Category Archives: Teaching Reading

Helping Students Read Between the Lines: Graphic Novels, Inferences, & Close Reading

Students have been reading three specific graphic novels this month that are historically based on people who dedicated their life work to speak out against injustice. The three titles are The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix, They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, and Run by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. Now students might be thinking, how cool, what an easy book to read, and there is so little words but really this is a deeper reading unit that others.

Graphic novels have depth of plot, character development, theme, and lots of literary elements found in a prose text. It also has the elements of film we study with students, allowing them to develop literacy in the interpretation of image for meaning. When students combine both aspects to investigate a text’s effect on readers, they develop varied insights into how meaning is communicated and interpreted. It makes for a very rich literature study.

What started as a mini lesson on inferring, because a rich discussion about the messages the authors and illustrators made balancing the words and images to help convey a particular message.

Looking closer at the page from Faithful Spy together the students were able to recognize the double-page spread symbolically represents Germany’s decline from the stability of the early 20th century through the disaster of the Great War, then into the postwar years when Germany tried to gain her feet and reassert herself on the world stage.  It gives the reader a literal picture of how an opportunist like Hitler was able to take advantage of his country’s instability to seize power. Both Germany and Hitler are represented by the wolf which is ripping off its collar to represent Germany would no longer be following the key provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. History.com cites Article 231, commonly called the war guilt clause, which required Germany to accept responsibility for causing “all the loss and damage” inflicted on the Allies in WWI.

Additionally, students pointed out how the wolf’s eyes are white providing a lifeless, vicious animal that is driven by aggression. It is eating its prey represents Hitler’s desire to eat up all surrounding countries to accumulate power and anyone getting in his way.

To encourage students to go back into their graphic novels and look closer at specific panels and sections, I created task cards to help direct them to specific parts of the book and begin developing theories about their reading. This was followed up with a lesson on symbolism and possible theme ideas in the text. You can grab a copy of these materials here.

*They Called Us Enemy Questions are not my own but were found on this website.
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Literacy Call to Action

This week I started reading Forged by Reading by Kyleen Beers & Bob Probst.  

These authors are mentors to me and all of their book have shaped my teaching and learning. Kylene Beers, author and educator, is a past-President of the National Council of Teachers of English. She received an NCTE Leadership Award, held a reading research position in the Comer School Development Program at Yale University School of Medicine, and has most recently served as the Senior Reading Advisor to the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. Robert E. Probst is an author and consultant to schools nationally and internationally. He speaks to administrators and teachers on literacy improvement, particularly issues surrounding struggling readers and meeting standards. Bob is Professor Emeritus of English Education at Georgia State University and has served as a research fellow for Florida International University.  

In their newest book, Forged by Reading they explore historic and timely topics through the context of literacy— literacy is the gateway to power and privilege. The book serves as  a call to action. Educators have a critical role empowering readers to think; to seek curiosity and skepticism; to shape themselves and their ideas through evidence and reason, vision, and imagination and; in doing so, to forge themselves and our world through reading.

As more and more students lose interest in reading visual and print text, there is space for misinformation and manipulation. In PART II of the text Beers and Probst explore power and how throughout history, reading and writing was used as a form of control and suppression. Discussing slavery, first nations people, Latino-Americans and education the reader looks throughout history to see how literacy was used as a tool to control and oppress.

Kylene and Bob help us understand that reading is a transaction between the author and the reader (Rosenblatt, 1995). Every time we enter a text, there is always the possibility that we will emerge somewhat changed by the encounter—with new insights, ideas, and understandings. And this is as true of fiction as it is of nonfiction. We want our children to read with open minds and hearts, alert to the possibility of learning something new that might sharpen and deepen their understanding—leading, perhaps, to questions that might, in turn, show the way to additional learning.

What does this look like in the classroom? Kylene and Bob (2021) suggest that the ideal reading environment for our children would reflect the following:

• “A rich diversity of literature that acts as the ‘mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors’ that scholar Rudine Sims Bishop wrote of decades ago.

• A rich diversity of response that promotes questioning more than answering and leads to a sharper understanding of ourselves, our students, and of the text itself.

• The acceptance of the student’s uniqueness, to allow each student to feel welcomed in the classroom, to be more fully present and, perhaps more fully engaged.

• A welcoming of a range of opinion and interpretation, providing an opportunity
to learn how to deal with differences and how to bring evidence and reason to bear upon assumptions and beliefs.

• And, perhaps most important, inviting students to see the act of reading as an opportunity to grow and change.”

Educator Kate Roberts reminds us, “Literacy is an essential element of freedom.” Too often, traditional, mind-numbing instructional practices diminish the robust power of literacy for our students. Too many children experience reading in the classroom as little more than extracting and recording information from the text, rather than a freeing intellectual exploration—reading as an invigorating and deeply satisfying cognitive and empathy workout that makes possible the joy of new learning.

