Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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The Value of Playground Poetry

EngagewLit_3_children“I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” This was one of my favorite comebacks as a child. In addition to reciting the poem, I stuck out my tongue and then ran far away. In a way, I added choreography.

Young children have used this poem across time as a means of combatting hurtful comments. I learned this poem on the playground via oral tradition. I heard someone else say it and someone heard me say it. And, so it goes.

Young children are natural poets. They enjoy playing with language. They enjoy rhyming and creating rhythms. They do this without any adult prompting or instructing.

Listen to our young students on the playground:

“Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack. All dressed in black black black….”EngageWLit_3_playground

“Ms. Suzie had a steamboat. The steamboat had a bell…”

“Roses are red. Violets are blue…”

“Down, down baby…”

“Woody and Dotty sitting in a tree…”

“Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, turn around…”

“We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher…”

Young children use poetry in the spirit of play. They use it to set time for games like hopscotch, jump-rope, and hand-clapping. They use it to tease peers. They use it to cheer and/or taunt sports players.

Playground poetry offers a rich source of instructional material. I encourage teachers to capitalize on our students’ natural propensity toward poetry and to also sanction their forms of literacy. Teachers can guide students in examining the content, composition, and context of the playground poems. The following chart offers some suggested prompts to studying poetry in this way:

Content What does the poem literally mean? What are some interpretations of the poem’s meaning? What is the tone/mood of the poem?
Composition How is the poem presented? What is the structure of the poem? Why is the poem structured in this way?
Context What are the historical, social, or political contexts of the poem? In which contexts or situations would this poem be applied? How so and why?

 

Teacher Jonathan Holden in  “Starting Out: Getting Started with Poetry,” from Engaging With Literature Library, Grades 3-5, introduces his students to the pleasure of poetry. “His primary goal is to help them develop a love of reading and poetry in particular while developing the comprehension and critical-thinking skills they need to remain engaged readers.”

Following Mr. Holden’s example, by valuing playground poetry, teachers can maintain students’ love of poetry while also teaching them comprehension skills. Students are natural users of poetry and language. Teachers can help them be more analytical thinkers of poetry and language.

What are some ways that you have encouraged your students to play with language?

Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos

EssentialLens_MakedaBestWhen students see a photograph in a classroom, a textbook, or a school project, they often treat it just like a poem or short story: they try to clearly state what the photo “means.” They believe that a photo has a unique, incontestable meaning that is clear to the perceptive viewer. A photographer wouldn’t take a photo without having a message in mind, the reasoning goes, so that message must be clear in the photo s/he took, and if I can’t find it, there’s something wrong with me.

It’s hard to convince students that this is not true (for photos or for poems and short stories, but we’ll stick with photos here). Photos cross a line between art and reportage. They can have a clear message when they are reportage. When they are art, they are open to almost endless personal interpretation. When they are a mix of both, photos can challenge the most perceptive viewer. The student looking at the photo is not just a data analysis machine taking in information and processing it. The power of photos is in their immediacy: they are shots of real people in real situations that the viewer takes in through the lens of her or his own life experience. In short, the viewer makes the meaning. As historian of photography Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.” This is a big shift. It gives the student authority over the photo instead of the other way around.

To teach students to use their own experiences to analyze a photo, practice on the photo mentioned below using the Focus In activity from Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. (Watch Makeda Best demonstrate the Focus In activity in the “A Closer Look” video.):

Start with Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936. Students may have seen it before. It is one of the most famous photos in the world. Too often, students move past their initial emotional reaction to this photo to try to discern its objective meaning. Following the steps in the Focus In Method for Analyzing Photographs, try to get your students back inside their own heads and hearts and experiences as they analyze “Migrant Mother.” Click on the link for a detailed description of each Focus In step. This step-by-step process can take the burden of finding meaning off students by encouraging them to make meaning.

