Book Review: Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels

I recently picked up Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel, mostly because it is edited by James Bucky Carter, whose writing and links and insights around comics and graphic novels I enjoy reading about. (Check out his blog: EN/SANE World). In this collection of essays from various educators, Carter weaves together ways in which teachers can bring graphic novels and comics into the curriculum.

Carter’s introduction gives some nice background knowledge around the connections between art and writing, and the form of graphic novels. In the book, Carter makes the case for these forms to be considered real and authentic forms of literacy, and not just something to be laughed off or put out for the down-times of the classroom.

“There is a graphic novel for every learner in your English language arts classroom,” is how Carter begins, and he ends his introduction — first, by acknowledging that more inquiry research in the classroom needs to be done and shared — by declaring, “Bit by bit, we can expand the Golden Age of the graphic novel in the domain of education.”

Not every chapter had me engaged, but the one I really liked was  by Don Leibold, whose Abandon Every Fear, Ye That Enter: The X-Men Journey through Dante’s Inferno, about the connections between an X-Men story arc and Dante’s work, and how a teacher might use on to supplement the other. I vaguely seem to remember the comic that Liebold refers to, and it is fascinating to think of the two stories, side by side.

Most of the chapters deal with reading comics and graphic novels, and I have to say that the chapter that seemed to suggest the use of technology (Using Graphic Novels, Anime and the Internet in an Urban Setting by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher) didn’t really do much for me in terms of technology and comics. I was hoping and wishing for more, particularly given the influx of digital comics and the ability to create them easier than ever before.

Luckily, Carter ends the anthology with a sharp chapter on bringing young writers along with comics as a source of mentor text and inspiration with a Comic Book Show ‘N Tell Project in which students work on storyboarding, editing and writing with a voice for an audience.

If you are a teacher considering the merits of graphic novels, then Carter’s anthology collection is a good read and a good starting point for those folks trying to make a case for comics. And as Carter points out himself, I hope books like this one continue the push of graphic literacy in the classroom for all students.

Peace (on the page),

PS — Today is Free Comic Book Day, so get yourself down to the nearest comic book shop and grab some comics for the classroom. The free stuff is not really the best stuff — mostly samples and anthologies — but still, they can make a good supplementary classroom resource.

The Voice in the Room is Mine

This is a quick follow up to some of my posts around my thinking around the concepts of Literacy.

Yesterday, I attended our school district meeting that will lead to the launch of a two-year Literacy Initiative for our schools, beginning in earnest in November with two full days of literacy professional development. This is the first time we have used two full days back to back for any one topic, so we are excited about the possibilities here. And there is pressure on the administration to put on a good show that really energizes our teachers. The teachers brought together at our meeting yesterday were mostly k-3 and reading/special education specialists, so I felt as if I had to represent the upper elementary grades as the sole sixth grade classroom teacher. (For some reason, our regional middle and high school are not even involved in the initiative.)

The discussions were rich and fruitful, centering around ways to connect literacy ideas across grade levels, provide some ways to track progress of students and open up collaborative discussions among teachers from various schools and grades.We talked a lot about the common things we are all doing and how we can learn from each other.

I noted at one point that so much of our talk was centered around reading skills and that writing was getting short shrift … again. Why do we do that? Why does reading take over writing when it comes to literacy? Where is the balance between the two? (And listening and oral language skills never even got onto the table, to be honest) Luckily, a colleague jumped in and passionately explained how good writing is also good reading, and that teachers often cut writing because they don’t know how to teach good writing skills to students. Our administration seemed to hear that loud and clear.

I had my own ideas, of course, and made sure I was up high on my virtual sandbox, advocating that any new literacy work should also include the technology and media skills of the 21st Century. When it came time to try our hand at a Vision Statement, mine centered on using multi-modal platforms for reading and for writing, and for writing for an authentic purpose.

But I was mostly alone on this topic and I know it will be a tough sell for teachers who don’t use technology themselves in their own classrooms to think about how they could actually use it with students. I argued that the reading and writing that goes on outside of school in our students’ real lives (text messaging, web reading, online collaborative games, etc.) needs to be reflected and used inside the classroom if we want our students to make sense of the skills we are teaching them and for those skills to have value for them. Everyone listened respectfully, but my soapbox did not lead to any discussions or further talk about Digital Literacies. It was a sort of an awkward silence.

So, we’ll see where all this leads in the next two years.

Peace (in the talk),

Articulating some thoughts on Literacy and Writing

I’ve been asked by my school principal to join in a conversation on Monday about literacy and Language Arts in our school district. Our district focus next year will be to revamp our Language Arts curriculum, or at least move in that direction, and the administration is trying to bring together some teachers to discuss what literacy should look like in our schools.We’re planning a two-day Literacy Event for our district in the fall, too, and they want to get ideas from us.

I am trying to articulate what my own ideas are about Language Arts before that meeting and so, true to my nature, I am using this writing as a way to process some of my thoughts. Bare with me and please feel free to add your own ideas.

  • We write to learn. This is a central tenet in my thinking. We use writing to understand the world, to make sense of information and to reflect upon our own experiences. Writing gives us private inroads into making sense of things. When we write, we organize, articulate and explore the things we know, the things we want to know, and the things we don’t quite yet know.
  • Language Arts is all four spheres. Yes, we focus a lot on writing and reading, but listening and talking are also important elements of literacy. I wish we did more in the areas of listening (I try to work that in to as many lessons as possible) and speaking (beyond just oral reports).
  • A “Stakes Approach” to writing provides multiple opportunities for expression. I stole this one from my friend, Bruce Penniman. The Stakes Approach is built on the concept of tiered writing opportunities, moving from low stakes (journal writing, writing for the self, etc) that is not necessarily shared with anyone to mid stakes (collaborative writing in the classroom, informal projects, etc.) that is for a comfortable audience to high stakes (published work, performances, etc.) that moves into the bigger world. This spectrum of writing allows students to try on different hats and use different voices and concentrate on different skills. (See this Google Doc for my own organization of Stakes Writing).
  • Writing across the Curriculum is a key to learning. We need to integrate Language Arts more into all curricular areas so that writing is not just stories composed on paper, but thinking put into words. Math, in particular, gets short-changed with our fairly rote district-wide curriculum. It’s mostly drill and kill, and not the reasoning. For me, this has meant writing prompts connected to social studies, and digital projects connected with Science and Math. I’m not doing enough, but I am aware how important it is. (Note: my colleagues in the other disciplines do a lot of writing with the students, too, so it is not a vacuum.)
  • Technology and multi-media should be components of Language Arts. Students are highly engaged and very aware of audience when they start using technology for showcasing their knowledge and understanding. They rise to the occaision when they realize that they are in the high stakes field of writing — the web is the world.  The Web 2.0 opportunities opens up many doors for collaboration, integration of resources and multiple angles for students of all diverse learning backgrounds. Even the NCTE has come out strongly in favor of this kind of literacy. Given the world today and the world unfolding for tomorrow, to ignore this possibility to help show students how to “create” and “compose” (a better term) with technology would have terrible consequences.

What do you think? Am I on the right path? What am I missing?

Peace (in articulation),