Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Getting Started with Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Three years ago I had only the most rudimentary of graphic novel collections in my classroom. Now, I have enough so that 50% of my class is reading graphic novels at any one time.

Building this collection has been fun, especially because my own kids love graphic novels. Our weekend routines now include visiting new comic book stores, where my husband and youngest son look for the comics they follow, my older son browses the tabletop games, and I scan the graphic novels.

I spend a lot of my own money. Thanks for your TeachersPayTeachers purchases, everyone--they help to support my classroom graphic novel collection! But I wouldn't buy the books if I didn't see how much these books are appreciated by my students and how graphic novels lead to increased interest in reading. Now that I'm teaching sixth grade, I'm very much aware of how my students are at the edge of a reading cliff. Some of them are going to get to a point at which they don't read for pleasure anymore.

Every day, we start class with ten minutes of silent reading time. I've spent this time talking with kids, watching them choose books, and sometimes tearing out my hair when they don't return books. If you're looking to build a collection for your classroom, here are some great books to try.

For kids who don't know if they'll like graphic novels

Rapunzel's Revenge was one of the first graphic novels that I ever truly read, and it remains a great choice for middle grade readers. It's one that gets equal attention from boys and girls. The steampunk style is very appealing, as is a Rapunzel who can use her long braids as lassos.

The story structure and layout is also very forgiving for readers who aren't as familiar with graphic novel format, making this and its sequel, Calamity Jack, great books to recommend to kids who are ready to try graphic novels, but aren't sure what to think. (Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale)

For kids who love fantasy and adventure

I bought the first five books of  Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series from a Scholastic book order, sight unseen, for my younger son's birthday. Best $35 I ever spent! These books have been well-loved, passed around, and yes, replaced a few times! Books 6 and 7 came out to much excitement, and I know that readers are already looking forward to Book 8.

When I show readers who have loved Amulet the Zita the Spacegirl series, I
get one of two reactions. Some kids take the book right away, drawn in by the bright artwork. Others tilt their heads to the side and give the book a funny look, as if unsure. It has a girl on the cover! "There are also giant robots and spaceships," I say, and usually this is enough to draw the kids in. This series was a great fit for fourth grade but a tad on the young side for sixth.

The next installment in the Cleopatra in Space series is being eagerly awaited by many of my students. (Isn't it awesome that there are so many graphic novels with such great female characters?) Readers who have enjoyed Amulet will snap this one right up. Interestingly enough, I don't think this has ever been turned down when I have suggested it--which is pretty amazing, as I face rejection an awful lot.

For kids who like dark stories

In sixth grade, just as in fourth, there are kids who want to read darker stories. These kids want books that probe the shadows and send a delicious shiver down their spines. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book has been adapted into an amazing two-volume graphic novel, and wow does it deliver!

This set of graphic novels includes artwork from a number of illustrators, which can be jarring to readers at first. I am also sure to talk kids through the shocking events of the first chapter before handing over the book. If I still taught fourth grade, I'm not sure that I would have this book out--kids in my area seem to skew a bit young when it comes to these books and in my classroom I err on the side of caution. However, for kids who are used to graphic novels, this is intensely satisfying and has led some students to attempt the full novel.

For kids who loved Smile and Sisters

Wow, these book by Raina Telgemaier were the most popular in the library last year! It seems as if every student has read these books. This provides me with a perfect opportunity to follow up with other graphic novels about growing up.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm is another fun memoir for students. It has the bonus of introducing some key comic book details, too! This one gets mixed reactions from boys--some just don't think they can deal with carrying around the bright blue cover--but every student who has read it has enjoyed it.

And my favorite part of Sunny Side Up is that it leads readers toward Jennifer Holm's novels. Both Turtle in Paradise and Penny from Heaven are on the reserved list right now, which is a success to me.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is another popular memoir, as is El Deafo by Cece Bell. I've had to buy multiple copies of each to keep up with demand!

Another great memoir is The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley. My students have a lot in character with the main character--we all live in (sometimes dreary) Pennsylvania towns, and comic book stores are few and far between. Interestingly, this book seems to take kids a little bit longer to read.

For kids who like nonfiction

There are lots of new graphic novel format nonfiction books coming out, and I can't wait to collect more. This year, I've focused on collecting Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. For some reason comic book stores don't carry these, but they are widely available at bookstores and through book orders.

These are so much fun to read! My high schooler even picks them up, and
really enjoyed Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood. The idea is that Nathan Hale (the spy, not the author) did not die during the Revolutionary War. Instead, he tells the executioner stories of history. You really just have to read it--there is a magical talking history book too!

