being a teacher, books, choices, Reading Identity, student choice

In Defense of Graphic Novels…Again

Our graphic novel room awaits

Every few months, this notion of graphic novels as being something we need to push children out of comes into my life. Whether it is through the words of a teacher who tells a student to “pick something harder,” a home adult who tells their child they can’t read graphic novels anymore, or even the disdain that entire schools or districts offer up at the mention of expanding their collection; misplaced attacks on graphic novels continue.

And I see its effects on the readers I teach. The stories they share of the books they used to read or the books they loved but were restricted from. The way they marvel at the entire room we have full of them. At the relief that they can read anything they want. At the desire to read more of them and more often, as quickly as they can in case the adults in charge change their mind. And while so many of them have been given full access to graphic novels, some haven’t, and so for the sake of all of the other educators who perhaps find themself in the same boat as I do once again, I am pulling together a list of research, resources, and discussion of why graphic novels are “real” books and why they, of course, belong not just on our shelves but also in the hands of any reader who desires to read them.

I have written about this topic before, after all, the introduction of Dog Man by Dav Pilkey singlehandedly changed the reading life of one of my own children who now devours manga at a rapid pace. I could tell you story upon story of kids who told us they hated reading and completely changed their reading identity after having devoured a year of reading graphic novels. Of kids who fell back in love with reading because of graphic novels. Of home adults who marvel at how many books their child now reads because of graphic novels. Of the kids who have finally seen themselves as superheroes, as regular heroes, or who have finally seen themselves period.

And yet they get little respect in some reading circles. They are shared as lesser versions of reading, as something we only offer kids who have less developed skills or who are younger as a way to bridge them into “real reading.” As something you do on breaks from school but not as a part of the reading experiences we co-create. Yet, the beauty of graphic novels is in the difference from more traditional print media. That they offer their own unique reading experience that is different from reading a traditional text that offers no visual component. Often those who oppose the use of graphic novels with students or even a steady reading diet of it, compare the two experiences and find one lacking rather than see them for the unique experiences they are. Of course, stamina is developed differently in a text that relies only on decoding to create the full story, however, that doesn’t dismiss the reading of graphic novels. It simply reminds me of why it is important that children are surrounded by many different formats and text complexities in their reading choices. Not so we can limit them as readers but, instead, so we can continue to offer choices as they broaden their reading experiences.

The complexity of reading skills that it requires to fully comprehend a graphic novel has been well-documented. Children need to read at a slower pace in order to interpret the pictures and also decode the words, then synthesize the two components together, while also having spatial awareness and training in order to piece the images together correctly. That is not easy by any mile, which is why I often have to remind or even teach children how to read graphic literature correctly when they do not understand a story. These are reading skills that we use often as visual literacy becomes a larger part of how we communicate and express ourselves. Graphic novels, comic books, and other visual components are on the rise, because so is the use of visual literacy in everyday life, not because we are lazier but because we continue to evolve in our communication style and needs.

But for me, the biggest reason why I am an avid supporter of protecting, and highlighting the reading of graphic novels is the readers themselves. We, the adults in charge of reading instruction, have got to stop limiting and shaming the choices that our readers make. I hear so many complain about how the kids aren’t reading anymore and yet within those complaints, I don’t often see a reflection of which practices we have implemented that may have pushed kids out or away from reading. I get the need for longer text with more words. I get the need for continual growth of readers in order to reach whichever “level” someone has decided will mean they are fully developed at their age group, but what I don’t understand is our gatekeeping of reading materials and experiences. It should be common sense that if we want children to develop their own reading identities then we put them in charge of at least part of that identity, why not book choice? Why not invite them to reflect on the choices of reading materials they make and then ask them how they plan to challenge themselves within those choices? When a child only reads graphic novels, why not honor that and introduce them to further choices that embrace further complexities in storytelling, vocabulary, and visual literacy components? Why not feed their fire rather than douse it with our well-meaning intentions?

If we want children to see reading as something that enrichens their lives beyond the confinement of school, then we must accept where they are in their reading journey and then help them develop and nurture that identity. That starts with honoring their choices because these choices are an extension of who they are. So when we tell them it is time to move on prematurely from something they love, instead of seeing it as a worthy challenge, it creates yet another obstacle and poor experience with reading.

