Are Graphic Novels Okay to Read?

This question was posed to me at a parent-teacher conference early in my teaching career. Is it okay for our son to read graphic novels at home? The parents were concerned that these text were not challenging their son enough.

Their “problem” was they couldn’t get him to read anything other than graphic novels at home and worried they were not rigorous enough to make him a successful reader longterm. He would devour graphic novels but fought tooth and nail to read “traditional” books.

This student was extremely behind in reading just one year before I had him. While he was still below grade level in fourth grade, he made enormous strides since the beginning of third grade. What happened to help him turn this corner? One big part of the story is that he went to a comic book convention with his father the summer before third grade and got hooked on graphic novels.

I can personally attest to the interest in graphic novels. My ten-year-old daughter is a reluctant reader. She doesn’t enjoy reading traditional texts. We’ve made numerous trips to the book store, placed book orders through school, and even tried e-readers. No luck. She still has not found the book or genre that sparks an interest in reading chapter books.

Graphic novels are an entirely different topic. She can’t put these books down. She has read and reread titles like Smile, Best Friends, Real Friends, and Guts. Just this weekend I had to ask her to put a book down during dinner; it was a graphic novel. Later that night I found her asleep in bed with the book still open.

My daughter asleep in the middle of her fifth reading of Best Friends.

Research supports the idea that graphic novels help reach reluctant readers. The combination of pictures, graphics, and fewer words is appealing to students who don’t enjoy traditional texts as much. They also help with comprehension, critical thinking skills, and vocabulary acquisition.

But what about the reading level in these books? Certainly they can’t challenge students the same way a traditional text does. Can they? Research out of the University of Oregon has shown that graphic novels are not necessarily easier to read despite their format. According to the study “comic books average 53.5 rare words per thousand.” That number outpaces children’s books (30.9) and even inches ahead of adult books (52.7).

The topics students encounter in graphic novels go far beyond Garfield’s basic fascination with lasagna. In one of my daughter’s favorite graphic novels, Smile, the main character feels self-conscious after she is forced to wear headgear, braces, and even an appliance with false teeth, following an accident. This all happens while she is trying to navigate friendships and make her way through middle school. In the end, the reader learns that it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, but it’s who you are on the inside that really counts. That’s definitely a lesson I want me daughter to learn regardless of the format of the text.

So what did I say to the parents back at the conference? The same thing I say to my daughter. I want students to love reading. If he’s found a text he loves to read, then let him get lost in that book, regardless of what it looks like.

The Idiom Lesson

A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague about a student who struggled to stay on task and consistently focused throughout the day. We’ve all had students like that. They are easily distracted and have trouble even staying seated for more than five minutes.

As I was talking my colleague began to smile. “What?” I asked.

“Keep teaching and you’ll be surprised how much they’re still absorbing.” I looked at her unconvinced. She continued to tell me a story about a former student. In the middle of a lesson, the student, we’ll call him Billy, would often wandered around the room.

After numerous attempts to get Billy seated, she decided to let him move around the room for the remainder of her idiom lesson. Idioms are phrase whose meaning is different from the literal meaning (i.e. in a pickle, put your foot in your mouth).

She was almost through the mini-lesson on idioms when Billy started to turn the classroom water fountain off and on. The teacher tried to ignore him, but other students were visibly distracted.

She walked back to him, positive he hadn’t heard a single word of the lesson, and said, “Billy, I know it is hard for you to stay in your seat for the entire lesson. I often let you go get a drink and take some movement breaks, but your behavior is really distracting to your peers.” She admittedly used a poor choice of words as she continued, “Not only are your classmates having a hard time concentrating, but, honestly, it’s driving me up a wall.”

Billy looked at her and smiled. “That’s an idiom.”

“What?” She was baffled by his response.

“You said ‘driving me up a wall.’ That’s an idiom. It means it’s driving you crazy,” Billy explained matter-of-factly.

The teacher simply smiled and said, “Absolutely right, Billy. That’s an idiom. How about you come back and join the lesson.”

