Be the change, being a teacher, Reading, Reading Identity

Why Graphic Novels Belong in All of Our Libraries

Look at that; an incredible graphic novel is shortlisted for the National Book Award.  Image from School Library Journal.


Our oldest daughter, Thea, has been in intense reading intervention since she was in Kindergarten.  This creative, vivacious, book-loving child just could not seem to find the right words when she looked at the letters.  And yet she persisted through it all, continually going back to books even if the words proved to be elusive.  Like many parents whose children do not come naturally to reading, we have seemingly tried it all.  More read aloud, more quiet reading, more strategies, more conversation, more intervention, more of anything we could think of and yet, I will never forget that day in 2nd grade when Thea came home and declared, “Mom, I don’t think I am a reader  because reading is just too hard….”

I think you could have heard my heart break a mile away.

Because here was a child who had grown up surrounded by books.  A child who had grown up being read to. A child who had grown up being surrounded by readers.  A child who had seemingly been given every opportunity to be a reader and yet, the foundational skills of reading, the decoding of actual letters to form words, that seemed like it would never happen for her.

So we did the only thing we knew how; we handed her more books, more reading for pleasure, less pressure, more time.  And so did her teachers.

A few months later, Thea once again had a declaration to make.  “Mom, I’m a reader because I can read this book!”  I came to the front door where she stood clutching a book to her chest.  She said, “I can’t read all the words but the pictures help me figure it out.  I have to go read it now to Ida and Oskar…” and she did, and they sat together huddled around this book that had shown my daughter that she was a reader despite her struggles, and she repeated her reading, and she carried that book hugging it to her chest.  She placed that under her pillow at night, every day checking to see if it was still there so she could read it one more time.  Carried it back and forth to school as she got braver and found more books just like it that also made her believe she was a reader.  We still have that book; it is Dogman by Dav Pilkey.  Her teacher recommended it to her and our daughter’s reading life has never been the same since then.

So when I hear teacher’s tell students that graphic novels are too easy.  That comic books are not real reading.  That it is time to pick a “real” book.  That they can read books like that for fun but not for learning, I tend to get a bit upset.  You see, comics are what kept me reading long into the night as a child when books seemed like too much work.  Graphic novels are what make my students who declare they hate reading actually give it a try.  Dog Man and all of the other books by Dav Pilkey are what made Thea believe she was a reader.  How can we just dismiss that?

You think graphic novels are easy?  Read March by Senator John Lewis.  You think comics are just for fun?  Read Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates. You think graphic novels don’t have substance?  Read Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.  And then tell me that graphic novels don’t belong in our classrooms.  That they don’t count as real books.  That they are just dessert books, or filler, or vacation books or whatever other terms we use to tell kids that that book they just selected is simply “too easy” for them despite their obvious excitement.

Because when you tell a child that the book they have chosen is too easy you may be dismissing the first book they have ever connected with.

You may be dismissing the first book they have ever actually enjoyed.

You may be dismissing the first book they have ever seen themselves in.

You may be dismissing the first book that made them finally believe that they, too, are a reader.

Because you see when we tell kids that a book is too easy we are dismissing their entire reading journey.  We are dismissing who they are as readers and just how much work it may have been to get there.  We are telling them that their reading journey only has value if they read books that we deem appropriate and that is never okay.  Have we gotten so lost in our reading instruction that we cannot see the harm we can do?

So it is time for us all to realize that while comic books, graphic novels, or any other medium that has pictures in it may seem “easy” at first glance, I think the word we are really looking for is enticing, not easy.  Is inviting, not fluff.  Gives courage, not a cop out of reading.  And that these masterful pieces of literature are, indeed, full-fledged members of the book family.  Are, indeed, full-fledged literary components that deserve not just to be placed into the hands of our students, but also taught alongside other books.  To be held up as shining examples of literary greatness that we should appreciate, promote, and celebrate alongside all of the other books we have.

Thea is still a reader and she still loves Dog Man.  She loves Captain Underpants – Tralala!  She loves Bad Kitty, Smile, Drama, Lunch Lady, Baby Mouse, Bad Guys, and any graphic novel that comes her way.  But she also loves Wishtree, The One and Only Ivan, The Tale of Despereaux, and all of the other books she has read since then.  Books she would have never had the courage or gumption to try if she had not found Dog Man.  If Dav Pilkey had not had the heart and courage to continue to write books that kids would love even if the adults didn’t.  I owe our daughter’s reading life to him and to her teacher that saw a child who desperately needed to feel like a reader and was smart enough to hand her a graphic novel.  Not because she thought it would be easy for her, but because she thought that it was just what Thea needed.  And boy, was she ever right.

