Not the kind that surrounds us on a dark night, but the kind that surrounds us as individuals.
Perhaps it is because I have been flying more and as a woman, I constantly find my space taken by white men sitting next to me, refusing to even share an armrest. I am so used to it, I have found I slip into patterns to make myself smaller in order to not encroach on their space.
Perhaps it is because in my thinking work this summer I keep coming back to how white my professional space is within my district, reflective of the lack of diversity of so many districts here in Wisconsin. How can we change this to be reflective of the kids we teach?
Perhaps it is because I see the critical conversations surrounding education online and how often it is silenced because people say we need to speak nicely to each other, to not make the space unwelcoming or unkind. We use these platitudes so often to silence the voices of those who have been silenced for so long that we fail to recognize the same destructive patterns.
Perhaps it is because I see my own daughters apologize for the space they take up at times as we remind them to be nice, to be kind, to speak appropriately, whatever that may mean. Even as I cringe when the words slip out inadvertently, taught to me by many years of public socialization where we are taught which type of women should be heard in this American society. And I can tell you from experience that the minute you raise your voice, you are deemed angry as if anger is a bad thing.
Perhaps it is because I feel like as a white woman I am often afforded more space because of my skin color than I really deserve.
Space, and how much space we are given, seems to be crowded with well-meaning intentions and misguided constraints. Space and what we do with it also seems to be dictated by those who feel their space encroached upon and who must make a decision of whether enough there is enough space for us all. (I think there is, but that is for a different time.)
I think of space when it comes to our students, how for years I have discussed student voice on this blog and how I have attempted to create an environment where students can speak up no matter what they are saying. How for a long time, through my personal reflection, I have implored others to give students’ voice without recognizing the inherent problem in that statement; students already have a voice, they come to us loudly, yet, it is within our pursuit of calm and compliant that we silence them for the benefit of “learning for all.” And so I come to the natural conclusion that my work is not about giving students a voice but instead about space and more specifically, giving them back the space we took from them in the first place.
And that starts with the very first day, the inequity of our voices as we go through our day with kids we don’t even know. How many of us talk about those first days as exhausting because our voices are constantly heard? How many of our students feel drained not because of all that they had to do but instead all they had to listen to? How many of us plan out to the minute what we will be doing in order to “Set the year up right” without a care for how welcome or even safe students may feel in our rooms? Perhaps what we need is a little bit of silence, more them than us, more we than I.
So as I plan for those first of many days, I am thinking about the space of my voice. The space of me within the room and how it needs to be balanced with the space of others. How I need to think of my voice, the adult voice, as something that also takes up space and therefore needs to be weighed in order to give back space to others. And not just in the classroom, but in life. After all, we get one chance to start off right with these new kids, why not get our priorities straight from the get-go?
She tells us that she is not smart. That school is not a place she wants to go to because that’s where all the smart kids go. The ones who can read. The ones who can do things so much easier than her.
She shows us that she is trying. That every word that sits in front of her is a mountain to be climbed, seemingly no matter how many times she has seen it before, the climb is still there. The doubt is still there. The wanting to give up, because “This so hard, Mommy..” and we tell her to sound it out, to try again, to see the letters, even as they move and squiggle and run away from her eyes as she tries once again. Everything taking twice as long as her twin brother. Everything coming at a price of time that seemingly no other child has to give up because to them it just comes easy.
So we search for answers, for teachers who see the girl before they see the problem, for others who like us, sit with a child where reading does not come easy. Where reading is not a magical adventure but instead dreaded work that doesn’t bring happiness but only affirmation of her supposed lack of can. And we get the doctors involved and they tell us their diagnosis and I cry in the meeting because wouldn’t it have been nice if it wasn’t a specific learning disorder but instead just something that hadn’t clicked? Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had it all wrong and she had us all fooled? Wouldn’t it have been nice?