Billy came back to his seat, and she always remembered that learning doesn’t always look same for all students. To make a long story short, Billy learned about idioms and the teacher learned a lesson she would never forget. It was as if that lesson killed two birds with one stone.

Vocabulary

Today I was reading a text with my students and wanted to preview some of the vocabulary. I decided to use a graphic organizer with a “Prediction” and a “It Means…” column. Students would make predictions about the meaning of each word, and then we would talk about the actual meaning.

Before students started, we had a conversation about the importance of trying to make your best guess based on what is known about the word, or its parts, but that it was okay for your prediction to be incorrect. We also talked about strategies that would help predict what the word might mean – word parts, hearing the word used before, etc.

After the three minutes I gave students to make predictions, we whipped around the room and listened to a few predictions for each word. We talked about how students got the prediction and then shared the meaning of the word. Students added the meaning to their “It Means…” column. What was really valuable was the conversation that happened after students made the prediction.

One of the words was disassemble. A student said his prediction was, “take apart.” I asked him if he’d ever seen this word before and he said no. He said, “I knew if you assemble something you put it together – like ‘some assembly required’ on commercials. So, I guessed the dis- meant to do the opposite, so I guessed that dis… assemble meant the opposite, take apart.” He even added the pause between the dis- and assemble. I couldn’t have asked for a better response, and part of me wanted to let him finish teaching the lesson.

This was a very simple way to preview the vocabulary. Students were engaged because they wanted to see if their predictions were right, and the rich conversation made the time spent extremely valuable.

As I said, these words were preselected, but choosing which words to teach is critical. We can’t teach all the word which might be unknown to students. So, how do we know which words to teach? Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan broke vocabulary words into a 3-tier system:

  • Tier One – Words used everyday which require little instruction (building, car, parking lot)
  • Tier Two – Words are high frequency academic language used across domains (formulate, analyze, specify)
  • Tier Three – Words specific to a field of study (denominator, insulator, legislature)

The biggest impact comes from teaching the Tier Two words because they are used across content areas, but we also need to teach the Tier Three words within units of study. Teaching prefixes and suffixes also has an enormous impact because knowing one prefix or suffix can unlock so many words. For example, our discussion of dis- meaning “not” or “opposite of” lead to a conversation about other words with the same prefix – disapprove, dissatisfied, etc.

After you’ve chosen the best words to teach, you need to determine the best way to teach them. One strategy in Robert Marzano’s Vocabulary for the Common Core is Six-Step Process for Vocabulary Instruction:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the term or phrase.
  4. Engage students in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students in games that allow them to play with terms.

There are tons of resources out there with ideas for vocabulary activities. What are some of the strategies that you use in your classroom?

How to Increase Positivity

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”

Abraham Lincoln

This quote always makes me think of how looking at something from a different perspective can help us see the positives in almost anything. (There’s some debate as to whether Honest Abe really said it, but it’s still a good quote.) Recently I was talking to a colleague about fostering positivity in our work, personal lives, and relationships. She shared The No Complaining Rule by John Gordon with me and said it had some great ideas about being more positive. She was right.

There are many wonderful ideas in this book, but one that stuck out to me was the No Complaining Card. The card has three strategies to create more positivity in your life.

  1. The But –> ____ Positive Technique
  2. Focus on “Get To” instead of “Have To”
  3. Turn Complaints into Solutions

I’ve already found myself using some of these strategies in my personal and professional life. Over Christmas Break I had an eight-hour trip in the car. I was able to use the But–> ____ Positive Technique to make the trip more positive. Instead of thinking about the negatives of sitting in the car, I thought, “I don’t like sitting in the car for eight hours but I’m grateful I have all this time to listen to an audio book.”

It has also helped with areas like exercise. Focusing on “Get To” instead of “Have To” is especially helpful for me. There have been times where I said, “I have to go for a run.” Now, I’ve started saying, “I get to go for a run.” This one is especially powerful for me because I wasn’t able to run for three years because of a hip injury. I didn’t get to run for that entire time, so it is powerful and motivating to think that I get to run now.

