Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fostering Visual Literacy with Graphic Novels

My reading group has just finished our first graphic novel together. After our first lesson about analyzing the visual aspects of a graphic novel, I was optimistic that this group would do very well with the book, Smile by Raina Telgemeier.  

Our typical schedule for reading a novel includes students completing reading and response activities without my support. During this time, students also create discussion questions for the group. Once a week, we meet together to discuss our questions. I’m able to gauge student comprehension progress during those discussions and provide redirection or mini-lessons to ensure the group remains on track.

I provide a few guiding questions for each chapter to draw attention to abstract themes and help students make inferences that they might otherwise miss. For this graphic novel, I asked students to choose one panel to discuss in depth with the group during our meeting. I was hoping my students would have more amazing conversations like our discussion of an illustration in our previous book.

Unfortunately, my students really struggled to notice critical panels worth analyzing together. Instead, they would often choose panels that did not allow the group to have deep discussions. In the future, I will provide my groups with more scaffolding for this part of our work together. I plan to select specific panels for students to analyze and discuss. Gradually, I will release the the students to choose important panels once they have more experience.

Overall, I found that using this graphic novel was a great way to practice reading skills that my students usually struggle to master. Students were able to make inferences based on visual clues. During our discussions, students were able to analyze visual information and understand symbolism. As we continue to develop these abstract skills, we will begin transferring our reading skills to print-based texts. My hope is to have students make connections back to our visual texts in order to continually make inferences and recognize symbolism.

Student Comics

As a culminating project, my students used Pixton to create their own comics. They were challenged to use a graphic novel technique that we discovered a few weeks back (shading, color, perspective, body language, and font or text use) and were given the choice of content:
  1. Tell a story from your own life when you faced a problem
  2. Put yourself into Raina’s story and show what you would have done differently

Look at some of their work! I am really impressed with their ability to apply their understanding of visual communication to create comics.
What an interesting way to show perspective in panel 3!
This student changed the shape of her speech bubbles to show
that the character is in pain. 

Student Learning

When I asked these students for some feedback about what they had learned while reading graphic novels, they were able to express some great insights. One student explained that even though there are fewer words, he had to think more while reading. Rather than breezing through the story, he had to add his own knowledge to the pictures to really understand the full story. Another student said she was glad to read this story because she thought graphic novels were boring before.

We also had an interesting discussion about if graphic novels should be considered “real reading.” I was surprised that many of the students in this group said that it wasn’t really reading because there weren’t many words. Instead, they agreed that our learning was more about thinking than reading words, which I would agree with. We didn’t focus on reading words, but instead on thinking deeply, making inferences, and noticing symbolism. Whether my students believe they were really reading or not, they did develop key reading skills that we will apply in our next book study. I’m pleased with the progress this group made in their reading skills, and I’m looking forward to using graphic novels with my other reading groups as well. Thanks to generous donors, my latest Donor’s Choose grant for graphic novels was fulfilled. My students are so excited to read these new titles!

Beginning with Graphic Novels

Teaching with graphic novels is new for me. While I have several sets of various titles, I’ve decided to only have one of my reading groups choose a graphic novel so far. I wanted time to learn from my students and improve my instruction to benefit the rest of my student groups. In other words, they are my guinea pigs. You should have seen their excitement when I showed them the graphic novel choices for our reading. They were surprised that we would get to spend our time together discussing and analyzing a graphic novel.

Pre-Teaching Concepts

Before starting with our graphic novel, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, I used a series of books to preteach important visual literacy concepts. Some of the books, like Level Up by Gene Leun Yang are graphic novels, while other books like Hippo! No, Rhino! by Jeff Newman, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, are picture books with limited text. Rather than showing students different examples of visual concepts, we took time to look through each book together so that students could construct their own ideas.

We discussed this key question during our lesson: How do authors of graphic novels express their ideas? After some discussion, here is what we learned:

Authors use perspective and size to show important details or different characters’ views.

Body language and facial expressions show a character’s feelings.

Font, text color, and size can help the reader know how words are said.

Shading and color can be used to draw attention to important parts of the pictures.


I had taught the above lesson in preparation for beginning our graphic novel. It happend to take place a few days before my group finished reading Bridge to Terabithia. As we were having our final book club discussion, one of my students drew our attention to an illustration toward the end of the story. Here is what our conversation sounded like:

S1: I want to talk about this picture. It reminded me of what we learned about graphic novels, even though it’s a regular book.

Me: What do you think this picture is showing us?

S2: Well, it’s all black and white. It’s kind of like that Hugo picture where the illustrator made one character stick out using light colors. Jess sticks out here too because of light colors.

S3: Why is his dad in shadow, though?

Me: That’s a good question. Does anyone have an idea why the illustrator did that?

S1: Maybe to make the character stand out. It also shows us the difference between the dad and the boy. The dad is in shadow, but he is bigger and stronger. The boy looks weak.

Me: That’s interesting. Do you guys think the story supports those thoughts?

