if I understand it right. Reality might be different. Remember hwo has the money and power right now. It’s not you and I, alas. But Doctorow has a phrase of words that has stuck with me since finishing the book.

“Think like a Dandelion.” (Doctorow, page 142)

What he means that since there is no turning back the clock on copying — and in fact, copying movies and music and more will only get easier as time moves on — an artist needs to find a new way to think about distribution. Instead, he suggests, think of art as the dandelion, which produces thousands of seeds that it lets loose into the world, in hopes one or two or a few will find a nurturing bit of soil on which to plant itself.

“There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way — the more places your work finds itself, the greater the likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers in some unsuspected crack in the metaphorical pavement.” (Doctorow, page 143).

Of course, the publishing companies would see the dandelion in another way: as a weed that needs to be eradicated or controlled, right? Such is the world right now. Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free (title reference is to the idea that information doesn’t want to be free — it’s data — but people want to be free to make their own choices about technology and art) is another way forward.

Peace (taking root),