being a teacher, books, Literacy, parents

Not Too Easy – Embracing Graphic Novels at Home

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.

A shared read aloud makes the wait go faster

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?

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

To Our Daughter’s 4th Grade Teacher

To Thea’s 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Thompson,

Tonight, during bedtime, Thea looked sad. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me in that heavy way that only kids can seemingly pull off that she doesn’t want 4th grade to end. That she doesn’t want to leave her friends. That she doesn’t want to leave you.

That while summer will be fun, and 5th grade might be cool, she would be okay with simply staying in 4th grade for a long time. With you.

This is from the same child who in August begged us to not send her to school. Who asked over and over again if she could just go somewhere else. If she could be homeschooled. Who asked us what she should do when the bullying would start back up, because she knew it would. Who asked us if we thought that this would be a year where she would make more friends. Who asked us in a way that told us that she had little hope for the year ahead.

This kid. This beautiful, strong-willed, stubborn girl doesn’t want to head into summer. Doesn’t want to spend days doing nothing. Doesn’t want to go on vacation, or go to the pool. Not it if means 4th grade is over.

That’s how good you have made it for her. That’s how much of a difference you have made in the life of a girl who didn’t think school would ever be safe again.

So if you are ever in doubt about what you do, much like we as educators sometimes are. If you are ever in doubt whether you are making a difference, whether what you do matters, let me tell you this, and the rest of the world to…

You helped our daughter feel safe.

You helped our daughter feel like she belongs.

You helped our daughter find her own strength once again.

You helped our daughter come back to what she was before 3rd grade. Before those kids took so much of her away from us.

And there are simply not enough words for us to thank you. This is my feeble declaration of the deepest gratitude.

So to all the teachers who tried this year. Who gave it their best. Who worked tirelessly so that kids, all kids, could feel safe, could feel accepted, could feel loved, may you know that there are kids in the world, at my house, who are hoping that school will never end just so they can keep being with you.

We go to school every day hoping that what we do matters, and sometimes we don’t know if it does.

But let me tell you this, Mrs. Thompson, and all of the other staff members who helped our daughter rise up out of the ashes; you did this, and it matters, more than you will ever know.

With our deepest gratitude,

Pernille and Brandon

Be the change, being me, failure, Student dreams

It Starts Now

White, Black,  Free Image

I have been thinking a lot about failure. About this whole notion of growth mindset and having kids take risks. About how often we ask kids to just keep trying even when it is hard yet seem to fail to do so ourselves. About how often we expect kids to give us their all, their best, their utmost, and then for them to navigate the pieces when it all falls apart, after all isn’t that what having grit teaches you to do?

About the supposed safety nets we have in place for students to fail safely.

About how we tell them that experimentation is great, that trying something new is the way to learn, about stretching themselves into unknown territory so they can discover who they truly are.

About how it doesn’t all add up.

Because the thing is, and I know I have said this before, we say a lot of things as educators without really thinking about what we are asking all kids to do. We say a lot of things without looking at the systems we already have in place, the routines and procedures that wield so much power in our schools that actively fight against this whole notion of embracing failure as another way to learn.

Take grades for example. We tell kids to take risks but then expect them to all succeed even if on shaky ground. If they don’t, then their scores or assessments reflect that. How often do we fail to recognize that it is because we attach subjective scores to something that we boil learning and curiosity into something we never intended. It becomes nothing more than an experiment in playing the grade game rather than the true learning experience it should be.

Take control and compliance. How often do our beginning of the year routines surround getting kids to be quiet, to sit still, to only ask questions when we designate the time for it. To make only the smallest of spaces for themselves in order for all of us to function because you can’t have a functioning classroom if kids are too loud, too energetic, or take up too much space.

Take how we handle behaviors. How often the preferred method is social isolation playing itself out in some form of removal from the classroom. How often we ask kids to leave in order for us to keep teaching and yet we see the behaviors continue as they rejoin us because nothing has changed in the experience, only paused.