So we sit down with our little girl, who really isn’t so little anymore, and tell her that we did get answers and as we thought it turns out her brain just learns differently. That reading is, indeed, hard to figure out but not impossible. That now that we know more, we can do more, we can get help, we can get support, and we can go in the right direction rather than searching in the dark hoping for something to help us. We can tell she doesn’t believe us, not yet, anyway.
And as summer unfolds, we hope that having this time can give us the time we need to build her back up, not because anyone tore her down, but because this mountain of reading has been telling her for too long that she is not as good as she thought she was. And once those whispers started they were awfully hard to drown out when the proof is right there in front of her on the page.
And I think of how the systems of school play into this self-evaluation. How the grades and the labels so often harm. How we, as educators, sometimes confuse good grades with dedication, as if a child who is failing a class isn’t dedicated? As if all a child needs is to just work harder, or hard enough because then the learning will surely come, and how for some of our kids, that is simply not true. That I can see my child work hard. That I can see my child stay at the table longer. That I can see my child give her best every single day. That I can see my child get extra teaching, tutoring outside of school, and yet the results don’t come because it turns out that hard work doesn’t always equal results.
And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones working the hardest if we really had to compare.
And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones pulled out of recess and fun activities in order to go work more.
And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones given fewer opportunity for choice because it turns out that when you need extra support we have to cut something out of your schedule.
And these kids, our kids, sit with the same kids year after year, traveling as a group because the only thing we have identified them by is their lack of ability.
And these kids, our kids notice.
And these kids, our kids, know it.
And these kids, our kids, feel it.
And these kids, our kids, slowly start to take on the new identities we have created for them in our data meetings, in our hallway conversations, in our quick meetups when we make our lists, where we make our groups, where we share the stories that we think define these kids.
And these kids, our kids, are honored for their efforts by being given new names; struggling readers, lower level learners, behind, and you wonder how they lose themselves in the process.
And you wonder why one day, despite our best intentions, they tell us that they don’t think they are smart and that they don’t want to go to school.
So as my family once again adjusts itself in our pursuit of learning for all. As we celebrate the answers we have been given this week while nurturing the child who is at the center of it all, I ask you to please consider this. My child, our daughter, is not a struggling reader, she is a reader. Period. To tell her otherwise would break her heart.
And so these kids, our kids, deserve to be fully spoken about, to be fully known. For us to start a conversation asking how they see themselves and if it is through a negative lens we actively fight against that. And we tell them we see their effort, we tell them we see their progress. We tell them we see their smart, and we stop with the labels, and the assumptions, and we see the kid for who they are rather than what the data tells us.
Because this kid, my kid, doesn’t think that reading will ever be something she can do, and I need, she needs, everyone that works with her to believe otherwise and loudly, because my voice is not enough.
Every year, I do several surveys at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I am the only one. As we try to get to know these kids that have come into our lives, I think it is so important to gather as much information as they are willing to tell us in order for us to be better teachers for them. But I also think about how hard it can be to answer questions those first few days of school when you don’t really know what your answers will be used for, when you are not quite sure who this person is who is asking you these questions, when you are perhaps not even sure what the questions mean.
So this year, I am changing my approach a little bit. The questions have been changed to be more of a progression of trust, not because I am under any impression that from Tuesday to Friday the students will trust me, but because I want to honor the relationships we are building and the fact that they take time. Students will be asked to answer a few questions every day, but can also choose to speak to me about these things. They are focused more specifically on what the child needs from me potentially to be successful and not so much on academics. Students will do a separate survey every day, while not ideal, it will allow me to see their answers as the week progresses and then create one answer froup per student at the end of the week.
Along with these questions, I will also give my reading and writing surveys during that first week. Those will be on paper as I place them in my conferring binder alongside the notes I take during our conversations.
