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    The Power of Comics

    By Jennifer Marshall
     | Dec 20, 2018

    For a long time, comic books and graphic novels were geared toward children on the basis that, because they have pictures, they’re not “real books.” As a child, I wasn’t allowed to read comics for that very reason. I read my first comic book as an adult when I met my husband, who is the comic buyer for our local shop. Today, I am the mother of two girls who are obsessed with manga (Japanese comics). This year alone, I have read over 400 comic books. It’s safe to say that comics play a very large part of our family’s reading life.

    Comics versus graphic novels

    Stylistically, comics and graphic novels are very similar. Comic books are usually about 24 pages and are released in single issues usually once or twice a month. These individual books often form an ongoing story that spans several issues. Like TV shows, they are published regularly and collected in what are called trades. Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Bone are all popular examples of comics.

    Graphic novels are basically longer versions of comics. Usually, graphic novels tell one full story and can be a couple hundred pages long. Examples include Amulet, The Witch Boy, and Smile.

    Comics are a writing style; not a genre

    The other thing that is important to understand about comics is that they are not a genre; they are a style of writing. Comics can be found in every genre, include all the literary elements you would find in traditional novels, and can be equally as complex. In the comic Ms. Marvel (Marvel), a young Pakistani girl from New Jersey named Kamala Khan tries to balance her new super powers with her religious beliefs. There are several moments where her family is made to feel like outsiders because they are Muslim.

    In the graphic novel Witch Boy (Graphix), a young boy named Astor wants to learn magic. Although Astor could save his family, he is expected to do what boys do and ignore his talent for magic. In the March trilogy (Top Shelf Productions), John Lewis tells the story of his role in the fight for equal rights. I could list dozens of examples of complex stories and themes found in comic books, some meant for students and some meant for adults, just as you find in traditional novels.

    The benefits of reading comics

    There are fewer words in comics because much of the story unfolds in the visuals. For my students who struggle with vocabulary, these images offer visual clues to help decode new words. To fully understand the storyline, you need both the words and the pictures. If you are only reading the words or only looking at the pictures, you are missing half of the story.

    When you reread a traditional novel, you may notice foreshadowing that you didn’t see before. Artists in comics do the same thing. Something that didn’t seem important in the first reading now stands out. For months, one of the major comic publishing companies, DC Comics, was inserting the same yellow button in the background of many of their books. This was a hint about the impending rerelease of a story that was popular in the 1980s.

    The transformative power of comics in the classroom

    When I began teaching Tier 3 reading, I had not encountered any research about using comics in the classroom. All I knew was that my family and I enjoyed reading comics and that my daughter, at 12 years old, had only finished one book that wasn’t a comic. I knew comics had the power to engage my daughter, who would not stay interested in a traditional novel long enough to finish. My students were below grade level in reading for many reasons—language barriers, sickness, high mobility rates, and more—but almost all of them had two things in common: gaps in their reading skills and a strong dislike of reading. I am a firm believer that if you find the right book at the right time, you can help a student learn to enjoy reading.

    The student who helped me realize the power of comics was a seventh grader who very loudly and proudly would announce that he had never read a novel. He was obsessed with Japanese culture and had just watched an anime (Japanese cartoon) called Bleach, which is based on a manga of 74 books. This student, who had never finished a book, had read all 74 books within a couple months, found another similar series, and started those. All in all, he read 184 books that year. He had transformed from a student who refused to read to one who sought out his own reading material. Comics were the tool that engaged him and drove him to practice his reading, and that practice is what improved his reading skills.

    This really pushed me to try to put comics into the hands of more students. I had always allowed students to read comics in class, but I had not purposefully encouraged them to do so. I spent that summer reading as many young adult comics as I could find. Each year, I see more students reading for fun once they have discovered comics.

    Integrating comics into the curriculum

    Something that I love about comics is that, no matter what interests my students, I can usually find a comic about that topic. This means that I can also find comics for various curriculum that I am teaching. There is a series called Science Comics (Macmillan) that delves into science topics, ranging from dinosaurs to plagues. In the book about dogs they explain the Punit Square and how it determines genetic traits of dog breeds.