How often we tell our loud kids to quiet down.

How often we tell our quiet kids to speak up.

How often we tell our dreamer kids to come back to Earth.

How often we tell our pragmatic kids to dream.

How often we somehow tell kids that to be a successful student all you have to do is play by the rules but then we never hand them a rule book or we change the rules altogether.

And then we wonder why kids say they don’t think school is for them.

So as we race toward the end of the year, or perhaps only the middle depending on your hemisphere, I want to take a moment to think about what my students are telling me they need. About what I am telling them not just with my words, but in my actions, my routines, and my expectations.

About how I need to continue to ask whether I not only would want to be a student in my own classroom, but also could be a successful one. About how we need to not give students a voice because they already have one, but instead need to carve out an authentic space for the things they have to say.

How it starts with asking questions – do you feel respected, does this learning matter, how can we create engaging learning opportunities together? How it continues with reflection – how is my voice and my power being used as a potential tool for inequity, does every child feel safe with me, does every child have a chance of truly belonging? How it rests with us as we realize that there is still so much to be done, and yet so that can be done if we start within the small decisions we make every day. If we take apart the small routines and structures that we put in place to make it work for everyone and ask whether it truly works for everyone, because almost everyone is not close enough. How along with our thoughts surrounding how we want to have better curriculum, we also need to think of how we want students to feel with us and then how we are going to accomplish that.

How when they tell us that they want to change the world, we start with the one they live in every day; our classrooms, our schools, our attitudes.

And it starts now.

And it continues each day.

Because much like our students, we all have so much to learn. I have so much to learn. I have so much more failing to do, only so I can keep growing.

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

Before They Tell You…

Before they leave.

Before they say goodbye or perhaps they don’t.

Before the last locker is left open.

The final pencil broken.

The room that looks so empty, the hallways so silent.

Before you realize that you never did quite get to all of the things you had hoped, but boy, did you get to a lot.

Before you realize that you can finally let go of that breath you have seemingly been holding for the past many months when you thought about these kids and those choices and their future.

Before you realize that sometimes so long really means goodbye because before the summer ends so does their lease.

Before they tell you it’s finally summer.

Before they tell you again how they can’t wait.

Before they tell you once again that they don’t really think they will be reading, but nice try anyway.

Before the last notebook is forgotten. The final sweaters left behind.

Before the final bus pulls out and you finally know that it is truly done.

Before they tell you it mattered.

Start out the conversation yourself.

Tell them that you wouldn’t trade a moment.

Tell them that you are so glad you got this year with them. That you know you have changed because of them.

That they will always be your kids.

That they will always have a home.

That there will always be a book, a hug, a piece of gum.

But tell them they are ready, even if you’re not.

Tell them that you are proud of them.

That they will be okay. That they are okay.

That you have an incredible job because they are a part of it.

Tell them you cared.

Tell them thank you.

Because without them it wouldn’t really have mattered at all…

Be the change, being a teacher, being me, summer

Ending the Year on a High Note – Some Must Do’s As We Wrap Up

Yesterday, I wrote about what I wanted out of the year and how it had gone, and yet, within that post is also the hope for the coming few months, for the coming year. Isn’t it funny how we, as educators, already start to plan for the “new” year already in the spring?

And so with only a few precious weeks left, I wanted to once again share what my Must-Do’s for the year are in case anyone else wants a few ideas.

I plan on surveying my students.  While our school does both a home and student survey, I also need to know what I can work on.  Every year, the words of my students help me shape the experience to come.  Every year, the words of my students help me grow as an educator.  Don’t let the kids leave without helping you grow. To see this year’s survey, paper copy go here – I will do it as electronic version as well, to see that go here

I plan on keeping certain experiences and make a map.  Looking through the year and reflecting on what really worked, whether it was a lesson, an idea, or simply a moment, helps us think of the year to come.  Don’t let this year end without you realizing what worked.  Whether you go through lesson plans or simply write a bullet list, take note so that when the time comes for your ideas to come back, you have a place to start. We have started as a team to create our map for the upcoming year, this helps us plan and discuss what we want our students to experience with us.