Before the children have shown up, we will also have asked those at home about them. We want to reach out to parents and caregivers as experts on their children and honor the knowledge they have through a home survey. It is sent electronically before school starts and I respond to each person that takes it with follow up questions, those who do not have access to email or choose not to take it online are handed a paper version once school starts.
While the first-week surveys are not done, I am sharing here in order to receive feedback. What have I missed? What have I misworded? What would you add or remove? You are more than welcome to make a copy and make it fit your students, just please give credit. To see the surveys, please see here:
Yesterday, I asked a question on social media, a question I have asked before. A question that has been rolling around in my head here in Costa Rica as I dream of the year to come.
While responses continue to come in from around the world, I am struck by the urgency so many of the questions are wrapped in. An urgency that speaks to the hopes and dreams, and yes, sometimes fears, that I also share as my own children inch closer to a new year with new teachers.
See my child as the gift they are.
See my child for how hard they try.
See my child for all they are and not just the decisions they may make in their low moments.
Give my child a way to let you know who they are, what they believe in, what they dream, and what they fear.
Get to know my child beyond the data, beyond the rumors, beyond the assumptions that they may be wrapped in due to society, due to the past, due to things outside of their control.
Take the time to be someone in their corner, someone that they know will have their back, someone they know will fight for them and believe in them.
Partner with us, those who send you the child, so that we can be a part of their journey, because it is hard to believe our child is welcome in your class, in your school, if we don’t feel welcome as well.
Get to know our child beyond the basics and have them get to know you as well.
But also, take you time. Don’t expect our child to trust you right away. Earn their trust, earn our trust, through your actions and not just your words. Be a champion and admit when you are wrong, help us connect with you as you connect with our child. Because it hopefully goes without saying, I send you our hearts every day, please take care of them.
To honor the time it takes, I will use questions throughout the year not just the first day or first week. I will continue to ask students many of the ones shared spaced out over time in order to recognize that relationships, real ones, take time and that the answer a child gives me the first week will, hopefully, deepen as we get to know each other.
Finally, for me, I want to honor their history and their home. As an immigrant myself, my biggest identifier is being Danish, and yet for my children they are assumed fully Americans in their schools, even though they are designated ESL, there is little with care or even curiosity to the identity they share with me, the threads that we weave throughout our home and family. So I want to continue to work on creating a space where all of students’ identifiers and heritage is understood, honored, and developed.
So what would parents like us to ask their child, here are a few of the many tweets, to see them all, please go to the thread, it is absolutely worth your time.
And so now, I ask; what do you wish your child’s teacher would ask them as a new school year begins?
Working through my keynote for this morning and I keep coming back to this moment from my own students – I asked my students who the “bad” kids were and they answered, “The teachers tell us…”
Even though I was there to witness it, it still hits hard every single time I see it. The power we wield, as educators, as adults, in how human beings see each other is astounding. It is something I carry with me every single time I teach, that through my actions, whether conscious or not, I will shape how a child’s humanity is potentially seen by others. While not singlehandedly determining the narrative, my presence, my being will provide others with a road map of how to see themselves and others.
It is something I don’t feel we spend enough time discussing, pondering, and helping us shape our teaching experiences.
And it starts on the very first day where we explain through our rules what “good kids” do and a child looks at that list and doesn’t see themselves.
That quote is 5 years old and yet, I wonder how many kids would still say something like that in schools across the world.
How many kids would consider themselves “bad” kids because that is the legacy we make for them?
Or how we label entire grade levels as “hard” groups or other awful titles and then wonder why they live up to it?
Words matter, actions matter, and the way we help children shape their identities in school to the point of where some are trying to succeed despite us is something to sit with, and then something to do something about.
Because as the mother of a child who felt unsafe at school due to bullying, who felt her teacher hated her in kindergarten, that was exactly the legacy she thought she should live up to. A child who didn’t belong, who was angry, who was broken.
And as a teacher who continues to screw up, despite her best intentions, I have realized that the least I can do is ask the very kids I teach whether they feel safe and respected and if they tell me no, then do something about it.