If you need more information or ideas of why graphic novels and comics belong in  our libraries and schools, here are just a few resources shared with me:

Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Determining the Criteria for Graphic Novels with Literary Merit

Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels

A Printable Educator’s Guide to Graphic Novels 

Ted Talk:  Jarret J. Krosoczka How a Boy Became an Artist 

Annual Reminder that Graphic Novels are Real Reading 

Raising a Reader

Graphic Novels in the Classroom by Gene Luen Yang

Why Comics Belong in the Classroom – Gene Luen Yang TedX

A Place on the BookShelf for Graphic Novels by Jarret J Krosoczka

The Research Behind Graphic Novels and Young Learners

Graphic Novels and Picture Books for All Ages by Donalyn Miller

Comics Used for Therapy Database

One teacher’s journey in using Comics with students 

Facebook group for teachers using comics

Research: Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School Libraries

The Power of Manga, Comics, and Graphic Novel Through the Lens of AASL Standards

CBLDF Panel Power

Professional Titles:
The Graphic Novel Classroom: Powerful Teaching & Learning with Images by Maureen Bakis

Class, Please Open Your Comics: Essays on Teaching with Graphic Narratives by Matthew L. Miller

Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art by Carrye Kay Syma

Understanding Comics:  The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud


If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.





Be the change, being a teacher

See the Small

White, Black,  Free Image

I forgot yesterday was a Monday.  As I drove home, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why the day did not seem to have gone as planned.  Why I had just taken away all yoga balls in our classroom.  Why the energy seemed so off, no matter what I did.  And then it dawned on me; it was a Monday, and every Monday I leave thinking that I need to change the way I teach.  That what we are doing is not working.  That surely I should not be writing about the way I teach because if you had been in our classroom, you would have been just a little bit surprised, after all, aren’t we supposed to have it all figured out by now?

This morning as I got ready for another day, a child walked in and declared, “Monday’s turn me into Garfield…” and I remembered once again, that sometimes Monday’s are hard.  Sometimes the final class of the day is loud.  Sometimes the kid we thought we had helped feel comfortable still does hurtful things.  Sometimes I am more tired then I thought I was.  Sometimes things happen outside of our classroom that influences our classroom in ways we couldn’t foresee, and while all of these may seem like excuses o why the day didn’t go as planned, they are not.  They are reminders.

Reminders that we are human.  Reminders that teaching is never perfect.  Reminders that sometimes despite what we plan, despite what we intend, despite what we think a day will be like, it just isn’t.

And they are reminders to see the small wins, the small successes that will ultimately shape this year together.  Like the kid who agreed to give an audiobook a try despite how much they hate reading.  Or the kid who asked for help and never has before.  The kid who started yelling but then realized what he did and apologized.  The kid who couldn’t wait to tell me about the book they finished.  The kid who took the time to tell me that no matter what I always seem to be smiling.  That no matter what, the 7th grade teachers are all pretty nice.

Those are the reminders we all need but seem to forget as we focus on the things that seem to not work.   So I wonder; have you given yourself a moment to realize how much good there has happened?  How far we have actually come?

Because if you look you will see the growth.  You will see those small changes as these kids figure out how to be more than what they came as.  You will see them try.  You will see them stretch themselves, even if it doesn’t seem apparent on the surface.  But you won’t if you don’t look closely, it is so easy to miss in all of the things that have not yet been figured out.

So if you had been in our classroom yesterday, you may have thought it was a rougher day, and yet, I would have told you; it’s just Monday.  Tomorrow will be better because that’s just how it goes.  And you know what, today was a pretty good day, just like yesterday.  How about yours?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



Be the change, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

Small Disruptions in Text

I have been so incredibly inspired by the work of the women behind the #DisruptTexts movement.  This movement, started by a group of fearless educators: Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia E. Torres, have been leaders within the work that is needed to disrupt the cannon and also help all of us change the work we do with texts in the classroom.

While I am lucky in the sense that I don’t have canonical texts I am forced to explore with my 7th graders, I have realized that habit and ease had gotten me stuck in certain texts, that sure, seemed to work for students, but didn’t do much for their exposure to other points of view, nor did it represent all of the lives of the students I teach.  Thus a mission for the year began – disrupt the texts I use with students, pay attention to my own selection process, and ultimately create a broader experience for all kids in order for them to have more critical exposure to many perspectives.