Others in the series include Big Bad Ironclad and The Underground Abductor (sadly now missing from my classroom--sigh.) I just haven't been able to bring myself to buy Donner Dinner Party yet. Maybe next year.

For kids who love adventure

My youngest son found the Nnewts series by Doug TenNapel and was instantly hooked. This series has been popular with students who love animals--in some cases, it has been the first graphic novel that students have attempted. My students are most frustrated by the fact that #3 has not been released yet. They seem to think that authors should sit at the table and draw, draw, draw to get the books

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the books that readers have been enjoying this year. What graphic novels have your students enjoyed?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Comparing Texts: New Passages!

This year I've been working on new Article Response sets to use as ongoing practice and homework with sixth graders. They have worked wonderfully all year and I'm thrilled to share them.

All of the response sets are set up in a similar pattern: cover sheet, summarizing prompt, response prompt, and text. Each also has a comprehension quiz.

At the start of the year, I planned to send these home as homework. As the year has progressed I've changed my thinking! We start class with ten minutes of independent reading followed by ten minutes of working on the texts and responses. Some days I do a mini-lesson about summarizing or writing a response, while on other days students partner read. A two-week span for each packet gives us enough time to have thoughtful conversations without feeling pressured to produce.

"Damon and Pythias" and "The Two Travelers"

The latest two sets have been focused on comparing narratives. I think that comparing texts is such a meaningful, authentic purpose for close reading. When kids read two texts and spontaneously offer comparisons, I know that good things are happening!

This text set pairs a retelling of "Damon and Pythias" with a version of the fable by Aesop "The Two Travelers". Both of these stories examine the meaning of loyalty and friendship, but in very different ways! For students dealing with sixth grade drama, the concept of loyalty is fascinating to discuss.

We acted out both stories in class. Acting out stories helps readers to grasp the action and better understand the events. When it came time to summarize "Damon and Pythias", students really were able to consider which events were important to the outcome of the story and which were not! The fable "The Two Travelers" teaches a lesson about friendship through a non-example, and raises an interesting question for students--did the bear in the story really talk?

"Damon and Pythias" is also the basis for the 2003 film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. If you are working on comparing texts, this is a great opportunity to compare a story to a film.

"The Elves and the Shoemaker" and "The Magical Cyber Elf"

This text set has been perfect for reviewing key content for standardized testing! I started with thinking about the classic fairy tale "The Elves and the Shoemaker". How could this story be translated for modern times? Because I am currently up to my ears in yearbook work the modern story "The Magical Cyber Elf" came to mind.

There have been so many great concepts to review with this text set. We used "The Elves and the Shoemaker" to review the parts of a plot diagram and talk about theme. Then, we used "The Magical Cyber Elf" to discuss point of view and how a shifting point of view can influence the unfolding of events in a story. We had some great conversations about how the themes of the two stories are very similar, even though the settings and conflicts differ.

If you try these text sets, let me know what your students think!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Making the Soup: Supporting Students in Writing From Sources

Students in my classroom have been working on writing a synthesis essay based on two different text passages. It's a process! This kind of instruction can often feel messy and unkempt, especially when the whole thing sprawls over multiple weeks.

    But I like to have the whole thing unfold in class. Having students write essays on their own is like sitting in the dining room while student cooks are making soup. Once the soup is served there's not much that can be done to fix it. But if you stand in the kitchen, watching the students cook, you can offer help and feedback through the process: "Maybe not so much salt" or "You might want to cut the potatoes into smaller pieces."

   In fact, during a particularly tough writing task, I find that a checklist is especially useful. Not a checklist for students, but a checklist for myself as I observe students and see how they are doing.

    I circulate around the room and check off students as they complete each paragraph. Going out of order is fine--I actually encourage it--but I emphasize putting pen to paper and getting writing done.

    I don't have students line up to have paragraphs checked; I hate the practice of students lining up and waiting for a teacher's attention. Instead, I walk around, checking in with students who seem to be struggling and waiting to chat with those who are on a writing streak.

    I star paragraphs that seem to be working. In the class that I co-teach, this is important so that the two of us can stay on the same page. And I don't always agree with myself. "But you said it was okay yesterday!" a student complained after I told her to rethink a transition. What can I say? Writing is a subjective process. "Today I think you can do more," I told her. "Don't you agree?"