Throughout the book a central idea is that we need to be both Responsive and Responsible Readers. In the simplest of terms, we have to be open to the idea that reading can impact us, lead us to think, create a sense of urgency to act and then we must act. We spend so much time teaching kids to read for information that we inadvertently teach them to ignore the feelings they encounter. Students are focused on completing tasks asking irrelevant questions at time to prepare for a standardized test and not recognizing the thoughts and feelings that we have around a text. I am reminded of a scene in the movie A View From the Top:

This is exactly what teachers have been doing when teaching reading: emphasizing accuracy, lexile levels, classical canon over critical thinking and personal reactions to the text. Bob and Kylene include multiple examples of interactions with readers that make us cringe because the teaching points at that moment ignored the student, what they can do, what they felt, how to support them as readers, thinkers, and someone with feelings.

In Forged by Reading Bob and Kylene expand on a great Framework that they gave us in Disrupting Thinking to increase the role of responsibility in reading. The Book-Head-Heart Framework is an amazing tool to help readers be more responsive, providing a structure to responsibly organize their thinking around a text and reflect on the importance to them. In Forged by Reading it goes a step further asking what we can DO. BHH-D asks us to take that next step and our students are ready for it when the opportunity is provided because our students want to talk about and work to make better the problems of the world.

The revised “BHHD” strategy, first introduced in their book, Disrupting Thinking, where students are asked:

  1. “What’s in the book?
  2. What’s in your head?
  3. What’s in your heart?
  4. What will you do now?” (p. 178)

Beers and Probst end with a call to action: “You, our nation’s teachers, have the power to help students become empowered readers and thinkers. You can help each student forge his or her life through reading. And so again, dear teachers, we turn to you” (p. 193).

As a middle school English teacher in a suburban school 25 minutes outside of New York City, I am seeing more and more parents challenge the work that I am doing in my classroom. Questioning literature choices and my agenda to provide contemporary young adult fiction alongside classical text that raise issues relevant today, so that my students have mirrors, windows, sliding glass doors, and even telescopes in the fictional texts they read. My agenda is to support my students as critical thinkers of information and to promote kindness. When my students read I want them to “to think again and anew about significant issues, so they may see the world and themselves more clearly,” (pg. 16) and have the courage to realize their potential to help make a positive difference in the world.

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Short Story Hyperdocs

I am a huge fan of hyper docs, a student-facing lesson designed to scaffold instruction. It is more than a doc with links, packaging and aesthetics are key. A hyperdoc allows students to first explore, explain, and then apply new learning. Holly Clark @hollyclarkedu has a great visual to showcase the elements and scaffolds on a hyperdoc.

@HollyClarkEdu created this visual to showcase the elements of a hyperdoc

This month in my 8th grade classroom, students are reading short stories around themes of identity to study and practice literary analysis. I have created three short story hyper docs to help students read, write, think critically, collaborate, and create. At the beginning of the week, students have access to the hyperdoc and they work through the lessons and assignments during the week. Each hyperdoc is differentiated and personalized for the diverse learners in my classroom. Consider these learner roadmaps for inquiries of study.

To get started creating your own hyper docs for your students utilize the basic HyperDoc template with the fundamentals of effective lesson design (engage, explore, explain, apply, share, reflect, and extend) in mind, but in no way does it reflect everything you can do. You can also get a copy of my short story hyper docs to use and or adapt with your students (note some links are not shared like Flipgrids due to privacy). Feel free to check out the array of playlists I have shared on this blog.

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Teaching with Graphic Novels

I love reading graphic novels. They are visually appealing, engaging, entertaining, and a rich teaching tools. They are a doorway for struggling and reluctant readersGraphic novels provide rich teaching experiences for critical thinking, inferring, visual literacy, and close reading. Here are five different ways utilize graphic novels with students.

  1. Graphic novels are Text. Teach these novels as a text for an all class read or in book clubs. You might consider having a genre study in graphic novels. Graphic novels come in all different genres and many are award winning texts. Here is a copy of a graphic novel reading unit I created for middle school students and a choice board with rubric for follow up activities.
  2. Close Reading of a Scene. Just like we chunk the text of a piece of literature, students can read closely a particular scene or chapter of the novel to analyze the key ideas and details, then focus on text structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas. Professor of English, Dr. Michelle Falter states, “The tasks and thinking skills required to read a multimodal text are actually higher level than if reading a print-based text alone. You have to see images and words work together, and when and why authors chose to put them together in a frame.” When I was teaching Shakespeare, I would pair a scene with the graphic novel scene for students to work in small groups to analyze and interpret how the scene and characters are portrayed, what is emphasized and what is left out. These close reads help students observe and analyze for a deeper meaning in the text.
  3. Build Visual Literacy Skills & Vocabulary. Graphic novels are visual texts and there is a vocabulary to talking about the structure and details of the text. Panel, frame, speech bubble, close up, long shot, wide shot, aerial shot are all terms used to discuss the visual elements of the text. Provide students with the vocabulary and they are able to talk about the structure and details of the visual text. Students can consider the impact of the artistry to covey meaning of the text. How does this close up image affect our understanding of the character? What did the author choose to say in this frame that the illustrator left out? What did the illustrator choose to showcase in this panel? What is not said and inferred “in the gutters” (the spaces between the panels)?
  4. Caption This. Graphic novels are both visual and print texts. Both stand alone and yet work seamlessly together. When we take away the words, what are our inferences and understanding? Matt Miller describes one of my favorite activities on his website Ditch That Textbook called “Caption This.” You can omit the dialogue and speech bubbles in the frame or panel and ask students to write their own. He describes four ways to utilize this activity with students on his blog.
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival has no words. Students can write the dialogue and story after closely reading the text.