So what does that look like for me?  Well, it began with two questions; why am I selecting the texts that I am and how can I select others?  As I looked at my lists of short stories, read alouds, picture books,  and even book talks, I quickly saw a pattern.  While my own reading life is fairly inclusive, my academic usage was not.  The same texts were used year after year and many of them were predominantly created by white, cisgendered, heteronormative people.  Even though I had been trying to purposefully select more inclusive texts!  While there were units where the scope had broadened, there was still this dominance, a thread, of the same type of texts used and highlighted.

So for the past few months, I have spent a lot of time on text selection within a few areas.  By auditing my habits and my patterns, I found plenty of opportunities to disrupt my own “canon” and also help others find better texts.  Here are the areas that I have focused on:

Picture books.  Reading a picture book aloud is something sacred to us, and while I have a fairly inclusive picture book collection, I was not really keeping track of which I was choosing and sharing.  By having a visual representation of the picture books outside our room I am reminded to look for a broader scope and to include many different perspectives.  (To get ideas for great books to read or share, follow my Instagram where I do “live” recommendations as I discover books.)


Read alouds.  I have always mostly selected our read alouds based on the merit of the story.  Is it a story that will elicit interest and conversation?  Will my students be changed after this read aloud?  And yet, I did not pay much attention to the author and the identity they represented.  Now, the two go hand-in-hand.  Questions I use to assess whether a book should be read aloud are many, but a few are:  How is this author’s identity represented within the text?  How is it different than what my students have already been exposed to?  How is the main character different than the last main character we got to know?

Book talks.  Once again, random selection was the way I did book talks.  Sometimes it was a book I had just finished, other times an old favorite.  This meant that I didn’t always remember which books I had book talked and surely did not pay attention to whose stories I was book talking.  Now, my system is twofold – I write down the books I plan on book talking and also keep a written poster in our classroom, which I fill in after a book talk.  While the poster will need to be replaced soon, it allows me to see the bigger picture of what I am blessing through book talks.  Just looking at it today, I realized that I had not book talked any books featuring characters from within the LGBTQ community, which is something I plan on rectifying.

Seeing this was a reminder to book talk more books by female authors, as well as authors from within the LGBTQ community.

Short stories and text excerpts.  This is where I needed the most disruption.  I had some great short stories that captured the interest of students, but most were by white authors.  I simply had not paid attention to this part of the selection process and had instead just grabbed stories others had recommended or stories that I knew.  And this is part of the problem I think for many of us; we recommend the same stories over and over, we remember the same stories being used and somehow they then receive more merit as legitimate texts than they really deserve.  Now, my selection is focused on the author’s identity, the main character’s identity, as well as whether the story fits our purpose.  By using fantastic short story collections such as Funny Girl,  (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, and Hope Nation, as well as first chapters from great #ownvoices books I am ensuring that my students are meeting new fantastic authors and stories that will hopefully not only better represent their own experiences and identity, but also the identities of others whom they may not know.

So what can you do if you want to start disrupting your text choices as well?  The first would be to follow the work the movement #DisruptTexts  and the women behind it do, but then also audit yourself.  What are you reading?  Book talking?  Sharing?  And using with your students?  Whose identities and experiences are being represented as the norm?  Whose voices are left out?

Read more inclusive texts and start a document to track texts you may potentially use with students and their purpose.  We have a shared mentor text document as a team where we can drop text in as we find them.  Create visuals that show you just what you are blessing and share and take the vow to do better, to notice your own patterns and change the texts you use.  While I still have a long way to go, I am already feeling better with the intentionality of the texts I am exploring with students, as well as the opportunities we still have to do better.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Be the change, being a teacher, Literacy, Passion, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, student driven, Student Engagement, student voice

The Rights of Our Readers

Today was the second day of school.  the second day of trying to get to know these incredible kids that have been gifted to us.  The second day of trying to establish the seeds for the habits that will carry us through the year, hopefully leading us to a year where they leave feeling like this year was worth their time, that this year made a difference.

Today was the day of one of our big fundamental lessons; when reading is trash or magic.  I shared my past reading mistakes in teaching, we shared when reading sucks or when it is lit (student choice of words).  As the post-its crowded the whiteboard, the questions and statements inevitable came.  Will we have to read books you choose for us?  Will we have to write every time we read?  Will we have to do post-it notes?  All things that in the past, I would have answered yes to but now the answers are different.  You always choose your books, even in book clubs, you will have plenty of choices.  You will not always write after you read, sometimes you will, and because of the work of teachers before me, you will be better at it than ever before.  And post-its?  Sometimes, when it makes sense, but not every time and not at home.  Only here because at home I just want you to work on your relationship with reading, the skills teaching that will happen in class.