    The checklist also helps me to see when students move beyond a linear process and start thinking more recursively. "I have you checked off for three paragraphs, but it looks like you're starting over," I told one student. She replied, "My body paragraphs were coming out to be too long, so I changed my thesis and started over." Wow! Although it looked as if this students was lagging behind, she was really surging far ahead and doing just the kind of writing that we want to encourage in writers.

    As the project starts to wind down, it's tempting to say something like "All essays must be turned in by Friday." But this is the same as sending a junior cook into the kitchen to make the soup alone. The students who take the longest are the ones who need the most support.

   And so it's important to have robust enrichment activities in place. In my classroom, I use independent reading, Genius Hour, and to engage students once they finish the assigned essay. This way, I can help those who are working while others move on to new challenges.

    Synthesis writing is a drawn-out, recursive process. It does take a lot of class time, and it takes a great deal of self-control (not to mention sang-froid) to keep myself as a teacher calm while the whole process plays out in class. There's so much more to cover! I tell myself, but I steel my nerves as I watch the students at work. Managing multiple sources and sticking to a thesis is a tough task. I'm lucky to be able to watch it happen.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Building Recursive Processes for Essay Writing

Writing passage-based essays and other synthesis tasks are important for students. However, these tasks can be very frustrating for teachers! The frustration comes from the issue of how classroom work is accomplished versus how creative work is accomplished.

Linear Process

    In the classroom, a linear workflow rules. I write these kinds of directions on my board every day: First complete step one, then go on to step two, and so forth.
    Linear processes work well for managing many students and many assignments. A linear workflow shapes a task into approachable chunks.
    Unfortunately, a linear process just doesn't work for high-quality writing. In fact, a study of synthesizing found that a linear writing process is associated with lower quality synthesis (Sole et al, 2013). Readers who follow a linear process, with each step following the other, miss connections between ideas. They fail to follow up on key concepts and don't show as deep of an understanding of the text.

Recursive Process
    The best process for a synthesis task like a passage-based essay, as it happens, is a recursive process. A recursive process sees a student shifting flexibly back and forth between tasks. Step two doesn't always follow step one, and sometimes step three leads back to the beginning.

    It's easy to see how this kind of process can be tough to manage in the classroom. Many traditional classrooms are built on an assembly line model: Get a task, finish it, get the next.

   But it's worth the time and effort needed to move to more recursive processes in the classroom. It's worth it to think about:

-How can I help students to revisit key steps in the writing process?

-How can I model a recursive process as a reader and writer?

-How can I structure my classroom to allow more time for synthesis tasks?

    The answers to these questions aren't easy! I'm still struggling with them myself. I like to think that this productive struggle on my part as a teacher will lead to productive struggle--and creative benefits--for my students.

Sole, Isabel, Miras, Mariana, Castells, Nuria, Espino, Sandra, Minguela, Marta. 2013. Written Communication, v30 n1, p 63-90.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Adding Text Quotations to Passage-Based Essays

This week my students have been working on writing a passage-based essay. They are using two different texts from the Wonders series, and are synthesizing information from the two texts for the essay.

This is a hard task. When I studied the research on students and synthesis tasks, I wasn't surprised to find that even college students struggle with it. Left to their own devices, students may copy information from texts, rely on a single text instead of referring to both, or engage in shallow thinking at the expense of true synthesis. (You can find the references here)

As I talked with students about their essays, I found that many were struggling with adding text quotations. One student tried to start the essay with two quotations from different texts, without any introductory phrases. Another added text quotations in the middle of paragraphs with no context. Another said, "I'm tired of using 'according to the text'. What else can I say?"

I realized that this was probably a skill that the whole class felt shaky with. Even though they've been writing passage-based essays for two years now, they are still not sure of how to integrate the text quotes into their own writing.

And there are so many things for writers to consider as they do this integration! My writers were struggling with

-How to choose the text quotations
-How to introduce the text quotations
-How to punctuate the text quotations

I started to remedy this with some read aloud. First, I chose Gary Blackwood's Enigmatic Events for its engaging content and great use of quotations from primary sources. Students need to hear much much more of the kind of academic writing that they are expected to do read aloud for them.

Then, I created a handout to guide a lesson about adding text quotations. (I love making handouts as lesson guides because they make catching up with co-teachers or kids who have been absent so easy.)

The handout shows different ways to introduce text quotes. In the first part, students underline the introductory words and phrases. In the second part, they  figure out how to use the punctuation correctly by looking at examples.

We're still working on the best ways to add text quotations, but I feel that we're making progress! Next time--writing introductions.