Turn Complaints into Solutions doesn’t imply that complaining is eliminated entirely. The idea is to eliminate mindless complaining, which doesn’t serve a purpose. Instead, focus on justified complaining which move towards finding solutions to problems. A mindless complaint might be nobody around here understands me. A justified complaint might be I need to find more ways to effectively communicate with my coworkers.

This is not a book written specifically for educators, but the principles certainly apply to educators and the classroom. I reflected on each strategy and how it could be used in education.

  1. The But –> ____ Positive Technique – I can’t believe I’m getting another student on my roster, but this is an opportunity to impact another student.
  2. Focus on “Get To” instead of “Have To” – It is easy to say, “I have to cover cafeteria/recess duty.” Instead say, “I get to spend time with students outside of the classroom and continue to build strong relationships in a new setting.”
  3. Turn Complaints into Solutions – A mindless complaint might be, “These students just don’t get this!” A justified complaint would look more like, “What steps do I need to take to help my students understand this material?”

This isn’t to say these three strategies will make everything magically better, but hopefully they’ll help us see more roses in the thorn bush.

Be Somebody’s Mrs. Davis

A few years ago I was sitting at my daughter’s swim lesson and struck up a conversation with a very nice lady sitting next to me. She told me she was a retired teacher, and we shared stories about life in the classroom. I told her I switched professions because I wanted to make a difference.

What made me think of this encounter was an article I read recently about the importance of teacher-student relationships. I could tell in that brief interaction that this woman was a phenomenal teacher and probably had life-changing relationships with students. I wasn’t really sure how I knew that, but I did. We’ll get back to her in a minute.

Recently a colleague asked if I could touch base with one of her students. She told me he could use another positive relationship at school. So, eventually this student started coming over to my room at the end of the day to play chess with me. He didn’t know how to play, so we used the beginner’s board pictured at the top of the post.

The first few times we played, we barely talked. I wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t want to talk or was just using all his energy to learn the game. He kept coming over to my room at the end of the day, so I figured he was enjoying the time. After a couple weeks he started to talk more during our matches. He would wave to me in the hallway and even stop by in the morning to say hello. Then one day, I was in the cafeteria, and he came all the way across the room to give a fist bump. He had a huge smile on his face and said, “Hi, Mr. Rashid.” Maybe our simple 5 minutes of chess at the end of the day meant more to him than I realized.

I don’t just value student-teacher relationships because I’ve read the research showing their importance. I value student-teacher relationships because I know first hand how important those relationships are to a struggling student.

I moved around a lot as a kid – four elementary schools between kindergarten and fifth grade. It was tough, and the last move was halfway through fifth grade. We moved from a community that I absolutely loved and was devastated to leave. The last half of fifth grade in my new school felt like wearing a pair of shoes that didn’t fit.

Over the summer I was pretty down about returning to school and was dreading the first day of sixth grade. Then, I walked into Mrs. Davis’s sixth grade class at Paxtang Elementary School. To say Mrs. Davis had a greater impact on my life than any teacher I’ve ever had would be a colossal understatement. I can think of only a handful of people who have had a greater impact on my life, like my parents, wife, and daughter. In fact, Mrs. Davis is one of only four people who called me Michael. I prefer Mike, but I didn’t mind. It became common, even comfortable, to hear her call me that for the better part of a year.

Mrs. Davis made me feel at home in my new school, in my new community. She was always so caring and compassionate. She knew school wasn’t a strength for me and always made me feel supported and successful around other students.

There is one day in her class I will always remember. I was extremely nervous about an assignment we were completing. I’m not sure how she sensed that anxiety, but she came over and asked me if I was okay. I reluctantly told her I was nervous and not sure I was capable of completing it. I can still feel the sensation in my eyes as they started to water. Mrs. Davis gave me a hug and said, “Michael, I know that you can do this. I will never ask you to do anything I know you can’t do.” I’m sure to her it was just one of the many things she did over her career to make a student feel comfortable, but to me it was the most important thing any teacher ever said to me. From that moment, and for the first time in school, I believed in myself academically. To this day, more than thirty years later, when anything is academically challenging, I hear “Michael, I know you can do this.”