As we finished our conversation we merged into what their reading rights are this year.  the things that I will not take away.  The rights they have as individuals on a reading journey.  This is not my idea, nor something new, but once again the work of others who have paved the way for my better understanding of what developing student reading identity really looks like.  As we discussed what rights they would have and what they meant, I wrote an anchor chart, a reminder that will hang all year so we don’t forget just what we can do together.  What choices we may have.  As we went down the list, the relief was palpable, the excitement grew.  Even some of the kids who had not so gently told me how much they hated reading right away, looked less scared, less set in stone as we talked about what this year would like.

And so this is where we stand tonight…  Our very first anchor chart to remind us of what it means to be a reader that is honored within our community.  What it means to be a reader that already has a reading identity, that we will continue to develop together, honoring everyone wherever they are on their journey, rather than forcing our well-intended decisions down over the top of kids.  Perhaps, once again, this year kids will develop a better relationship with reading, will grow as readers, will grow as human beings.  What more could we hope for when it comes to teaching?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Be the change, being a teacher, being me

That This Year…

Thea tells us that the only goal she has for fourth grade is to not be bullied.

She doesn’t care about learning how to read better.  How to strengthen her math skills.  How she will do more science, learn more geography, create more beautiful art.  How to do the work that fourth graders are supposed to do.

She cares about being safe.  About being liked.  About not sticking out so that “others will pick me on, Mom…” as she hides her new glasses and tells me she doesn’t really need them after all.

Her actions speak louder than her words right now.  One moment happy and carefree, the next riddled with doubt about what lies ahead.  The questions tumble from her, will I have a friend?  Will my teacher like me?  The uncovering of the hurts that were perpetuated against her continue.  They told me I was stupid.  They called me gay and I knew they meant it as a bad thing, Mom.  They told me no one liked me.  That I shouldn’t come back.  That school would be so much better without me.

And I hold back my tears and I put on my brave face, because damn it, what do you say to your kid when she would rather believe the awful lies her fellow students told her than the truth from her parents?

So we speak louder through our actions and our words than those kids could ever hope to do.  So we spend time simply being together, getting ready for the year ahead.  Telling her that this year will be better.  That this year will be different.  That she is awesome.  That she is funny.  That she is smart.  That this year she will find another friend.  That this year she will blow everyone away.  That this year she will feel safe.  That this year will not be like last year because how can it be?  And we try to piece back together what the kids who bullied her tore down so easily.

I think of her as I get ready for my own students to show up.  That while some may be dragging their feet simply because school is not fun, others may be downright terrified.  Others may lie awake at night wondering what this year will bring?  Whether this year they will continue to be picked on, picked apart, punched, pushed, and abused, all by those kids we tell to stop and “Be nice.”  Do they worry that we will not protect them?  That our nonchalance and our quick fixes will do nothing to actually change anything?

And what about their parents?  The ones raising them?  The ones who send them our way with the hope that we will see the very miracle they sent us?  Do they lie awake at night, like we do, wondering if the words we say will actually be true once the year gets started?

Thea has her first day of school outfit planned, aid out in her room, waiting for the moment next Tuesday when we wake her up, kiss and hug her and send her out the door with our love as her protection.  It took a long time to get it just right, what my seem small is now so large, because, who knows what will happen on the first day of school?

We hold our breath and expect the best.  After all, this is a new year, a new start, and for this kid it has to be.   So this is a reminder that it’s on us; the adults.  The parents, the caregivers, the educators, the staff.  That these kids are coming to school to feel safe.  To feel accepted.  To learn in an environment that will protect them no matter the child they are.    No child deserves to be terrified.  No child deserves to wonder whether this is the year, they will once again be bullied.


Be the change, being a teacher, Reading, Reading Identity

After Accelerated Reader

Black,  Free Image

One of the questions, I am asked the most often is, “What do you do if you don’t have Accelerated Reader?” Or insert whatever computer program here.  It is a question filled with emotion, after all, change is hard, and for some kids, AR and programs like it seem to work.  For some teachers, it works.  And yet, it doesn’t work for all, it is expensive, and in my opinion, it is not worthy of the precious time we have with students every day.

Last night, as I sat surrounded by incredible passionate educators and leaders in the Imperial Valley in California, I was asked that question again, and here is how I answered it.