Focus In Steps

Step 1: Observe

Step 2: Build on Your Observations

Step 3: Make Inferences

Step 4: Formulate Further Questions

Note: Here is a link to information about the photograph “Migrant Mother.”

 

How are you using photographs in your classes? Share in the comment section below.

Let Kids Read Whatever They Want!

“You can’t read that.”

“You shouldn’t read that.”

“Why would you read that?”

Leave kids alone. Let them read, for goodness sake!

Well-intentioned adults (teachers and parents) are doing a huge disservice to kids when we doubt their ability to read, when we censor what they read, and when we judge what they read. What happens? Kids stop reading.

We should celebrate that our kids are reading! Especially if they’re reading books (and not scores on video games). We shouldn’t be putting them down.

Isn’t it fabulous that our kids want to challenge themselves with a complex text? It shows initiative. It shows their willingness to grapple. It shows their desire to read more. STOP telling them they can’t read certain books.

Children looking at picture books at school, Santa Clara, Utah. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

Children looking at picture books at school, Santa Clara, Utah. Credit: LOC, Prints & Photographs Division

Isn’t it fabulous that our kids want to read books about controversial or gritty topics? It shows intellectual curiosity. It shows an interest in perspectives and worldviews different from their own. STOP telling them they shouldn’t read certain books.

Isn’t it fabulous that our kids want to read all kinds of books? It shows they’re lovers of many types of writing and storylines instead of book snobs. Who are we to determine what are good and bad books for individual readers? Allow kids to form their own opinions. STOP judging their choices.

How many decisions do you think kids make in a day? We decide what they eat. We decide when they go to school. We decide what they read. We might give them options but ultimately, we decide what those options are. Kids make very few decisions – the ability to choose what they want to read should be one of them.

I take great pleasure in choosing books. One of my favorite things about finishing books is being able to choose the next one. I love being in book clubs because I eventually get to choose the book we read. (I pity the fool who tries to take that decision away from me!)

Instead of denying students the pleasure of choosing books, we should model our passion. Take, for instance, Ms. Bileni Teklu in Engaging With Literature, program 8, “Finding Common Ground.”

“…her students come to love reading because she is not dictating what they must read and when they must read it. These students have few choices in their personal lives, and so are especially appreciative of being able to choose what they read.”

In Classroom Lesson Plan: Independent Reading (also watch  the classroom video here), Ms. Teklu models her own decision-making process with students. She empowers them to make reading choices by sharing her personal experience.

I’m a literacy scholar. I’m a teacher educator. I’m a former classroom teacher. I know we need to teach district-sanctioned instructional materials. I know kids should be reading books at their independent level to build fluency. I know kids should be reading books at their instructional level during guided reading. I know kids should be reading complex texts during read-alouds. Effective literacy instruction requires us to make decisions about what kids read.

But, we should ensure kids have opportunities to choose their own books. And, we shouldn’t make them feel bad about their decisions. The consequences are too great.

Teaching with Twitter

Twitter_logo_blue copyToday it seems like everyone is on Twitter, following and/or being followed. There’s a hashtag for everything (#chestnuts, anyone?) and much of the traffic is devoted to fun and games and news. But away from the chatter, there is also a steady stream of educational Twitter use. It makes sense: Twitter is free, easy to use, and most high school students are already on it.

But as late as September 2014, Ben Stern of TeachBoost described teachers who are heavily engaged with Twitter as “outliers”. Why? Some school districts don’t allow in-school use of social media, of course, but that’s not the whole reason. Many teachers who have not yet used Twitter as part of their curriculum may be holding out for some concrete examples of using Twitter with their students. If that’s you, you’re in luck. We provide some great examples right here:

Hold Tweet Chats and Conversations

Have students who don’t like to speak up in class? Of course you do. Twitter allows students to comment and contribute to classroom discussions without raising their hand. Have students who can’t stop speaking up in class? Twitter’s 140-character format discourages long harangues and allows for more equal participation.