You can find the handout for free at this link: Adding Text Quotations to Passage-Based Essays.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hexagons Build Connections

I really admire tessellations. When we set up our game of Catan, I always marvel at how the hexagons fit so beautifully together. The same goes for Takenoko, a new game that my son got for Christmas that I just love.

So when I saw some blog posts about using hexagons to review key ideas, I was intrigued. It seemed like a great combination--using tessellations to make content review more meaningful and engaging.

The idea is simple. Take some hexagons, write concepts or words on them, and have students connect the tiles. The key is that students should be able to explain their tessellations, describing how the different ideas are connected.

1. Make or copy your hexagons

I made mine in Google Drawings. Apparently everyone else in my house knows that holding "shift" while creating the shape makes a regular shape--it was a new trick to me! I left some spaces between them to allow for easier cutting.

2. Write content words in the hexagons

Because this was the first time for me to use this activity, I decided to add the content words. I chose words that go along with my current forces and motion unit.

I made four different sets of hexagons, and then copied each set onto a different color of cardstock. This would be handy later. (My first class ended up cutting out the hexagons, which I stored in report card envelopes.)

3. Explain the importance of connections to students

I told my students: "Our goal here is to see and explain how these ideas from our unit are related. The more connections we can make, the more easily we will be able to work with these ideas and use the vocabulary."

4. At first, have students work with one set of hexagons

I circulated to watch carefully what was happening. Some students set up interesting shapes right away, while others struggled a bit. I encouraged them to go back to their resources to check for ideas and information!

5. Gallery walk by hexagon color

For the first set of gallery walks, students got up and walked around the room to hear from their peers. In some cases, the seated students challenged their friends to guess, while in other cases they pointed to the hexagons and shared their sentences. Having the four different colors made grouping for this really easy!

6. Pair up colors

This was really fun! Students got together with partners who
had differently colored hexagons to try to make new connections. Some groups challenged themselves to make one giant tessellation, while others made sets of small ones.


As a review activity, this worked very well to get kids using challenging vocabulary. I heard great dialogue between students as I walked around the room: "I'm not sure how I could add acceleration here" or "What is lift again?"

I hate review games in which only one or two kids practice answering questions, and this worked well to get everyone involved. Some kids even asked to take the hexagons home for more practice!

Next time, though, the hexagons will be much, much more artistic. I can't wait to see what students do when I hand over the blank hexagons to them at the end of the next unit.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Expanding Learning with Task Cards

I've always been sort of ambivalent about task cards. While I like the idea of students getting up and walking around the room as they practice key concepts, I don't like the fact that task card tasks tend to nurture...a focus on "tasks". One of my key goals is to get readers and writers to think more deeply and linger over text. When students see a long list of blanks to fill in, their brains tend to switch to "get it done and over with" mode.

This week, I tried a set of science task cards to help students review forces and motion. But how could I get kids to think more deeply?

Day 1: Task Cards

Have kids complete task cards as usual, emphasizing quality of collaboration over quantity of answers completed. We even modeled and practiced collaborative conversations and how to check back through our resources.

Day 2: Expert Work

This is when the hard thinking begins! First, I sorted the task cards into sets of odds and evens. Then, I gave each pair of students a set of task cards. No need to put them in any sort of order--just make sure that one pair gets two even cards, the next pair gets two odds, and so forth.

Each pair of students then became an expert on their task cards. I projected the answer key to the whole set of task cards with these directions: "You and your partner are about to be the experts for your two cards! Check your answers with the answer key to make sure that you have the correct answer. Then, find evidence in your science folder that supports the answer. Be ready to explain the steps in getting the answer or to give other examples."

This process took about six minutes, and it sent students back to their folders to sort through their resources. (My tests are open-note, and I want to encourage students to use their resources, so I love to see them paging through their work!)

Then, the students with even task cards stayed at their seats to be the experts, while students with odd numbered task cards moved in pairs to check their answers with the experts. It was great to see how explanations developed--from across the room I could see students displaying pages of their notes, gesturing with their hands, and explaining calculations.

After the first session, students nominated expert explainers and we talked about what had led to their high-quality explanations. Then, students reversed roles and repeated the process.

Not every task card got checked or completed--but that's okay! Remember, quality trumps quantity each and every day. Our work as teachers is not to make sure that every line gets filled in.


While it added time to the whole process, the quality of discussion and engagement really showed the value of the expert time. Instead of the teacher grading seventy task card answer sheets, students got to be the experts and explain answers in real time.

What other tricks have you used to expand the thinking with task cards?