I plan on face to face collaboration. Our district believes in paying teachers to collaborate over the summer, which I plan on once again taking advantage of. So as I take on a new class next year (Enriched English), I plan on spending time with those who know more than me. I am so grateful for this opportunity for concentrated learning.

I plan on getting rid of certain lessons.  While our experience inevitably changes year after year, there are also certain things that despite our best intentions simply didn’t work.  So I am getting rid of them both physically and mentally.  Goodbye feedback tracker! Goodbye reading rate tracker! Goodbye to you so that I can make room for better things.

I plan on freshening up the room.  Every year, i do revamp of our room, but this year I get to move rooms altogether to a larger room with more room for all of our books. So not only do I get to go through everything, but I also get to set up a whole new experience for the students. However, if I wasn’t moving, I would still move furniture, go through files, weed books, and just refresh everything. While we don’t have a lot of fancy furniture, these small changes help keep the pride in the room intact which shapes the experience.

I plan a focus.  This summer, I get to both teach others and learn from others and so I need a focus.  Where does my craft need to grow?  Writing continues to be a focal point, as well as the hard work of equity and social justice.  And so I go to conferences with a few goals in mind.  I read PD books with these goals in mind.  I reflect, invent, and write down ideas with these few goals in mind.  In the past, when I have had a broad focus, I feel I have learned little, but when I have a few questions in mind, such as how will I continue to help students understand their role in the world or how we will we create more meaningful writing experiences that will help students reignite their writing identities, then I leave summer with a few tangible ideas that shape our experience together. Some of these books are re-reads, others are brand new and I cannot wait to let the work of others shape the every day work I get to do with students.

My stack of summer PD reading awaits – I can’t wait.

I plan a break.  Teaching is amazing, it is my favorite thing to do as far as work., but it is also exhausting, heartbreaking at times, and hard.  So summer is time for a break, and not a kind of break where I still work, but one where I feel no guilt for not checking my email.  Where I feel no guilt for reading whatever I want even if it is slightly trashy.  Where I feel no guilt for not checking in, creating something, or coming up with new ideas.  But you have to plan for it or it won’t happen.  We know how consuming teaching can be, how it can spill into every part of summer, but don’t let it.  Allow yourself to detach completely so that you can get excited.  So that you can let ideas marinate in the back of your mind.  So that you can remember what it means to have a life, if even for a little bit, outside of teaching.  Because if you never leave, then you cannot get ready to come back.

Summer is a break.  A much-needed one for many.  But it is also an incredible time to become something more than what we ended as.  To remember why we entered teaching.  To get excited, to catch up on sleep, and to become the very best version that we can be of ourselves so that when September rolls around, or whenever our students come back, we can say, “I am so glad you are here,” and truly mean it.

PS: In case, you missed the announcement, I am running a book study of my first book Passionate Learners this summer in the Passionate Readers Facebook group. You should join us as it kicks off next weekend!

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.


being me

What Did You Want to Be This Year?

I think there may be 3 weeks left of school. At this point, I am not sure, simply because I don’t want to think about the end. While summer beckons, I also want to make sure that I stay fully present with the kids, the ones that I have the privilege to teach this year. Because teaching is a privilege, and at times, I need to remember that.

As we unwind a year of growing, of exploring, of hopefully doing work that mattered, I have been thinking about my own growth. As I pour through the work of students, marvel at their quiet moments of discovery, I wonder what the year has given me, beyond the laughs, the ups and downs, the conversations and lesson plans. I wanted my students to evolve in their thinking, in their reading, writing, speaking, but also in how they saw the world, but what about myself; what did I want for myself?