That’s what I hope to be for students – somebody who believes in them. Somebody who inspires them. Somebody who makes them believe anything is possible, just like Mrs. Davis did for me.

Which brings us back to the pool and my daughter’s swim lesson. I finally asked the lady sitting next to me where she taught. She mentioned some schools where she was a teacher and administrator. Then she smiled at me and said, “And I taught sixth grade at Paxtang Elementary School.” My mouth practically dropped to the wet, tiled floor. “It’s great to see you again, Michael.”

I wish I had told Mrs. Davis right then how much she did for me and meant to me. Then again, I have a feeling she already knows.

What Do You Need at This Moment?

Last week I posted my One Word for 2020 – intentional. It seemed the perfect tool to help guide and focus me this year. Just a few days later I read a blog post by Mandy Froehlich titled “Why I’m Not Choosing A #OneWord.”

In years past she chose one word for the year because that was what she needed at that time. Ms. Froehlich didn’t chose a word this year because she’s “doing different things that work for [her] at this time and that is totally okay.”

She shares an alternative idea to the #OneWord which is a 3-2-1-2-3 pattern:

3 Places I want to go
2 Ways I can help others
1 Thing I want to get better at
2 Things I am looking forward to
3 New things I want to try

I love the idea of a 3-2-1-2-3 pattern, but it’s the reasoning for her change that really caught my attention – doing what works for you at that time. We should all do what works for us, and our students, at any particular time. It’s easy to get caught up in what others are doing, but that might not be the best thing for you at that moment. It’s important to be intentional with what we’re doing in our personal lives, our classrooms, with relationships, and with our downtime. That’s why I chose intentional as my #OneWord, but there’s a good chance I’ll think about the 3-2-1-2-3 a little more as well.

Problem Solving

I was walking into work one day and a colleague literally came running across the parking lot. She was frustrated and asked, “What in the world is going on with these math word problems?” I looked at her waiting for more detail and trying to not drop my smoothie. “These aren’t math problems,” she said. “They’re reading problems.” She had no idea how correct she was.

Word problems are as much reading problems as they are math problems. One of the challenges with younger mathematicians is getting them to slow down and read problems multiple times to understand the complex structure.

The higher-level thinking problems students are asked to solve go far beyond basic computation (5 x 5 = 25). Students have to read a complex problem, understand the context, know based on that context that they have to multiply 5 x 5, then multiply 5 x 5  to get 25, and finally write an answer of 25 with the correct label. Talk about challenging!

Math word problems are especially challenging for readers because the structure is unlike most of what we teach in reading. The authors of Routines for Reasoning state, “Reading in math – especially reading a math word problem – is different from reading in other subject areas… word problems combine both narrative and expository text… Therefore, word problems must be read several times with a different focus each time…” 

In reading, we generally teach narrative OR expository text. In math, students often encounter both types swirled into one problem.

There is another challenge with the structure of math word problems. Students learn in reading that the main idea is generally at the beginning of a paragraph or section of text. Think of the main idea of a math problem as the question being asked. The main idea – the question – is at the end of the paragraph or section of text.

So how do we help our young mathematicians become effective problem solvers? Routines for Reasoning shares a strategy called the Three Reads. This approach requires mathematicians to read a word problem multiple times and sets a purpose for each read. 

  1. Three Reads
  2. Read 1: Understanding the Context – Focuses on the general idea of what the problem is about. 
  3. Read 2: Interpreting the Question – Determine the question or questions being asked in the problem. 
  4. Read 3: Identifying Important Information – Look for the important information or words in the problem. 

Let’s say students are solving this 4th grade released problem from the Pennsylvania state assessment, known as the PSSA:

David started his coin collection with 14 coins. He added 3 coins to his collection at the end of each month for 5 months. How many coins were in David’s collection at the end of the 5 months?