The joy of Twitter is that it expands the definition of student participation, both in class and well after the bell rings. Tweet a question like “Who’s most responsible for the tragic introduction of Jim Crow segregation law?” during your U.S. history class at 9:00 AM and you’ll be reading tweet after tweet on the subject well after 9:00 PM, and into the next day and the next—for as long as you keep the topic open. Discussions that light up Twitter go on to feed vibrant and informed classroom discussions.

Don’t forget to add custom made hashtags so that you and your students can easily follow the conversation. George Couros offers some tips to create classroom hashtags for Twitter on his blog.

If you prefer more structure to your Twitter chat, ask students to discuss a question for homework within a specific time frame (on Tuesday evening from 7-9 pm, for example) to give students a window for participation. Designate a hashtag for the assignment and tweet out the question with that hashtag at 7pm to get the students going.

Elicit Peer Feedback in Real Time

Ever notice how people at conferences tweet like mad during the presentations? (Are you one of them?) They’re giving instant feedback on speakers and ideas to their network and getting responses right away. By the time the speaker is finished, their thoughts have already gone around the world twice and been thoroughly hashed and re-hashed by their peers before the live discussion in the conference room even begins. Your students can do the same thing: have them tweet questions and comments during videos or student presentations so that when it’s time to talk, the conversation is already in motion. For example, if your science class watched “Biodiversity Decline”, program 9 of Annenberg Learner’s series The Habitable Planet, they could tweet questions and comments about the episode using the hashtag #HP9discuss.

Have Students Tweet in Character

Taking on a persona can be a tough sell in the classroom. Few students want to stand up and deliver a presentation in character (especially in costume) as a figure from the past or from literature. But ask them to tweet from the perspective of a Revolutionary soldier or Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games and it’s a different story. Tweeting allows students to create a longer-term project of living inside a character’s head from day to day, expressing concise thoughts from their point of view over a longer time period that immerses them in the character—especially when they have to answer questions as the character.

Involve the Community

Students can also reach beyond their peers to begin meaningful dialogues with people outside the classroom. You can help them come up with questions for local political candidates, performers, business owners, and more to inform in-school projects and help create socially engaged members of your city and state.

Follow News and Issues

Have students track specific issues in the local, national, or world news as they are being tweeted about (#climatechange for example) to get a sense of how those issues are being discussed at large.

Encourage Group Work

Twitter can get students cooperating as a group. For your next reading or video assignment, organize your class into groups and have each group post a summary. It’s hard work to summarize any resource in 140 characters! Tweeting content like this forces students to really single out the main point of a text. You can have students vote on the best summary, or choose and retweet it yourself.

As students do all these things on Twitter, you are able to track their activity and get a good sense of where to go in your next classroom session. Afraid of spending hours each day tracking hundreds of student tweets? You can spread out Twitter-based assignments. Even one a month will give your students the benefits of the format without keeping you chained to your web browser. If your students and school have internet access, try one of the strategies above to join the “outlier” teachers who are teaching with Twitter.

What’s your experience with using Twitter? Let us know by posting a comment. (Don’t forget to follow @AnnLearner on Twitter!)

Make Primary Sources More Accessible with Read-Alouds

TML_7_readaloudHow well can you read this excerpt?

…a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom…

The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

Personally, I stopped reading and started skimming after “to wit.” What makes this text complex? Everything. First, the text contains challenging vocabulary words including but not limited to proclamation, to wit, whereof, thenceforward, authority, thereof, and repress. Second, it uses a sentence structure and language that is not familiar to our 21st century ears. Third, it requires knowledge of the historical time and politics in order to comprehend it. As such, it is an inconsiderate text as written. (To learn more about this specific primary source, review the Primary Sources workshop entitled, “Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?”)

Primary sources, especially historical documents like “The Emancipation Proclamation,” are not easy reading for our students. These documents often employ “technical” jargon and/or are written in historically-specific language. Students need support in deconstructing these texts – this support can be provided via instructional read-alouds. In doing so, teachers give students models for how to read and think about complex texts.