Resources for Expanding your Collection:

How to teach using comics and graphic novels:

Inspiration for why graphic novels and comics matter:

Materials geared toward sharing with home adults:

In our relentless pursuit of co-creating better reading experiences for children it is so important that we do not leave the very children behind that we intend to create the experience for. And so if you find yourself in a situation where the reading of graphic novels or comics is questioned or prohibited, I hope this collection of links and further support will be helpful. If you know of any additional resources I should add, let me know. These are the ones I have used and use currently.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me coach, collaborate with your teachers, or speak at your conference, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest 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.

being a teacher, being me

Perhaps Like Me

I have been meaning to check in on here, to write out words that do not carry the weight of the world within them, and yet every night, as I fall asleep before 9 PM, I am left with no words, no energy, no reason to share what we are doing because all of my energy seems to be centered in merely existing as this year unfolds.

We thought that last year would be hard, and yet this year, with its intangible difficulties, with its ever-present pressure to continue to just figure it out, has snuck up on me and my family in a way I could have not imagined. How do you maintain a sense of family when you barely see each other beyond the dining room table and guiltily still put your own children to bed around 8 PM just so that you can try to catch up on the sleep that seems to never be caught?

Perhaps, you find yourself in a similar situation. Unable to quite explain to others why this year is harder than the last and yet wish that you could so that perhaps someone could you give you an answer of what to do instead? Because you have tried to change the way you teach, you have adapted, differentiated, cut back, raised up, and lessened the load. You have sought out the experts that graciously share their knowledge, eager to give as much as they can even as they don’t have to navigate the everyday realities of teaching during an ongoing pandemic and you wonder how much they really can know. Perhaps, like me, you have read books, listened to podcasts, browsed social media, and stared in awe as others seem to be functioning just fine, and wondered what is wrong with you and this exhaustion that creeps itself into everything you don’t do. Perhaps, like me, you have tried to make space for self-care but realized that even there you run out of time. And so the guilt intensifies because now you cannot even care for yourself well so how are you ever to be trusted with the care of others?

And perhaps like me, you stand in your classroom, surrounded by incredible children, and realize that this is not the root of the exhaustion but everything that waits outside of the door is. That these kids, these brilliant, resilient, vivacious kids, are not the reason for the despair but one of the only things that combat it. That if you are feeling this way then how do the kids feel? And you see it in the dragged footsteps of your own children as you get them out of bed, in their short responses when you ask what homework they have, in their pleas to please stay home just so we can be together. The world changed and yet we are expected to go on as if it hasn’t because we have so much to do.

And the tiredness is pervasive. It shows up when you check your email and see one more helpful tip or additional thing to do. It shows up when you are told of the professional development that must still be completed even though you know that you have developed yourself more in the last 20 months than you ever had before in your teaching career and no official recognition happened for that. It shows up when you are expected to be evaluated this year and it makes you want to laugh because you are certain this year is not the year to think of the future because you can barely keep up with the growth you have already been forced through. And how are administrators supposed to find time for that anyway? It shows up when your community is at odds with schools at the center because of what they say you do or don’t do to indoctrinate children

Yet the world keeps spinning and we are told to not only continue to do the near-impossible; catch them up, fill the gap, change your teaching, change the world, but also to take care of ourselves, to rest, meditate, and go for walks. To consider how every action we do charts our course for the future. And you try, and you fail, and you feel like it will never be enough, and yet you show up the next day and try again. Because that’s what we do. We try again, even if we no longer know what to try or how we can find the energy for again.

And we will do so until we break because that is what the system has trained us to do.

So in this quiet moment of this Saturday without plans, I urge us all to also recognize that the new normal is being shaped right now and that unless we collectively raise our voices and push back on the increased workload, the increased pressure to get back to what was a broken before, this will be the norm. That this feeling that so many of us carry of not being enough, of exhaustion, will be the feelings that shape the teaching professions even more so for years to come. And it wasn’t like teaching was an easy profession to begin with.

So perhaps, like me, you don’t need more to do but less. For someone to remind you that we are doing hard things every day. That the kids in our care are doing hard things every day. Of how we inch by inch are building a new normal and how we need to be in charge of what that normal looks like alongside the kids in our care. That if we do not continually remember how broken the system was to begin with then surely we will try to glue back together the pieces even as the cracks show.

