Then, an online book buddy of mine posted a link to Donalyn Miller's blog today. What Donalyn had to say kind of encapsulated what was bothering me. Even though what I was railing against isn't exactly the same as what Donalyn is talking about, the Big Picture point is.
So, what's been bothering me so much? The fourth grade team of teachers has outright banned comics and graphic novels from their classrooms. They don't consider it appropriate literature for in-class reading, and my guess is that part of the reason is because they don't think it fits in with what they want to teach for Common Core. You cannot even begin to imagine how much this irked me and strengthened my resolve to provide access to more graphic novels at home.
Here's the thing ... having worked and volunteered in school libraries, I know there are kids who only want to check out comics and graphic novels. I also know that teachers want to expand those students' reading range by making them check out "real" books with chapters and few pictures. I want to believe that their hearts are in the right place and that they want to help their students. But I also know that when you dictate what kids can and can't read, it often backfires.
I don't know a single comics enthusiast who isn't an avid reader; they read a lot. Do teachers consider them "real" readers? That's a good question. The teachers I know do consider those students real readers, and promote graphic novels and comics enthusiastically because they themselves read them. I wouldn't be surprised if the fourth grade teachers haven't read many comics or graphic novels, and look at them negatively because they have preconceived notions and they don't want those kinds of books taking time away from the kids reading "quality" literature.
This idea about teachers not reading goes back to what Donalyn was saying:
A line divides parents who know a lot about reading and their children’s less-knowledgeable teachers. What can we teacher-parents do when our children have poor reading instruction at school? I may not have my own classroom this year, but this reading war front line cuts across my lawn. It stretches across my dining room table—limiting and defining my children’s reading lives.I'm not a teacher but I feel like I have enough work and personal experience to have a qualified opinion. Teachers who haven't read all-ages graphic novels written within the last ten years have no idea how high the literary quality is, and I personally believe they're not in a position to value them lower than some of the chapter books they approve of.
Donalyn goes on:
Last week, Emma [her granddaughter in first grade] and I re-read three outstanding wordless picture books, Flashlight by Lizi Boyd, The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo, and Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo, a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. Filling out her reading log, Emma said, “We can't write those books down, Mimi. We didn't read any words.”
These books are standouts—amazing pieces of storytelling. Award-deserving. Emma recommends them, too.
Sadly, they're not reading log worthy.I feel the same way about how these teachers view comics and graphic novels. They're not classroom reading worthy. They're not literature-with-a-capital-L label worthy. Yet, some of them are amazing pieces of storytelling that range from fantasy to history to memoir.
The idea that teachers don't read enough also hit home when my daughter's teacher sent an email basically stating that the kids didn't know how to choose books from the library at their reading level that weren't graphic novels, picture books, or magazines [emphasis is mine]:
Although these types are entertaining they are really not helping them progress in building their reading fluency and comprehension. I tried to direct many of them today to authors like:I have nothing against these authors; in fact, they write great books for fourth graders. But, really? These are authors that many parents know because they read their books as children. To the student population at my daughter's school (i.e., upper-middle to upper class with highly educated parents), they are names that are all-too-familiar and their books are probably already on their bookshelves at home.
Matt Christopher – boys really seem to like this author
It made me sad that her teacher (who is quite young; this is only her second year of teaching) couldn't come up with different authors or recent award winners and starred review-earners, but she has the Twilight series in her classroom library.
At this point, I was getting really upset. And I was having doubts about the reading instruction my daughter was getting at school. I never had this worry with my son because reading came very naturally to him, but my daughter is my competent-but-reluctant reader and I need her reading world expanded, not limited.
After a moment of pulling my hair out in frustration, I took a deep breath and decided this is where I can help solve the problem, not make it worse. I offered to come up with a suggested reading list. The teacher enthusiastically replied that would be really helpful to the entire fourth grade team. She mentioned the school uses Fountas and Pinnell levels so they were looking for books within a certain range. (Please don't get me started on reading levels ... that's another rant altogether!) So I obliged and came up with a list of 60+ fiction and nonfiction books. I included picture books because there are some great ones for older elementary kids that are contextually and linguistically complex. I plan to expand the list as I find time ... and to sneak in some graphic novels, too! I mean, c'mon, you can't convince me that you couldn't use Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales for history, Raina Telgemeier's Smile to teach narrative writing, or Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust to teach not only history but human empathy.
(This is where I would complain about the school's media specialist but I won't get into that. Suffice it to say, when I was an elementary media specialist and teachers needed a reading list, I was the one they turned to to help with that.)
It's easy, as a parent, to get frustrated with teachers, especially when you feel they're not meeting the needs of your child. And when you know a lot about something (whether it's literacy, math, or history), it's hard to understand why teachers aren't always getting it right. I've worked in public education, I see the amount of work and effort teachers put into educating their students, and I still get frustrated. What we have to remember is that teachers have to work within certain parameters dictated to them by the district and the state; they have to prepare their students for testing, whether they want to or not; they have 20+ different students, which means they have 20+ different needs to meet; and, guess what, not all teachers are readers!
I'll let Donalyn's words close out this post because there is something we can do as parents without undermining teachers:
Share what you [the parent] know. Learn as much as you can. Build relationships. When we remain silent—afraid to rock the boat, offend a teacher, or question an administrator, it’s a choice. What choices do our children have?
We must advocate for children’s reading lives, or they won't have reading lives.
If we don't speak up, too many children will make the only reading choice they have left. They will choose not to read.
[Here's a basic primer on the benefits of graphic novels and comics.]