According to Annenberg Learner’s Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, primary sources are “firsthand evidence and artifacts of the past [including] letters, photographs, maps, government documents, diaries, oral accounts, pamphlets, or leaflets.” It is important for students to read and grapple with these primary source texts because they are the basis of our historical knowledge. However, because of the text complexity, teachers may choose to provide students with summaries or abridged versions instead. I would like to challenge teachers to support students in their reading of the actual documents.

There are several read-aloud strategies that will help make these texts more accessible to students. Here are two of my favorites:

Questioning the Author or QtA

My favorite instructional read-aloud approach is Questioning the Author or QtA (Beck & McKeown, 2006). Teachers help students actively build reading comprehension by asking queries during the read-aloud; these queries require students to refer to the text and seek evidence from the text to support their responses. Queries include: What does the author tell us here? Why do you think the author tells us this now? In addition, teachers explain complex vocabulary and content as they read. This is especially important for reading primary sources. Teachers are available to address challenging ideas during the reading as students build their comprehension. Teachers help build the context so that students aren’t confused by missing information. At the same time, teachers using QtA hold their students accountable for comprehending the text as a group.

Think-Aloud

Another strategy that will help students learn to effectively grapple with reading primary sources is the Think-Aloud (Wilhelm, 2003). As teachers read aloud a primary source, they should stop at difficult words and sections and ask, “Does this make sense?” Teachers then say out loud to the students why these parts are complex and what they plan on doing to decrease the complexity. In doing so, teachers model for students that all readers grapple with text and that there are effective strategies for comprehension.

These strategies are supportive and educative. Teachers support students in their comprehension of the text by stopping frequently during the read-aloud and guiding students’ interactions with the text. The strategies are educative because they help model for students how to be proficient readers. As such, the reading of primary source documents can be demystified for students.

Learn more about read-alouds in general in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action.”

References

Beck, I, L. & McKeown, M.G. (2006). Improving comprehension with Questioning the Author: A fresh and expanded view of a powerful approach. NY: Scholastic.

Wilhelm, J. (2003). Navigating meaning: Using Think-Alouds to help readers monitor comprehension. Retrieved from: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/495

How to Teach Historical Documents

Democracy in America_2Imagine an adorable mini-version of me reciting the following words, “We the people of the United States…”

In the fifth grade, I remember memorizing the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution for a school play. I also remember reading textbook entries about it; thus, I was able to answer questions such as: Who wrote it? When and where was it written? Why was it written?

What I don’t remember is actually reading the document or grappling with its content. I did not answer questions that promoted higher order thinking like: What is the historical significance of the Constitution given the time period? How did the document reflect the social and political thinking of the time? How is the document relevant to me today?

Students need opportunities to explore more robust questions about the contexts of historical documents. For example, in “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?,” program 2 of Democracy in America, students study the document as a “living” entity. They examine their own role in perpetuating the principles set forth in the Constitution. They answer such questions as: What are some of the disputes over the Constitution’s wording that persist today? Why do some people consider the Constitution as a timeless, perfect document while others view the Constitution as a living document to be reinterpreted by each generation? In exploring these questions, students learn that the Constitution is a product of its people and that it is perpetuated by the people.

In particular and as described in the Artifacts & Fiction workshops (halfway down the web page), I like the CAATS strategy, which encourages students to study the Creator, Assumptions, Audience/User, Time and Place, and Significance of a historical document. An overview of this strategy is provided in the following table:

Creator: Who created this artifact? What do we know about the person(s) who created it? How did it influence his/her life at the time it was created? Would the creator find relevant connections to the literature you are pairing with this artifact?
Assumptions: What do you know about the context of this artifact? What assumptions can you make based on prior information that you bring to this analysis?
Audience/User: Who was the audience for this object when it was originally created? What leads you to this assumption?
Time and Place: When and where was this artifact created?
Significance: Why is this artifact important? How does it help explain the literature you are teaching with it? Does the context of the artifact parallel the context of your literature?