    There are also many retellings of classic literature. My sixth graders have a waiting list to read Moby Dick, Jayne Eyre, and The Life of Frederick Douglass. I have read comic versions of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and Beowulf, where every line of the original was included. Several authors tell their story in comic form, such as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (Graphix). So often when someone mentions comics we instantly think of the stories about Batman, Iron Man, or Spiderman, but comics are so much broader than that.

    My students’ recommendations

    Today, my students are excited to read comics. They recommend their favorites to others and begin to branch out by reading traditional novels or nonfiction texts about things in the comics. In Marvel Comics, the original Spiderman died for awhile and the mantle of Spiderman was assumed by a boy who was half black and half Puerto Rican. My students were so excited to see a superhero that looked like them. They not only read every comic they could find that featured Miles Morales, they also read the Jason Reynolds novel about Miles. Students who read the comic adaptation of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (Hyperion) or Marie Lu’s Legend series (Putnam) will often then reach for the novel. By not only allowing students to read comics but encouraging them to read and discuss them, I observed what every teacher and parent wants: an engaged reader.

    Here are some of my students’ favorite comics:

    • Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (Graphix)
    • The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag (Graphix)
    • Smile, Sisters, Ghost, and Drama all by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic)
    • Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normalby G. Willow Wilson (Marvel)
    • Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds (Marvel)
    • Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (First Second)
    • The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi (Graphix)
    • Bone by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
    • Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld (First Second)
    • Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial)
    • Real Friends by Shannon Hale (First Second)
    • Quarterback Rush by Carl Bowen (Stone Arch)
    • The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second)
    • Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (First Second)
    • Angelic by Simon Spurrier (Image Comics)
    • Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel (Graphix)
    • El Deafo by Cece Bell (Harry N. Abrams)
    • Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (Square Fish)

    Jenn Marshall teaches Tier 3 Reading in Kennewick, Washington. Comic books are her life; she incorporates them into her classroom and even reviews them in her spare time.  

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    Pairing Classical Canon With Contemporary Counterparts

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Dec 05, 2018

    book-clubs-ltAlthough we’ve long known the importance of cultivating a diverse classroom library, today’s English language arts curriculum remains dominated by a list of familiar titles, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn,and Homer’s The Odyssey. Proponents of classical literature note their cultural and historical significance, praiseworthy prose, and contributions to a shared knowledge base.

    On the other hand, a growing number of educators have moved away from using these classics in favor of more modern alternatives, arguing that they offer more compelling, inclusive, and relatable narratives while imparting the same skills and themes.

    ILA’s latest brief, Expanding the Canon: How Diverse Literature Can Transform Literacy Learning, opts for a less binary option. Instead of pitting classic versus contemporary, the piece argues that teaching traditional canon in tandem with current titles is the more powerful option.

    One added benefit of this approach is the ability of educators to cultivate a classroom library that reflects the “diverse streams of culture, history, and language that compose today’s increasingly global society.”

    Here are a few sample pairings, provided via Twitter by classroom teachers and literacy professionals:

    “This fall, we are ‘pairing/laddering’ the new nonfiction by Larry Dane Brimner, Blacklisted!, with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. We actually get to read into the events that inspired the play with the pairing here.”

    “Teach texts in conversation with one another: The Great Gatsby with Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Macbeth with House of Cards, Never Let Me Go with The Marrow Thieves.”

    “The most powerful pairings are the most unlikely ones—focused on the same questions but from different centuries and very different writers. My current favorite: Hamlet and Long Way Down. The Hate You Give and Romeo and Juliet.”

    “Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. Codes of honor, courage to face the truth, complexity of the human condition.”

    “I have an idea to look at language used to describe Othello and language used in the red lining maps, easily searched through Mapping Inequality. Same problem, different day. And important American history.”

    “We read Greek mythology and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery with The Hunger Games—kids love making comparisons and finding thematic connections.”

    “Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.”

    How often do you pair reading classics with modern, inclusive texts? Which pairings were especially strong or resonated with your students? What themes work well for these pairings? Email your answers to

    Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    Weaving Art Into Literacy Instruction

    By Rachel Zindler
     | Nov 27, 2018

    Often overlooked, visual art has great potential to engage students in an English language arts (ELA) classroom. By integrating art into your ELA lessons, you can help students improve literacy, build world knowledge, and boost critical thinking, speaking, and listening skills.

