by Maurna Rome
Flashback to the first week of school … we were passing the microphone around our large circle of 29 third-graders. It was easy to see that many students were shy and nervous, but one young man was apparently looking for some shock value. He began with “My name is Michael” then nonchalantly added, ”I’m a slacker.” Huh? Most of the class mumbled and murmured about that intro. Many were obviously not familiar with this unique adjective.
I made note of the kid’s attitude and advanced vocabulary, and put him at the top of my list for a one-to-one reading conference. A few days later, I discovered that Michael devours books, has excellent comprehension and is actually a very motivated reader. He became quite animated when telling me all about Greg, the main character from Diary of a Wimpy Kid (who no doubt was Michael’s current role model). In the weeks to come, my classic under-achiever proudly and often proclaimed to his peers how much he enjoyed being lazy. I was determined to help Michael find a new identity by figuring out how to tap into his obvious love of reading.
Thanks to an insightful book called Of Primary Importance by Anne Marie Corgill (Stenhouse, 2008), I am committed to immersing my students in authentic literacy learning. Publishing “real” hard cover books in my 1st grade classroom proved to be a successful strategy. However, now that I was beginning my first year in a 3rd grade classroom, I knew I needed to change things up a bit. Finding the best mentor texts and simply getting kids to want to read voraciously was the first order of business.
I quickly learned that this group of 8- and 9‑year-olds could be reeled in by reading graphic novels. Since our classroom inventory of graphic novels mainly consisted of Squish, Bone, and Lunch Lady, I did some research and over the next few months added more titles to our classroom library. Baby Mouse, Zita the Spacegirl, Cardboard, Knights of the Lunch Table, The Lightening Thief, and Sea of Monsters (graphic novel versions) became all the rage. Library checkout of high demand titles has included Amulet, Smile, Sisters, and all of the titles from our classroom collection, since they are limited in number.
I’ve learned that a powerful approach to motivating kids to read is to be selective when suggesting a new book to students. Sometimes, I share whole-class “book talks” but, more often, I pull a student aside and confide that I thought of him (or her) the minute I turned the first page. I am sincere when I say that I am interested in his opinion, and would really appreciate hearing if he would recommend the book after reading it. Kids care much more about what their peers are saying or thinking, so it makes sense to drum up business for specific book titles in this way.
Giving kids access to what they want to read and finding ample time for independent reading during the school day (usually 30 – 40 minutes daily) was just the first half of my strategy to convert my smug slacker and inspire the rest of the class as well. The discovery of blank comic books on the Bare Books website ($15 for 25 books, just 60 cents each); was the golden ticket. Offering choice and no judgment (or at least very little) about what kids are reading combined with encouragement to explore their own interests in writing, became the perfect combination.
Kids were eager to create their own version of graphic novels and soon, our classroom library grew to include such interesting titles as The Day Lady Liberty Came to Life and Bacon Man and Pig Guy, both of which became series, each with 5 volumes! The adventures continued with a line-up of Pigeon titles; Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride a Unicorn and Don’t Let the Pigeon Play Five Nights at Freddy’s along with a fun and frolicking set of books entitled Party in the USA!
Here is one of the graphic novels created in the class, Bacon Man and Pig Guy, by Ian Clark.
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Students in my class are encouraged to use literacy choice time to continue reading or writing independently, with a partner or a collaborative group. This type of peer modeling and mentoring has led to an explosion of self-published graphic novels and short stories in 3MR. Kids actually cheer when I announce that we will have time to write in both the morning and afternoon. They are “publishing” their own graphic novel series, asking each other to write reviews of their books and they are waiting patiently for their turn to read a classmate’s latest offering. Best of all, they are signing up in droves to do a “Book Share” on Fridays, a new addition to our “Book Talk, Book Shop, Book Swap” Friday activities (see my previous article on that topic!).
Fast forward to the end of December. Students were once again introducing themselves, this time to a visitor in our classroom. However, when it was time for my “slacker” to take center stage, he offered this: “Hi, my name is Michael and I’m a cartoonist.” My heart did somersaults! To really seal the deal, this same student recently approached me with a delightful idea. Taking the lead from our “Cardboard L.I.T. Club” – an afterschool book club designed to Link Imagination Text, he proposed a “Cartooning L.I.F.T. Club”, adding “F” for FUN to the acronym! This one-time slacker had actually jotted down all the information needed for the invitational flyer, complete with a catchy explanation about the club’s purpose, a schedule, and contest ideas. Despite the craziness of the last few weeks of the school year, how could I say no? 20 aspiring “Cartooning L.I.F.T. Club” members will be diving into our newest mentor text, Adventures in Cartooning, for three after-school sessions in May.