 

In Primary Sources: Workshops in American History, also find “Examining Documents and Images,” a resource guide with strategies to teach students how to read primary sources skeptically and critically. This workshop also offers webpages on several historical documents; these pages provide historical background and robust questions about the document. For example, the webpages featuring “The Declaration of Independence” and “Emancipation Proclamation” provide teachers with a brief historical background and questions about the documents.

Students will greatly benefit from studying historical documents from various and multiple perspectives and/or lenses (Appleman, 2010). By having students study the contexts of historical documents, teachers are building a rich knowledge base for students – one that supports agency and advocacy. By helping students go beyond “what is this document” to also examining “why this document” and “how this document,” then we are empowering students to understand their own roles and responsibilities.

How are you teaching about historical documents in your classes? Please share in the comments section under this post.

References

Appleman, D. (2010).  Critical encounters in high school English:  Teaching literary theory to adolescents.  (2nd Edition). NY:  Teachers College Press.

Teach Your Students to Argue Effectively

TML_7_3Have you ever met anyone with uninformed opinions? Didn’t it make you want to explode (or at the very least, lament the decline of mankind by eating pie)? Reasoning is one of our most powerful assets. As teachers, we have the opportunity to prepare students for a good old-fashioned banter. We need to teach students how to effectively argue so that they can engage in productive thinking and be active citizens of their communities. Otherwise, we are at risk for producing students who limit their own learning potential by focusing on regurgitation versus critical thinking.

First, take a minute to read the CCSS Anchor Standards for Writing as it pertains to argument:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

When we argue, we are assuming a position with the purpose of persuading readers or rather, convincing them of our opinion; this is active work, work that requires agency on the part of the writer. This agency is what 21st century literacies demand of its citizens; for example, Franklin and van Harmelan (2007) write, “In Web 1.0 a few content authors provided content for a wide audience of relatively passive readers. However, in Web 2.0 everyday users of the web use the web as a platform to generate, re-purpose, and consume shared content” (3). Argument writing is a tool that enables and empowers students to participate in and contribute to various discourses.

Argument writing pushes students to go beyond just knowing content; it forces them to actually do something with the content. Arguing requires students to ground their thinking in evidence from the text; in fact, this evidence-grounding is one of the main instructional shifts in English Language Arts. Teachers need to spend more instructional time teaching argument writing, which encompasses teaching students how to opine and how to write persuasive texts.

Let’s consider the discipline of history: We want students to go beyond just reciting facts and dates; we want them to make historical arguments and interpretations. We also want them to become adept at using textual evidence to support their claims. Historians and social scientists actively study and inquire – they do not just regurgitate facts; they examine the evidence and create claims based on the evidence. We need to help students understand that data is a live entity and that it requires our careful and critical reading and crafting. (Questions like, “Whose history is being represented here?” and “Why is this history being told in this way?” help build students’ inquiry skills which promotes their argumentation skills.)

This semester, I asked my pre-service teachers (graduate students) to write a historical argument paper. Because of the CCSS’s emphasis on argument writing, I wanted to make sure that my graduate students knew how to create arguments since they would be required to teach their students how to do the same. The process for this task is outlined below: 

Steps and Tasks: Prompts and Instructions

1. Pick a topic: What do you want to study?

2. Design your inquiry question: Narrow your topic. This question should guide your research and examine your topic deeply. Consider specific perspectives and lenses.

3. Conduct research: Guided by your inquiry question, conduct research. Critically read primary and secondary sources.

4. Craft a claim or argument: The claim is essentially the answer to your inquiry question as a result of your research. It is important to craft your claim/argument after conducting research so that your thinking is driven by the data. This claim needs to be arguable, meaning someone can deny your claim and argue an opposite point.