I wanted to be more present. To not worry so much about the outside, but rather be in the moment with the people who were in front of me. I said no more, said yes more sparingly, tried to tune in and also appreciate the sheer energy that it takes to be a present teacher, present human being, one that isn’t thinking of the next five steps while others are right there with us. I am still working on this as I continue to balance what it means to be a teacher, a mom, a wife, a human being who also needs time to just think and be still. For the coming year, it will mean less public Pernille, and more private me.

I wanted to be stronger. Daily yoga helped me with physical strength, knowing my own limitations and embracing them meant more room for my emotional strength. I recognized that I have given immense power to others who do not know me but have no problem judging me and how exhausting handing that type of power over to others has been for me. I recognized that as an introvert some places, both in real life and online, are simply too much for me, despite how amazing they can be for others. So no NCTE this coming year, yes only to one day of Nerdcamp, and more yeses to quiet reading, to outside walks, to turning off social media, to only dipping into Twitter for inspiration and knowledge rather than lengthy interaction.

I wanted to let go. It is amazing how much shame and embarrassment one human being can carry while realizing that these emotions are the ones I tend to carry with me the longest has both been startling and liberating. No wonder, my energy has been drained when all I can see in the mirror as I look are all of the things I have done poorly. And so there has been a lot of letting things go, of recognizing that once again, I am good enough, and that I don’t need to be perfect, but instead need to be a learner. That when my own family sees me, they see me as a good mom, as a good person, and that I will a better person if I embrace that, rather than what others who are not as important want me to believe.

I wanted to be more focused. Narrowing in my growth areas really helped me navigate all of the incredible opportunities that abound daily in our teaching world. I know I wanted to learn more about anti-racist practices, about helping students claim their voices as social activists, and about supporting the very students I teach, not as focused on the world at large and how I can help others. It meant writing and sharing less, it meant accepting advising roles for 7th grade GSA, for starting a spoken word poetry club, for co-faciliating a BSU book-club, for sitting with the very kids I teach and asking them what they need to be empowered, engaged and feel valued and trying to figure out what I can do to help them achieve that. It meant leading less and listening more, something that I continue to love in all aspects of my life.

I wanted to be more unafraid. Unfraid to be who I am, unafraid to explore what I do not know, unafraid to share my mistakes as I have in the past, but also unfraid to settle within myself and realize that perhaps my path does not continue in America but rather that as an immigrant to this nation, it is perhaps time for me leave. And so we have started exploring options, to see whether we can go home to Denmark or even Europe as international teachers once my husband finishes his degree as a Tech Ed teacher in a year and a half, whether somewhere else in the world will be our future destination. It is scary, yet exciting to think of uprooting my family like that, but I have never fully felt home in America and so perhaps home is waiting to be found out in the world. Even if it means leaving vital parts of our life behind.

So as I think of the year to come, of the new opportunities to come, I am excited to first have a summer of traveling, of reading, of being at the pool with my kids, of sipping as much tea as I can, of farmers’ markets and library visits. I am excited to rebuild my energy and excitement so I can say yes again. Yes, to somehow helping with the start of a Hispanic Student Union at our school, yes, to teaching an enriched English class, yes, to diving further into equity and anti-racist work, yes, to learning how to be a better teacher of writing. Yes, (perhaps) to writing a series of blog posts or a book that will perhaps help student dive deeper into reading identity, but not committing to anything I don’t have energy for if I can help it. Yes, to walks, to reading with my kids, to yoga, to eating better, to reducing our plastic usage, to traveling, to singing music loudly, and to getting more tattoos. Yes, to exploring new opportunities with an eye for what I can learn, rather than what I can teach.

And so I wonder, what has the previous year taught others? How did you grow? Did you accomplish the goals you set out to reach or did you realize that your life needed something else? What did you want to be this year?

PS: In case, you missed the announcement, I am running a book study of my first book Passionate Learners this summer in the Passionate Readers Facebook group. You should join us as it kicks off next weekend!

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.