Because then, perhaps, we can change the narrative.
One of the biggest changes within children’s publishing since I became a teacher and a parent has been the explosion of graphic novels onto the market. While comics have long been mainstream in the home, and many of us grew up devouring comics, the power of the graphic novel to excite readers and keep them reading is tangible. So much so that if you looked at my own classroom collection, you wouldn’t just see a bin or two but instead 16 of them and growing. It is a format that is growing significantly not just in my classroom, but also my home, with my kids crowding around every book delivery asking whether there is a graphic novel in there and fighting over it if there is. In fact, graphic novels are the biggest reason our oldest daughter believes she can actually read and be a reader.
Graphic novels are nothing new, the first one was published in 1842, but the way they have captured the imagination of readers everywhere is nothing less than amazing. And why not? Combining powerful illustrations with, at times, the sparse text is sure to keep many readers reading. And yet, one of the biggest push backs in reading also happens to surround graphic novels with many parents and educators lamenting their “easiness.” Within these missives lies a movement to then steer kids away from these “dessert” books and into “harder” reading, or outright banning the reading of graphic novels, telling kids that these books are just for fun, don’t count toward whatever set goal or points, or even confiscating them from kids seen reading them.
No wonder, our kids are confused when we tell them to read more but then tell them not that!
As parents, it is important that we do not become part of the groups of adults who dismiss the value of graphic novels, who effectively stop our own children from these meaningful reading experiences, all in the name of “harder” reading. We must also become advocates for these incredible books that are giving many children a way back into reading that wasn’t there before. And while fantastic organizations like the CBLDF – Comic Book Legal Defense Fund – have been heading the charge for many years, we know that knowledge is power and so I think it helps to also break down some of the ideas surrounding graphic novels and the stigma that is often attached to them.
So what do we know about graphic novels and their readability? Their enticing nature? And their place in not just our schools but also in our homes?
It is easy to see why many people, adults especially, would like to dismiss all graphic novels as being too easy to read, thus not challenging a reader enough. Many adults seem to be very stuck on what a challenging reading experience looks like; it must have this many pages, it must have dense wording, it must center around a deep topic, and the institutionally ingrained notion that it would be best if it were a “classic” book, so that the reader will not only have an exciting reading experience but an enriching one as well. And while there is the need for a balance within what we read, this idea of what is easy to a reader is something worth discussing.
While there are many nuances to what makes a book easy for someone, common traits are that the reader can easily access all of the information on the page, read and understand all of the words, visualize all of the story in order to fill in the gaps between story and reader, as well as follow the story and complete it within whatever timely manner would be sensible for that reader. An easy book, therefore, seems to be used interchangeably with what we expect a good fit book to be for all of our readers. So why is it that graphic novels as a whole are seen as easier than most chapter books?
The pictures or illustrations, of course, seem to be the most common answer.
Yet, in my own experience with my children and students, it is the pictures that actually add to the sophistication and difficulty of graphic novels because of the skills required to read the images. Think of it this way, when a reader is translating symbols into meaning such as what we do when we read, they are being asked to not only read the symbols but also decode it and create meaning behind the words, or translating those words into images. As a reader, they are then tasked with inferring and visualizing what is happening in the story in their own mind leading to a full understanding. In a graphic novel, readers are still expected to decode and understand all of the words, but at the same time as this complex process is happening, they are also asked to decode and interpret the images that go along with the words. And then they have to combine that through synthesis in their brain otherwise the book will make no sense. That is not an easy process. The visual complexity of many graphic novels convey a story that would take ages to convey, yet are being presented within one panel or page. It takes time to dive into a graphic novel, much as it does with a text-only book. To read more about what process the brain must go through when reading a graphic novel, read this blog post by Leslie Morrison
In fact, I have noticed throughout my years as a teacher that it is most often my readers who read very quickly who find graphic novels hard to read. They simply do not slow down enough to fully decode the images, mostly focusing on the words, and thus missing outright the subtleties that the images themselves provide, thus losing out on a deeper meaning. So while the illustrations may be what is enticing to the reader in the first place, the illustrations also add a layer of complexity onto the text that the words themselves would not have provided.