5. Provide examples: Use research data to support your claim/argument. Craft examples so that they prove your point. Use linking words and phrases and be explicit about how your example connects to your claim/argument.

6. Craft a conclusion: Answer the question, “So what?” Your conclusion should not be a regurgitation or restatement of your points. This is your closing argument like in a court case. Connect to a bigger issue. Address implications.

 

Need more ideas? Find several resources to help teach argument writing on the Annenberg Learner website:

REFERENCES:

Franklin, T. & Harmelan, M. van (2007). Web 2.0 for content for learning and teaching in higher education. York, UK: Franklin Consulting.

CCSS website: www.corestandards.org

How can schools prepare for discussions of controversial issues? (Part II)

MCR D7 TalkOn Monday, we looked at the reasons why schools should allow discussions of controversial issues. See Part I. Now let’s address the how.

What can school leaders do? Schools could preemptively address parental and other concerns by preparing teachers through professional development and appropriate planning. The following are just a few ideas to consider so that current news events may enrich instead of derail curriculum plans.

1. Set up the school-wide goals. What do you want students to gain from the experience? Will they learn to think objectively? Discuss difficult topics while respecting each other? Examine historical influences on current events? Collect facts and differentiate between credible resources and voices that are just stoking a fire? Brainstorm ways they can work towards a solution for the community?

2. Discuss appropriate approaches for these conversations. Meet with teachers early in the school year and determine procedures and guidelines. For example, not everyone will agree that opinions need to be left out of the conversation, but we are human and we arrive to the discussion table full of opinions, preconceptions, and biases. What are appropriate ways to deal with the whole human package that the school and parents would be comfortable with?

3. Determine which professionals in the school would be best to handle discussions. Do students have advisers or a school counselor that they can talk to? Are there teachers in the building who are willing to tackle issues with their students and who have expertise they could share with the group? Social studies and literature teachers could offer natural safe spaces for students to work on issues.

4. Designate a liaison between the school and the parents and guardians. This person, whether an administrator, teacher, or parent volunteer, can provide parents with information and field questions and concerns. Consider developing guidelines for how administrators and teachers will handle any challenges to or concerns about the classroom discussions.

5. Respect an individual’s preference to sit out of the conversation. Not every teacher will be comfortable talking about difficult issues with their students, and that’s valid. Some teachers might recognize that they have a bias due to personal experience or just might not feel comfortable leading a discussion safely. What resources can these teachers direct students towards when questions occur?

What can individual teachers do? At the individual teacher level, here are some ideas for guiding students in respectful conversations about controversial topics and what it means to be a part of a community. (These videos below could also be used for professional development on this topic.)

1. Develop students’ understanding of multiple points of view. For example, teacher Wendy Eubank’s students simulate a town hall meeting, role playing characters that have a stake in an outcome, so they can learn to express their ideas freely. Students have researched facts from multiple sources and are asked to consider multiple viewpoints. Watch Social Studies in Action, program 31, “Dealing with Controversial Issues,” to see this and other examples of activities at varying grade levels.

2. Structure discussions to allow every student a chance to share, listen, and evolve. For example, JoEllen Ambrose does a fantastic job leading students through a discussion about individual rights versus public safety related to news topics students are already familiar with. She asks for students to respond to questions physically and verbally, by grouping themselves by agreement and providing personal examples to support their opinions. Watch students specifically discuss their ideas about police power and individual rights, especially related to racial profiling. See workshop 7, “Controversial Public Policy Issues,” of Making Civics Real.

3. Empower students to act as a member of a community. In the introductory video for Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ Martina Grant’s students discuss their “universe of obligation;” reasons why people choose to act and not to act during times of crisis; and how history is connected to their own lives and experiences. Once we understand why individuals or communities fail to act during a time of crisis, we can work together to propose possible solutions or realistic ways people can act.