5. Parallel Texts. So many graphic novels have been adapted from contemporary and classic literature, students can read both texts. Then, compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.5). How does reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver in print and graphic novel form impact the meaning and messages in the text?

Graphic novels are not just for English class and readings for pleasure, they can be utilized across the curriculum. My students reading of George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy was an entry point to introduce and discuss Japanese Internment during World War II. Additionally, I have amassed a collection of graphic novels to teach about the Holocaust beyond the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus I and Maus II.

What information can you learn from this image/text?

Why do you think the author included this image?

What are some possible themes in the text? What evidence led you to that?

How do the illustrations impact the meaning of the text?
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Movie Mondays for Close Reading Practice

In my book Personalized Reading (ISTE, 2018) I write about supporting reluctant readers with visual texts as an entryway for close reading practice. Reluctant readers can may be struggling readers or they might be simply students who have had negative experiences with reading.

If Readicide as Kelly Gallagher (2010) coined the term – to kill the love of reading – in his book by the same name should not be a right of passage for young people when the wealth of wonderful words is infinite. Seven years after Gallagher’s text, many students would agree that schools are killing the love of reading the way teachers are teaching text. Still, many students post graduation boast of never reading a book throughout their secondary school career. reluctant readers need aren’tto be hooked on the first page of the a book. If they are not, they are quick to abandon a bookit like I was. Motivation and choice is are the key with reluctant readers. To help them, we educators must stop inadvertently committing “readicide” (Gallagher, 2010) and focus on what Steven Wolk (2009) describes as a “living curriculum,” a place where students and teachers use books and other resources and experience to drive classroom inquiry. One of our goals as educators is developing critical thinking, stamina, and life life-long readers among our students. 

Personalized Reading describes, “To accomplish these goals for teaching reading takes all forms and activities to tap into all the diverse readers in our classrooms, we must look up from the printed page and tap into all forms of text. Since we live in a visually rich environment, teachers can use visual texts—photographs, movies, and animated shorts— to first pique a reluctant reader’s interests, Using animated shorts, photographs, and movies, enables students to build visual literacy, and to practice the skills strategies of what proficient readers do. Images and movies serve as a bridge for to print texts when it comes to reluctant readers. Once students are reading, honing in on the “during reading” skills of making predictions and inferences helps keeps students active as readers. Students also need practice discerning the important parts of what they read in order to more effectively write or create responses to their reading.”

This year I am instituting Movie Mondays to practice these close reading skills using short feature film. At the beginning of the week students watch a short film: TED Talk, animation, documentary and then we discuss, write, and reflect on the story presented in the visual texts. Using graphic organizers and scaffolded notes help to guide students viewing/reading of these texts.

Below are a few of the movies we are starting off with and the follow up questions to guide student’s close reading.

Take note of the beginning of the film. What is the setting? What things do you observe in the setting that are important to Zuri? – What does the director’s plant in the beginning of the scene that provide details for the character and plot?

How does Zuri’s Dad feel about trying to get her hair to look like she wants? How do you know this is how he feels, even though there is no dialogue?

In the “battle” scene, why do you think Zuri’s hair becomes a character? How does this “fantasy” or personification help to emphasize his character and reactions?

The act of braiding means bringing things, like hair parts, together in order to unify them. What are three parts of the film that seem like they are weaving together components of the relationship for the family?

Hair love first seems like a light hearted film about a father helping his daughter with her hair but then suddenly shows there are deeper meanings in this short. How does the film tug on the viewer’s heartstrings? What does the director do to get an emotional response from the viewers?

How doe the color choices impact the film’s deeper messages? (You might want to research the meaning of the color choices in the film)

What elements of irony exist in the story? How do they serve to move the story forward and how do they assist in illuminating the story’s theme?

Get a Copy of this Organizer HERE

As students are listening to Gillette’s TED Talk they can take notes and pull out a central idea from his speech. Students are asked to find specific evidence that supports the central idea selected. This graphic organizer can be used as a note catcher and help students track Gillette’s presentation.

Films are a text and the way we teach them in our class should be taught in a way that mirror the way we teach close reading and critical thinking. Just as print text is layered with words, images, inferences, and evidence, so is film. When teaching with videos as or printed text, teacher and author, Kristin Ziemke (2016) calls on teachers to model and scaffold to support your students so that they can, as teacher and author Kristin Ziemke (2016) says, “interact, respond, and think to read the world differently.” If students are to develop deep understanding of texts, teachers need to model close reading skills to film too.

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