    What’s more, weaving the study of fine art into your ELA lessons is a great way to differentiate instruction and reach a wide range of learners. Students of various abilities can access the visual language of art, providing important opportunities to gain competence in analyzing and discussing complex ideas. Striving readers and those who are learning to speak English especially benefit from this approach.

    Let’s use The Great Wave off Kanagawa as an example. It’s one in a series of famous woodblock prints titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, created by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai in 1832.

    If I were introducing this artwork to students in an ELA lesson, I would first ask what they notice about the image. Such close visual observation mimics early stages of close reading, drawing students in to examine and identify details and then stepping back to view the image as a whole. Then, I’d ask what more they’d like to know about it, using students’ innate curiosity as another point of engagement.

    Next, I’d ask, what’s happening in this artwork? Who are the people in the boats, and what do their poses tell us about them? What types of shapes and lines do you see? How do they draw our eye around the scene? When they encounter a new text, students must first establish an understanding of the characters, setting, and plot structure. With fine art, we’re asking them to identify the foundational components first, recognizing how the parts contribute to a harmonious whole.

    After that I would focus on artist’s technique. Just as I might prompt my class to describe an author’s use of language in a book, I might ask how specific artistic elements, such as color, texture, or composition work together to convey a message or support their interpretation of the work. Students learn to recognize artistic choices, similarly to how they identify and understand literary devices and their purpose in literature. Again,  this is about practicing a key, cross-cutting skill in a way that may reach more students or deepen engagement.

    Once we’ve analyzed the individual components, it’s then time to synthesize our knowledge. I would ask the critical question, what is the essential meaning of this work? We may not be able to put a precise finger on a single meaning, but can use what we know to make inferences. Students must support any claims with concrete evidence from the image, another important literacy skill.

    Finally, it’s important to note that we don’t read books in a vacuum, nor do we look at art that way. A painting or text can build a student’s knowledge of a host of other topics. In the case of this Japanese woodblock print, students might examine the process of printmaking, the power of natural forces, or we might place this work in context in Japanese history and culture.

    With this approach, you’ll be helping students expand their horizons and develop new skills. The National Assessment of Educational Progress 2016 arts assessment, which measures students’ knowledge and skills related to art, found that three-fourths of students couldn’t recognize obvious similarities and differences between two self-portraits by 20th-century artists. Far fewer students could create a self-portrait that sufficiently depicted their own characteristics.

    Framing class discussions of reading material and fine art is not only enjoyable for students and teachers alike, but creates an awareness about art, strengthens concrete literacy skills, and contributes toward a powerful and effective ELA curriculum. I’d love to see more teachers give it a try.

    Rachel Zindler is an art editor for the nonprofit Great Minds, publisher of Wit & Wisdom and Eureka Math. She previously worked in art museums and taught elementary and middle school students and teachers in New York City and Texas. She now lives in Austin, Texas and, when she’s not writing curriculum, is a practicing artist.

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    Thanksgiving-Themed Literacy Activities

    By Bailee Formon
     | Nov 20, 2018

    Turkey Reading BookHolidays are a great opportunity to facilitate fun projects that offer a springboard for critical reflection and meaningful discussion, and the upcoming Thanksgiving  celebration in the United States is no exception. By using this as a theme for reading and writing activities in the classroom, students will exercise important literacy skills while learning about the history, traditions, and values associated with Thanksgiving. Following are some Thanksgiving-related activities that will keep students engaged and learning during those last few hours before break.

    • Use this free Thanksgiving writing packet from Teachers Pay Teachers to engage students in coloring and labeling activities that foster vocabulary and spelling skills.
    • ReadWriteThink’s “Myth and Truth: The ‘First Thanksgiving’” lesson plan prompts students to think critically about commonly believed myths surrounding the Wampanoag, the pilgrims, and the "first Thanksgiving." 
    • This blogger’s Feed the Turkey activity gives students an opportunity to read aloud and learn new words while enjoying the process of “feeding” those words to the turkey.
    • Using a site such as Puzzlemaker, create a Thanksgiving-themed word search or  crossword puzzle with appropriate grade-level vocabulary.
    • Scholastic’s Thanksgiving-themed teacher's activity guide includes a Readers Theatre, “Letters from the New World,” and a vocabulary guide and quiz.
    • Thanksgiving Literacy Centers provides worksheets and printable activities, geared toward kindergartners and first graders, that use Thanksgiving pictures and themes to engage phonics, decoding, and creative writing skills. These fun worksheets will help keep younger students focused and enthusiastic during the lesson.
    • The National Education Alliance’s list of Thanksgiving ideas for elementary, middle and high school classrooms includes Thanksgiving memoirs for reading aloud, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, crossword puzzles, writing activities, and more.