News comes and goes as one event overshadows another. Underlying themes and issues persist, and teaching students how to discuss these themes and work together to build a stronger community that can problem-solve should be an important goal of any school. Meanwhile, the beauty of the internet is that resources we often need are a click away. Please share more links and ideas that you find helpful on this topic in the comments. I started a list here.

Here are some links to some additional resources:
Discussing Controversial Public Issues in the Classroom, via TeachingHistory.org
Michael Brown, via Facing History.org
Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply, via Edutopia

Should schools allow discussions of controversial issues? (Part I)

MakingCivicsReal_7[OP-ED] On Saturday, August 9 in Ferguson, Mo., a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, a young black man, sparking protests in the town and discussions about race and history across the United States. On August 21, Ed Week reported that the superintendent of a nearby school district banned the discussion of the events in Ferguson, Mo. in schools, because “parents complained … that some teachers were interjecting their own opinions into class discussions rather than objectively guiding discussion for students.”

While it’s true that discussions about emotionally charged or controversial issues must be handled carefully in the classroom, what message do teachers send when they have to tell their students, “We are not allowed to talk about that here?” And while parents certainly have a right to be concerned about how teachers will address difficult topics in their classrooms, silencing the discussion all together is not an answer. The ability to discuss public controversy is a sign of a healthy democracy and a right we can share with our students. Preparing a plan for discussing national news events as they occur could help avoid the “shut it down” effect, which cuts off golden learning opportunities to build better thinkers and stronger communities.

School is most likely one of the best places to address controversial news topics, and there are several benefits to providing students a forum to express themselves. (Similar discussions already occur in literature and social studies lessons as students read and talk about literary works and historical themes.)

First, students are already talking about events as they occur, so they will be easily engaged and invested in learning experiences tied to these topics. In the classroom, teachers, as objective moderators, are able to guide students in thoughtful discussions in a safe space.

Second, controversial issues offer teachers an opportunity to develop students’ critical thinking and analytical skills, goals of the Common Core Standards. For example, they may examine the role that emotions and personal biases play in how people initially react to a national news event like Brown’s death and the resulting protests and police response. With appropriate activities, students learn to review available information, evaluate sources, consider multiple perspectives, and propose solutions.

In addition, allowing students and teachers to talk about timely events and controversial issues creates a sense of community and empowers students to take productive actions to correct wrongs within the school, city, even nation or world.

Please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments and look for Part II on Wednesday: How can schools prepare for controversial discussions?

(The views expressed by the authors of Learner Log blog posts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or endorsement of Annenberg Learner or the Annenberg Foundation.)

Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Why should you consider teaching with graphic novels?

WorldLit_Odyssey_RoyThomascomic

The Odyssey comic written by Roy Thomas, et al. See Thomas talk about his experience with the work in Invitation to World Literature.

Kids read graphic novels – walk into any library or bookstore and you will find young readers hanging out in the manga and comics aisles. So, why aren’t teachers using more graphic novels in their classrooms? One of the main reasons is due to a bias against graphic novels as a “legitimate” text; however, this bias is being chipped away as research supports the efficacy of using graphic novels in the classroom. Yildirim (2013) writes, “The increasing popularity of graphic novels has transformed it into a powerful medium of expression. Once regarded as only a means of amusement lacking literary insight and merit, graphic novels have evolved into a respected and well-regarded genre of literature which deserves a permanent place in the literary world” (122).

Graphic novels are popular and prevalent today because these texts offer a diverse range in complexity and topics/issues in addition to crossing genres. Today’s graphic novels are about more than just superheroes, science-fiction and fantasy (Gorman, 2002) – they can be used in all content areas as there are graphic novels about history, science, and major literary works. Furthermore, graphic novels not only target teen readers, but are also making an impact in the early/emerging reader markets (Brown, 2013). Simply put, there is a graphic novel for everyone.

There are many benefits to using graphic novels in the classroom.