And so I remember how important boundaries are, of how it cannot all be placed on the shoulders of educators because that was never what our job was supposed to be. Of the power of saying no, guilt-free. Of the power of raising your voice and pushing back. Of saying enough. Of recognizing that there is only so much you can do and that does not make you a bad educator but instead a realistic one. Of knowing that every day the biggest gift we can give to the kids in our care is to be fully rested, to be fully present in order to recognize that no, the problem is not just you, it is the very system we reside in, one that we have a chance to shape into something better than it was before but not if we don’t push back on the things being forced upon us now. So rest up and raise your voice when you can. I know I will.

being a teacher, books, picture books, Reading

#PernilleRecommends – My Favorite Reads May through September, 2021

If you follow me on Instagram, you may know that I recommend a lot of books on there, in fact, it is the number one thing I use my account for. Perhaps you follow me there? If you don’t, or if you missed some, I figured a blog post to pull them all together would be helpful. That way you can see what I have read and loved, see what age groups they may work and order some books yourself. I don’t post all of the books I read, just the ones I love so much that I want to share them with others. I use the hashtag #pernillerecommends and they get cross-posted to Twitter as well if you want more than 1,000 book recommendations. Either way, here are the books I loved and shared from May until today!

Picture Books

Early Readers

Middle Grade

Young Adult

Professional Development

Which books have you read and loved? I am already excited to share all of the October reads I am loving over on Instagram. Happy reading!

As always, I am also curating lists on Bookshop.org – a website who partners with independent bookstores to funnel book purchases through them, if you use my link, I get a small affiliate payout.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a teacher, being me, Reading, Reading Identity, Student dreams

Spending Time in the Small Moments

I have been spending time in the small moments lately in class. The moments where I get to connect with a student one-on-one, small peeks into who they are, what they are willing to share. I find myself speaking more quietly, smiling bigger so that hopefully my eyes can show how grateful I am for their time, their words, their trust. And we have slowly been building some sort of us, a community pieced together by the stories we share and don’t share.

At the cornerstone of what we do is our reading conference. Not just because these small conversations allow me to get to know my students as readers, but because they allow me to get to know them, period. A greeting, a question about how 7th grade is going and what is happening in their life and then we are off, speaking about who they are as readers, what they are working on and the motivation they have behind the work they are doing. They tell me proudly of successes, sometimes shyly of perceived failures and I reassure as much as I can; it’s okay if you haven’t read any books in a while, it’s okay that you don’t like reading ( we will work on that together), it’s okay if you have never found a book, if your brain is loud when you read, if you just don’t have the energy. It’s okay if you just read graphic novels, if you dislike magical fantasy, if you have yet to find an author that speaks seemingly just to you. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay I repeat as a way to hopefully make them believe it. To help them know that they are who they are and I am so glad they are here in our classroom together. However they showed up, whoever showed up. We are on a journey, a journey!, and wherever you are is where you will start.

I have to remind myself of this journey as I feel the silent urge to move faster. To get further. To teach more. To “catch up.” Who are we supposed to catch up to anyway? I have to remind myself to stay in the small moments, to use my eyes to express what the mask hides. To reach out in all the ways that we have at our fingertips, to assure and to ensure. To share my own stories as an invitation for them to share theirs. To handle their words with the care they deserve, to handle them with care.

And so I write down notes and I ponder how can I serve these kids best? How can I help them pick up their pieces of their reading journey and thread together a new pattern, one that continues the successes that they have, one that mends their perceived shortcomings so that they can see that no matter what they carry into the classroom, they are readers. Because so many of them don’t see that. So many of them have convinced themselves that because they do not like reading, then they are not readers. They dismiss their own habits of consumption of text. They scoff at the one book that they did like, seeing it as fluke rather than a goal that they accomplished. They fail to see their own journey as readers as the testament to their own determination that it really is. These kids, our kids, who see themselves as kids who hate reading don’t even recognize their own strength. How still showing up into a space filled with books, how still book shopping despite the many books they have tried, how still trying just one more book is nothing but resilience on display. Is everything I hope every reader has; perseverance to keep trying despite how awful it might have been. To have hope in books. To have hope in themselves. To have hope in our year together.

And so I will stay in the small moments, in weighing how I speak, how I read the room. How I am paying attention to the subtle shifts in dynamics and the subtle shifts in trust. In finding time for all of the conversations, not just for me but for them as well as we build this year together. Their words are gifts, no matter how they are spoken. These kids are gifts, no matter how they show up. Read on. Speak on. Dream on.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a teacher

Where Am I Sharing Ideas These Days?