  • Three Reads
  • First read: David is collecting coins (Don’t worry about any expository text right now. Focus on the narrative. Save the numbers for later.)
  • Second read: How many coins were in David’s collection at the end of the 5 months? 
  • Third read: Collection started with 14 coins; added 3 coins each month; 5 months total

This is a great technique to begin creating effective problem solvers. First, I create an anchor chart, which is pictured, for my students. The anchor chart is displayed in the classroom throughout the year. Next, I model the Three Reads and think aloud my thoughts as a problem solver. This cannot be a once and done process. Students need to see and hear this process multiple times throughout the year with a variety of problems.

I’d love to say that creates problem solvers over night, but it takes time. It takes repetition. It must be persistence and grit. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are problem solvers.

Field Trips

Today we had our field trip to the Pennsylvania Farm Show. If you’re not familiar with the PA Farm Show, it is the largest indoor agriculture expo in the United States. Basically, if it is grown in Pennsylvania, it is at the Farm Show – cows, horses, sheep, alpaca, bees and honey, apples, mushrooms, Christmas tress, and the extremely popular milkshake.

Field trips are an amazing opportunity for students to learn through authentic experiences outside the traditional classroom. They take students, literally, to places some might not otherwise visit or see. Field trips help build background knowledge and bring curriculum to life. They are fun experiences for students, but as I was reminded today, can be exhausting for teachers. Watching students experience new concepts for the first time, however, makes it all worth the energy.

My class was studying poetry the week before our field trip, so I felt it was the perfect time to write a haiku.

Students excited

Provides authentic learning

Teacher exhausted

One Word for 2020

I’ve seen many people sharing their One Word Challenge for 2020 and found so many inspiring. The idea is you choose a word to guide you through the year. My ten-year-old daughter even chose one for an assignment in school – positive. So I’ve decided to choose a word of my own for 2020. There are some big personal goals I’d like to achieve in 2020 – blog every day, read 50 books, run a sub-24:00 5k, etc. With this in mind, the word I’m going to choose for 2020 is intentional.

I want to be intentional with my time.

I want to be intentional with my relationships.

I want to be intentional with what I eat.

I want to be intentional with my sleep.

I want to be intentional with exercise.

Here’s to an intentional 2020.

Joke of the Day

How do you stop a dog barking in the back seat?

That was the “Joke of the Day” in my classroom today. After our morning routine – lunch, attendance, etc. – we start each day with a joke. I generally get these jokes from a website, and my family even got me a Silly Jokes for Silly Kids book for Christmas.

This all started accidentally over a year ago. Before a math lesson, I shared a joke my then nine-year-old daughter told me the night before. My students loved it and shared some of their own. We spent the next few minutes telling jokes and laughing before our math lesson.

All of a sudden Joke of the Day was born. I didn’t think much of it at first. The jokes were just something to make us laugh before math. Then, after they had a substitute, I asked my students about their day. They told me everything was great except the substitute did not have a Joke of the Day. (I had to admit that it was an oversight on my part.) That was when I first realized this simple task meant something more to my students.

At the end of the school year, I had them write letters to my next group of students. It was the typical letter to the next year’s class – what they will like about the classroom, what they’ll learn in fourth grade, expectations, etc. I was shocked to read the letters. Almost every student mentioned something about the Joke of the Day.

This experience made me realize how important the “little” things are to our students. I say “little” because the Joke of the Day seemed like something trivial to me. To my students, however, it was something much more. The jokes helped ease anxiety for some, brightened the mood for others, and simply made a few kids laugh.

I still remember, more than thirty years later, how my fifth grade teacher started each day with a riddle. They were these brain teasers he wrote on the board and gave us some time to ponder. It was so much fun trying to solve them before my classmates. I can’t tell you if I would have been proficient on any high stakes testing that year, but I can still recall some of those riddles and the sense of pride I had solving them.

It might not be a joke or a riddle. Maybe it is a high five you give students when they enter the classroom. Maybe it is asking them what they did over the weekend. Maybe it is playing kickball with them at recess. There are moments outside of the curriculum our students need – really need. Teaching is a critically important profession. Helping a student learn through quality curriculum, instruction, and assessment is unbelievably powerful and life changing. We ask a lot of our students throughout the day. Why not take one moment to tell a joke and make a student smile?

So how do you stop a dog barking in the back seat?

You put him in the front seat.