    Bailee Formon is an intern at the International Literacy Association.  

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    Fall in Love With Reading: Bringing Access to Books to Rural Areas of China

    By Emily Spink-McCarthy
     | Nov 15, 2018
    Bringing Access to Books to Rural Areas of ChinaAt American Eagle Institute, we believe that reading is the foundation from which a child grows to become an educated person. It is the key skill from which other language skills develop and is one of the greatest gifts we can pass on to our children.

    One of the skills reading develops is empathy because reading allows us to see the world through another's eyes. With this knowledge comes responsibility. For almost 20 years at Eagle, an English education school in Taiwan and mainland China, we've insisted that schooling must include education of our character.

    Although our curriculum can help with academic success, it's the role models and the community members at Eagle who help shape our students and represent our founding values of respect, honesty, and discipline.

    Every child deserves a fair starting point

    In 2016, the Chinese government began promoting several initiatives to improve literacy. These initiatives aim to promote reading excellence for everyone in China. But despite the efforts of many organizations, there remains a wide reading gap between urban and rural areas in China.

    To add to the obstacles that Chinese families face when trying to promote reading excellence, academic pressure from regular schooling and other extracurricular activities make it even more difficult to increase time spent on reading for pleasure.

    One of the founding values that American Eagle Institute was built on is that "every child deserves a fair starting point," and I'm proud to say that this year we initiated the Fall in Love With Reading project to help provide access to high-quality books to rural children and to help raise awareness for families in both the countryside and the city of the importance of reading.

    Fall in Love With Reading is a charity project that revolves around the idea of improving literacy and providing better access to books for those in need. The project includes a reading seminar hosted by a linguistics expert from Massey University of New Zealand, a national bookmark making competition, a book donation drive, and the creation of a library in an underprivileged rural school with books from the donation drive.

    As part of the drive, we ran two separate challenges that allowed our students across 80 campuses to accumulate charity points on line. The challenges were an online bookmark-making activity and a book reading challenge. Both activities included reading books in exchange for charity points. For every charity point raised, Eagle agreed to donate one Chinese yuan toward completing a library in a rural school in Hubei province.

    We also invited influential organizations such as the International Literacy Association, McGraw-Hill Education, the Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore, and Smiling Library to work in collaboration with Eagle to encourage more children to take part in the project.

    Through bringing together the forces of our community, we hope to provide high-quality reading resources to rural children. At the same time, we can help students experience the gift of giving and cultivate their sense of social responsibility.

    The magical power of charity

    During the book donation drive, we experienced something bigger than simply accumulating books. We felt the power of communities pulling together to give to those in need. We saw our Eagle students thinking about those not as lucky as themselves. Some of them finished reading more than 300 books before we were even halfway through the reading challenge. Our thanks go out to all the wonderful families and caregivers who helped by setting great examples for the next generation.

    After one month of collecting books, our students across the country donated more than 1,000 titles. On June 13, 2018, Eagle staff set out to bring this donation to Yu-Yan Elementary School in a village 750 kilometers away from Shanghai. Benjamin Spink-McCarthy, one of our teachers and trainers, ran an English class for their fifth graders. The class was interactive and immersive, and local teachers were there to observe and learn about a different way to teach English. With these high-quality English and Chinese books, we were able to create a library space for the school as well.

    Literacy requires understanding and support

    Reading requires a personal decision and a personal transformation that can be difficult to establish from commands or the forces of the marketplace. Only when society at large advocates for reading will we have a future where everyone enjoys and benefits from the power of reading.

    The urgent need to improve literacy demands the attention of families and caregivers to make reading a priority in daily life and to encourage literacy from a young age. We call out to everyone to fall in love with reading and to make sure every child—from the cities to our most remote communities—has access to quality literature. 

    Emily Spink-McCarthy is president of American Eagle Institute, an English education school in Taiwan and mainland China.

    This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of 
    Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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