You may have noticed that I have not been sharing as much on this blog as of late. While there is a variety of reasons for it including the death of my father, the school year planning starting, and just trying to not work as much as I have in previous years, I am still actively sharing ideas, just in other formats.

So where can you find more ideas from me these days?

Conferences – I am so excited to be back out with school districts, professional organizations and conferences, whether in-person or virtual. While I continue to teach fulltime in 7th grade and have no plans for changing that, I am able to take some time to go and coach other educators and also speak on any of the work we do. In the next few months, I will be with educators in New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Iceland. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please just reach out.

Instagram – I use this platform almost every single day, whether it is to share book recommendations under #PernilleRecommends, snapshots from my classroom or sometimes personal life, or even questions to think about the practices we uphold. This is where I share the most and where you will find the most peeks into the teaching I do. To follow me there, go here.

Twitter – I continue to use Twitter to share questions, share ideas, and also have my posts crossposted from Instagram. This is where you will see longer threads of thoughts as well as links to other incredible resources shared by others. To follow me there, go here.

Facebook – I have a like/hate relationship with this platform but I do love the groups I have created on there for the massive ideas that are shared. Whether it is for the Global Read Aloud or for the Passionate Readers Facebook group, I share classroom documents and unit plans here for the most parts as well as post questions. There are thousands of people in these groups willing to share, join us if you want.

My books – I have written four education books since 2015 and many of my ideas can be found detailed in there. I am currently writing a fifth book as well, which is also taking up a lot of my time when the space is there for it. It is so exciting to dive back into the world of book writing and to get longer ideas down when thinking about how to build reading identity as part of a child’s personal journey. We shall see when it and if it comes out.

Of course, the blog will continue, however, only when I feel the need to write. So until the next idea comes in, see you in the other spaces!

being a student, being a teacher, Student, student choice, writing, Writing Identity

Using Oral Storytelling Kits with Middle Schoolers

A few years ago I traveled to do a day of learning with passionate educators in Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows in British Columbia. After flight cancellations and changes in airports, Denise Upton, one of the district’s helping teachers, graciously agreed to pick me up and take care of me during the stay. While together, she told me excitedly about Story Workshop, oral storytelling grounded within playful literacy, that they were doing with children as part of their literacy approach. She shared all of the work that they did with students in order to give them natural materials to manipulate and create stories with before they ever sat down to write. She spoke of Indigenous oral storytelling traditions and how they were working on bringing the rich traditions of the peoples’ whose land their school buildings sat on and whose tribal members were within their school population back into the classrooms as a way to honor, teach, and preserve a broader envisioning of writing I was inspired and intrigued. Particularly, after she told me how they were using these material kits with their upper grade levels as well and that the response they had was incredibly positive. After a whirlwind visit, the idea sat in the back of my mind for a while, hoping to someday become something I wanted to do with my own 7th graders.

Well, after a year of teaching unlike any other, after too much screen and not enough togetherness. After once again teaching kids who repeatedly told me how much they hated writing, how writing was so hard, whose sentences were forced across the pages, I decided that some day was now. With a commitment to reconsider every unit and every idea we build our classroom learning on, taking our writing in a much more tactile and playful direction was exactly what I need right now to get excited about next school year. Hopefully, my incoming students will think so as well.

So with a loose idea of what it was Denise had shared with me, the seeds started to grow; what if I build some oral storytelling kits for kids to use in partnerships, trios, or by themselves before we begin to write? What if I collect natural materials for them to manipulate and play with as they share stories from their own lives and also from their imaginations? Surely someone had done this before?

The answer is yes, many have! None of my ideas shared here are really original but I got so many questions on social media when I shared the kits I was building that I figured a blog post would be nice. If you are learning about Indigenous storytelling, there are so many wonderful resources shared, such as this one. If you google “Loose Parts”, you can see a lot of information. If you follow the work of Angela Stockman, she has been sharing so many ideas for years and is truly inspirational. If you are trained within Montessori, you know this work. If you know Reggio Emilia principles, then you know these ideas. If you have worked with younger grades, you probably do this already. There are so many resources out there, so dig in and learn.

My purpose for these kits are to get kids talking more before they write out stories, whether they be stories from their own lives or stories they invent. I want them to build scenes or entire stories together or individually depending on the exploration we are doing. I want them to play with their imagination and ot be forced into written production as quickly as we have done in the past, I want them to build community through story, I want them use their hands more. I want English to have more joy and I want it to authentically fit into the identity-centered work we already do in our literacy explorations.