Giving up AR can be scary.  After all, it is a program that seems to tell us things we need to know; has this child read the book?  Have they understood it?  It is a program that allows us to chart progress, to reward growth.  To have an understanding of the complex process that is often hidden from view.  And yet, how much of AR is actually a true view?  How often are kids able to take the test without fully reading the book?  How often do they fail the test despite having read the book?  How often do we end up policing the testing, the book choice, the kids without actually doing meaningful work?

Our job as teachers is not to police reading, it is to support the love of reading.  There is a huge difference.

So we start by looking at the components already in place.  Every child deserves a classroom library, a school library staffed with a certified librarian.  Every child deserves a teacher who read children’s literature, who is knowledgeable and excited about reading.  Every child deserves time to read a self-selected book in a supportive reading environment.  Every child deserves to do meaningful work once they finish these books, building a reading community one book, one conversation, one connection at a time.

If we hold these components as rights, then the only thing AR really fulfills is the check off when it comes to whether a book has been read.  When we remove that, we must find other ways to see whether children are reading and whether they understand what they have read.

In my own classrooms, we have different methods to see whether kids are reading.  I have gone into more details about this here and also in Passionate Readers, but the first component is to simply kid watch.  How are they picking up books?  Are they picking up the same book day after day?  Are they making progress in the book?  We use Penny Kittle’s page tracker to help us see the page kids are on in class.  That way if a child is on the same page day after day, I know a conversation is waiting to happen.  Perhaps the book is boring, perhaps they don’t understand it, perhaps something is happening outside of class that is affecting them in class.  Either way, that small sheet of paper allows me to see if they are making progress.  I don’t need it as a reading log, I need it so that kids can take control over their own reading habits and see whether they are making true progress as they challenge themselves.  That way they have tangible data when we reflect at the end of every quarter.

We also set meaningful goals.  I recently wrote about what that looks like at the beginning of the year, but it is these goals that I discuss with kids.  While some may be quantity based, others are based on habit.  You may notice that so much of what we do is conversation based.  Not having a computer to tell me these things forces me to speak more to students, for them to actually reflect on their lives as readers, this is always a great thing.

When students finish a book, they often do what we adults do.  They recommend it.  They put it back on the shelf.  They hand it to someone to read it as well.  Sometimes they write about it in a reading response, but not often, because I have found that it is often all of the things we have kids do with their reading that actually makes them dislike reading.  This year, I will also have them do reading ladders, an idea created by Teri Lesene, explained here, so that students can ponder whether they are challenging themselves or simply reading at the same rung.  They also keep a list of books they have read, finished, or abandoned in their notebook and at any point, I can ask to see that.  This list is something we update in class so that the kids that forget also have a chance to do it.  For kids who are motivated by competition, I try to make it an internal one.   Can they beat last year’s numbers of books or some other goal?  I do not believe that reading should be rewarded with a prize because it tells kids that reading itself is not worthy of their time.  That it is something they are being bribed to do because it has no value on its own.  Reading is its own reward.

And finally, when it comes to the assessment of skills, I don’t need a test on a book to tell me whether they comprehend it.  I can either discuss the book with them even if I haven’t read it or I can use a common text, such as a short story, read aloud, or picture book to assess their skills of reading.  After all, all of the independent reading we do is for practice, for building the love, it is not to be graded, the skills we are developing are what we need to grade and that can happen with any text that we know together.

Getting rid of any component that has been a cornerstone of instruction is scary, it takes work, and it takes a change in practice.  But it is worth it for our students and the reading experiences they deserve.  I would recommend anyone who is looking to get rid of a computer program to really speak about the experiences that need to replace it.  How will that look on a day-to-day basis and also how it will help the students.

Teaching is hard work, it is easy to see how we can be persuaded to place children in front of computers to help us out.  To see the short-term gains sometimes from these programs.  And yet, what about the long-term?  At what point do children, and adults for that matter, need to internalize what reading really is?  A discovery of self?  A discovery of the world?  A transport into more understanding, more empathy, more imagination?  Removing AR is a process, but one that is worthy of our time, because kids deserve rich reading experiences at every level, and computers, no matter how well-tested their programs are, cannot provide the same meaningful interaction as we get from a conversation, real assessment, and building a community of readers.

To see more thoughts on AR please see Jen Robinson’s posts which showcase other work on it.  Donalyn Miller’s post on it and do take the time to read Stephen Krashen’s discussion of the research that AR uses as a selling point.