1. They can be used to build students’ reading and writing skills (Frey and Fisher, 2004; Yildirim, 2012; Brown, 2013). They offer multilevel reading experiences, as reading the words and images builds students’ basic reading skills and analytical skills (Yildirim, 2013).

2. Graphic novels provide support for struggling readers, including English learners, by addressing multiple learning modalities. Hassett & Schieble (2007) indicate that graphic novels facilitate comprehension by combining images with texts, making them particularly helpful for visual learners. Graphic novels also provide a path for more complex reading by building reading fluency and reading confidence (Yildirim, 2013).

3. Graphic novels build students’ reading habits; for example, Schwarz (2002) found that graphic novels were a source of motivation and stimulation for struggling and reluctant readers.

4. Graphic novels can boost students’ critical thinking skills, creativity, and imagination (Yildirim, 2013).

Graphic novels benefit all readers. As McTaggert (2008) indicated, “[Graphic novels] enable the struggling reader, motivate the reluctant one, and challenge the high-level learner” (32). Reading a graphic novel requires students to make inferences and draw conclusions from the images and text while being supported by visuals and pacing. I would argue that in some ways, reading a graphic novel is more complicated than reading a traditional novel in that graphic novel readers have to rely on non-textual cues to derive meanings and they also have to rely more heavily on their inferring skills.

It makes sense that today’s digitally-oriented students would find graphic novels appealing. These students are used to surfing the internet, navigating multiple open windows of content, and reading messages from various social media sources. Our students have been reading graphically for years!

Resources for Using Graphic Novels in Your Literature Classroom

Annenberg Learner provides several resources to graphically enhance your classroom instruction. Invitation to World Literature is a comprehensive resource for learning about literature from around the world and across time. There are several programs within the series that could support learning about graphic novels.

1. “Journey to the West” is a classic Chinese story about the Stone Monkey King. In this program, you’ll find videos, texts, maps, slideshow of images, and connections to graphic novels. This unit would pair nicely with a study of Gene Luen Yang’s “The Shadow Hero,” a graphic novel about the Asian-American superhero, The Green Turtle. (Also, make sure to check out Yang’s other graphic novels.)

2. The video introducing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” presents comic book artist Jim Starlin. Starlin wrote a comic book series, “Gilgamesh II,” for DC Comics. Students might find it interesting to learn more about him as he is best known for re-inventing Marvel Comics superheroes, Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock. He also co-created Thanos and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.

3. Roy Thomas is another comic book artist featured in the program “The Odyssey.” Thomas was Stan Lee’s first successor as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. He is famous for writing graphic novels for “X-Men,” “Conan the Barbarian,” and “The Avengers.” He has also written titles for “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.”

4. Lastly, the program on “The Thousand and One Nights” also features a comic novelist, Bill Willingham. He created the DC comics series “Fables” and wrote a comic novel entitled “1001 Nights of Snowfall,” which would be a nice pairing for this program. Students might get a kick out of studying how Willingham puts a unique spin on classic stories.

 

How are you using graphic novels in your classroom?

 

References

Brown, S. (2013). A blended approach to reading and writing graphic novels. The Reading Teacher, 67(3), 208-219.

Gorman, M. (2002). What teens want. School Library Journal, 48, 42-47.

Hassett, D. D, & Schieble, M. B. (2007). Finding space and time for the visual in K-12 literacy instruction. The English Journal, 97(1), 62-68.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2004). Using graphic novels, anime, and the Internet in an urban high school. The English Journal, 93(3), 19-25.

McTaggert, J. (2008). Graphic novels: The good, the bad, and the ugly. In N. Frey, & D. Fisher (Eds.), Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills (pp. 27-46). CA: Corwin Press.

Schwarz, G. E. (2002). Graphic books for diverse needs: Engaging reluctant and curious readers. The ALAN Review, 3(1), 54-57.

Yidirim, A.H. (2013). Using graphic novels in the classroom. Journal of Language and Literature Education, 8. 118-131.