S4: Yeah, because the dad helped the boy when he was crying because his friend died. The dad kinda didn’t care about his son too much earlier in the book, but here he is strong for him.

Goosebumps. I had goosebumps! This was the start of my student-led discussion after ONE lesson on visual literacy concepts. They were discussing symbolism that was supported by the text. I’ve usually had trouble introducing the concept of symbolism with my students in past years because it is so abstract, but these kiddos jumped right in because the illustration was approachable. It didn’t intimidate them like regular text might. We went on to discuss the sunlit background vs. the darker foreground and what that might mean.

I think we are off to a strong start, and I can’t wait to see how this group does as they apply these concepts to our first graphic novel.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Student Blogging for Self Reflection

I spent some time over the summer brainstorming ways to incorporate blogging in my classroom. After a bit of goal setting and planning, I’m excited to share that we’ve made great progress this week! To get the most bang for our buck, I’ve decided to teach my students about reflective blogging. Teaching students to reflect and process their learning while also setting their own learning goals is a great way to increase student agency.  

I recently read an excerpt from Larissa Pahomov’s book, Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry. It explained that relevant student reflection must be metacognitive, applicable, and shared. I’ve incorporated Pahomov’s example guiding questions to teach my students metacognitive reflection. I think this will help my students to slow down and actually process their learning, rather than simply complete their work. Their reflections will be applicable because we will reflect each week, rather than only at the end of grading periods, so students will have the opportunity to think about their learning, set goals, and make changes. Finally, student reflections will be shared through student blogs.  

This week we explored how a blogging community interacts and communicates. I was inspired by the work that this teacher is doing with her class and followed her example of first practicing with “paper blogs” and post-it comments. We practiced reflecting on our learning and commenting on peer writing. By the end of the week, our classroom was abuzz with excitement and conversation as students published their first blog posts and began commenting with their peers. They took ownership and named their blogs things like Blog Boy, Learning Like a Boss, and Student Power.

Blogging Benefits

Building Community
Online communities are great for connecting individuals with similar interests who otherwise would not have met. They are also a wonderful way to build classroom community. I was amazed this week as I read through student blogs. My learners were open and vulnerable in their initial posts in ways that they wouldn’t have been in a typical classroom conversation, sharing about struggles that they faced this week and how they wanted to improve next time. Even better, the comments that their friends made built up our learning community! One of my students had a particularly rough morning and chose to blog about it. Her classmates were so positive and supportive in their comments that she left her disappointment behind and had a terrific afternoon. That’s the power of a great community!  

Authentic Audience
My students took a great deal of pride in their writing when their blogs were published for their peers to read. They were motivated to create interesting content because their peers are serving as an authentic audience. They were so excited to hear that we would be blogging each week because they found a sense of purpose in the work I was asking them to do. They took ownership of their work and wanted it to be their very best.

Equal Access
One of the greatest benefits for using online blogging is that my struggling writers can use Google Read and Write to create interesting writing and respond to their peers. They are not left out of our community due to difficulties they might face when writing with paper and pencil. Technology gives all my learners full access to our class blogs.

Student Voice
Blogging allows open conversations to start between students allowing every student to have a voice. During a typical classroom sharing activity, students usually would only have time to share with one or two friends. With a blog, though, students aren’t limited in that way. They can comment anytime and anywhere, extending student voice beyond our face-to-face interactions.  

Avoiding Possible Issues

Internet Safety
Most blogging sites are blocked by our filter for a good reason. Both privacy and safety are major concerns when young students participate in an online community. While my fourth graders are learning digital citizenship concepts, we need a safe space to put our learning into practice. For these reasons, I’ve created a sheltered blogging experience for my students using Google Docs. Our class homepage acts as a directory, linking each student’s blog, so that our writing is easily shared within our safe environment.

Shallow Comments
In order for students to benefit fully from participating in an online learning community, they must learn the purpose for online commenting. Rather than simply commenting “Me too!” or giving shout outs to friends, online commenting can allow students to engage the writer through connections and questions. In order to avoid shallow comments, I’ve taught a series of lessons building upon our peer-feedback skills. We first explored examples of real blogs and their comments and then practiced making strong comments in response to student projects published on our learning hub.

Static vs. Dynamic Environment
I really want engaged learners in our online community. It would be so disappointing for students to lose interest in blogging because they feel like no one is reading or commenting on their blog. For this reason, I’ve taught my students the playground analogy that I read about on Dean Shareski’s blog. He teaches students that in order to make a friend, you must first be a friend. In other words, if students want their peers to read and comment on their blog, they must also read and comment on other blogs. This can lead to a dynamic online environment in which student comments build upon each other, ensuring that every student can remain engaged and connected.  

Next Steps

For the rest of this grading period, I plan to take time each week to teach mini lessons about blogging and self reflection while also applying digital citizenship principles that we have learned. My main goals with this project are to foster a love for writing, deeply process learning tasks while and develop a positive classroom community. I think we are off to a great start!