Building the Kits

I had a million ideas right away and needed a way to ground them so I started by focusing on ideas for what to put in them and also building the kits to give me a more tangible sense of what it would look like. I hate so much that educators are almost always forced to purchase things out of their own pocket, so I spent school budget money to purchase the toolboxes. I bought two different kinds, five altogether, so that I can share them between tables – I typically teach 28 students at a time, so I wanted to make sure that I had enough kits to share materials between 10 different groups if need be. I also needed the kits to not take up too much space in our classroom, be easy to store and move, as well as have different size compartments. The first kind I bought was this one and the second kind was this one.

All the boxes are removable in both kits so we can spread them out on the different tables as needed.

Once I had the boxes, then I got more serious with my materials. I had a few guidelines I wanted to follow:

  • Natural materials whenever possible
  • Different sizes of things to use
  • Material that doesn’t necessarily look like “one” thing in order for them to be used for many things
  • Low cost and easy to replace

Then I wrote a list, there are so many lists floating on the internet but I posted mine to Instagram and got even more ideas as well as a huge “Duh!” moment. Notice on my original list, I have nuts on it. That is not going to work at all for some of my students due to their allergies. After a helpful educator made me see the light, I updated my original list.

I knew that if I felt like spending a ton of money, I easily could just order all of these things but I don’t want to. So, instead I turned to my local Buy Nothing Facebook group and asked if anyone had any materials they could donate. So what you are looking at in the kits above, almost everything is donated from kind strangers or friends who happened to have materials lying around. Amazing!

So right now in the kits I have:

  • Seashells, all sorts, all sizes.
  • Pine cones – I need to gather more.
  • Small popsicle sticks – they are pointy and I don’t know if I love that.
  • Wine corks that do not have wine labels on them.
  • Small cork buttons.
  • Wood buttons – I bought a giant bag off the internet.
  • Wool yarn in different colors – I have cut lengths of string in a variety of lengths.
  • White rocks.
  • Feathers – I think I may add more of these.

I also purchased felt mats in green, gray, and brown for the kids to use as a background. They can use more than one if we have enough left over, again I went with natural tones as a way to center us in nature even if the story takes place in a different setting.

Things I would still like to add:

  • Glass beads of some sort
  • Beach pebbles for more color
  • More cork
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Wood slices
  • Acorns
  • Large popsicle sticks

Ideas for use

So while the kits themsleves are a lovely work in progress and bring me happiness right now as I plan, what matters more than the stuff in them is making space for them to be used with our students. So as I planned for the first two weeks of instruction (I do this in order to be able to walk away for awhile, not because I want to work all summer), I planned with the kits in mind.

My two week plan can be viewed here, but please know that it is so much a work in progress, that some of the ideas in it are my own and others are based off of the incredible work others have kindly shared, and that I have given credit to those whose work I am borrowing from or copying. Please feel free to also borrow or use my ideas, just give credit. The kits will be utilized, hopefully, on the third day of school in an activity where students continue to think of the stories they carry and start to build scenes from their own lives that they then, in turn, share with their peers at their tables. After their initial appearance, they will continue to be integrated into our work as we start our first longer writing exploration; personal narrative. Students can use events from their own lives or springboard events from their own lives into a fictional story.

I also want us to think of how the kits may help us work within the emotions we have tied up with our writing, how we can use them to go deeper into story and how stories can weave us together even when we don’t see eye to eye. I am hoping that as we explore our own identities and how that makes us view and react to others, these tangible items will ground us and make us feel safer within our burgeoning community. I am hoping that having these tactile explorations will bring more playfulness into our classroom, as well as more joy. We will also create expectations of how to use the kits with each other. My main focus for that is to be respectful of the material and of what is shared within their stories, but I will ask the students to also think of how to use the materials, how to clean up in order to preserve the kits, and how to work together. It really all ties into the community work we do throughout the year.

My own children helped me eagerly build the kits and have since then also used them. It has been amazing to see them build scenes, stories, and whole worlds using just these materials and then walking me through their stories that they now see so clearly. Even my son who has repeatedly that he hates writing has been using the kits and telling me his stories. I hope I will see the same willingness to try in my 7th graders.

So there you have, my entry in oral storytelling kits. I will share more ideas as I use them with students, but for now, the kits are being built, the ideas are coming together, and the work is just beginning. Have you used kits like this before? Do you have any ideas or questions? I would love to hear your thoughts.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.