One can argue that the illustrations mean that the reader no longer has to visualize the story on their own, yet when asking my readers of graphic novels to describe scenes it is clear that many of them go beyond the page in their understanding of what a scene looks like and once again are “filling in the gaps” between the page and themselves, inferring beyond the story and adding the nuances we would expect any reader to add.
And sure, some of my kids rush through graphic novels so quickly that I know as their mom that they did not engage in close reading of the pages and illustrations, similar to what happens when a reader skims through the pages of a non-illustrated book just to find out what happens next. However, here there is one distinction in the habit of many readers of graphic novels; while they may read the graphic novel quickly on the first try, what often happens then is the re-reads of the same graphic novel as they pore over the pages more closely once they have navigated the story once. This process is one that only adds value as their understanding deepens with each re-read.
Yet the words “It’s too easy” continue to haunt our graphic novel committed readers. And as a parent, I do understand the hesitation and perhaps even fear that because your child is not doing the hard work of visualizing a story independently, and not practicing these skills without images attached to them, that they are somehow developing less than a child that doesn’t get to read graphic novels or stays clear of them. But here is the thing; those skills are being practiced, it just might not be within their independent reading choice. If you look at a broad swath of a child’s reading day in school, most of the text they are given is image-free. They are asked to navigate complex texts within literacy classes, science classes, and social studies. They are asked to pull out the meaning from texts that are often above their comprehension and background level and working on the skills to sustain attention. What schools have started to add more of is actual visual literacy as dictated by the Common Core and other education reform initiatives. The same skills being honed within visual literacy, or the reading of everything that surrounds the words (color, layout, texture et al) can and should be transferred to reading regular text. With the onslaught of images within our day, being able to critically analyze them is a vital component of comprehension of our world.
Another aspect of the “too easy” notion is that kids will only want to read “easy” books if that is all they are allowed to read. For this argument, I encourage us, adults, to look back at our own reading journeys and visualize the books that have shaped us. If we do this we should notice not a smooth diagonal line where each book increased in complexity but rather stages and stops on a reading journey that has probably been bumpy yet still helped us grow. How many of us still read the same books we read as children because that is all we care to read – well, if you are an educator this may be you, but still, the books I gravitated toward as a child don’t hold the same value or intrigue as they did when I was younger. When I was ready, I moved on to something else, and this is exactly what research also shows us: That graphic novel reading will not lead to less challenging reading, but instead to more challenging as kids mature and naturally gravitate toward harder texts whether illustrated or not. As Krashen, Lee, and Lao say in their book Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading, “Children in a print-rich environment in which they are free to select their own reading do not stay with easy books. They not only read more as they mature, but they also select, on their own, books that are harder to read and have more complicated plots.”
So what is it we mean by easy? I think that the word we are looking for instead is enticing. That graphic novels offer readers of many skills different points to enter into a text through. That the abundance of images offers readers a way to anchor their thinking and sink deeper into a text that they might not have been able to access in a regular text-only form. That readers with or without reading difficulties can find success within graphic novels, not just in a comprehension aspect, but also in a reading identity aspect. They can be readers that love reading. They can be readers who feel at home within the pages of a book, for some this may be for the first time ever.
This is why we need to review our own adult reactions when it comes to a child who embraces graphic novels. Rather than worry that somehow the reading experience they are engaged in is somehow less-than, we should be jumping in with both feet, finding more graphic novels for them to explore and also reading some ourselves. After all, as parents and caregivers, we often have an immense sense of power when it comes to what our children deem proper reading. Why not show our children just how much these books matter? Why not change the conversation?