Thursday, May 28, 2009


By Chris Wilson

I’ve had many educational experiences with children, but one of the most influential came when I enrolled in my graduate level reading class in Fall 2008. Brett (not his real name) was my first real student. I was in charge of every lesson every week for 12 weeks; I was this fifth grader’s after-school reading teacher. My work with him really focused my work in comics and reading and I venture to say my involvement influenced him as well.

I completed a reading inventory and discovered that he really didn’t enjoy reading. He only did it when his mother made him. There was, however, one series he liked: PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS.

It was music to my ears because that series is full of Greek mythology and I had an arsenal of comic adaptations of those ancient stories from Lerner Publishing. After we spent some time completing his IRI (we determined he was reading above grade level, which surprised everyone including his mother) and building relationships he and I started on a journey of our own. I intended for this boy to discover that he loved reading. It was already in there; he just did not know it.

Brett did not struggle in reading. He was reluctant to read and it affected everyone’s perceptions about his reading ability. He was one of those kids who would only read what he wanted to read. Period. The forced compliance toward books he cared nothing about made him reject reading entirely. We educators are, in my humble opinion, pretty good at educating the love of reading right out of kids.

I told him we would only read books he was interested in and that I was going to find some great books like PERCY JACKSON. I asked him if he would try reading comics. Brett trusted me, because of the time spent in the beginning building a relationship, and he agreed.

We started with ODYSSEUS: ESCAPING POSEIDON’S CURSE, which was written by Dan Jolley and illustrated by Thomas Yeates. It is a 48-page, full color adaptation of the story of Odysseus’ journey home, complete with a map, a glossary, a pronunciation guide and suggestions for further reading.

Every meeting began with a bit of chitchat, an integral part of our relationship building. We talked about his weekend and how he was feeling, things he was interested in. Then, I pre-taught vocabulary to him. I built a list of words from the comic that I thought he would not know or be able to pronounce.

The week 8 vocabulary words I pre-taught were as follows:

  • Pleaded
  • Argued
  • Ashore
  • Tension
  • Prevented
  • Rations
  • Grazed
  • Temptation
  • Meditate
  • Treachery
  • Reared
  • Betrayed
  • Therefore
  • Hurriedly
  • Determined
  • Advantage
  • Forgiveness
  • Willingly
  • Obliged
  • Survivor
  • Slamming
  • Currents
  • Wreckage
  • Spewed
  • Regained
  • Drift
  • Consciousness
  • Paradise
  • Wanderer
  • Nymph
  • Immediately
  • Physical
  • Revealed
  • Enchantment
  • Calypso
  • Homesick
  • Anguish
  • Athena
  • Suffered
  • Bitterly
  • Raft
  • Oath
  • Toiled
  • Fashioned
  • Unused
  • Provisions
  • Heartache
  • Encountered
  • Ithaca
  • Suitors
  • Telemachus
  • Wrath
  • Conquered
  • Brutal
  • Mortals
  • Foul

I list all the words to make a point. Comics are often filled with rich vocabulary. This comprised the tough vocabulary in just one section of the book. Although Brett did not understand all these words, we looked at them, pronounced them, and used syntactic and semantic strategies to decode them when we ran across them in the story.

We then read aloud. Comics are prime for a shared read-aloud experience. Giving Brett control over the reading, we did a picture walk through the day’s selection. Brett then picked the character or characters he would read that day. I agreed to read the rest. (This book was split into chapters and we drew the 48-page book out over several weeks.)

At first, I allowed him to choose only one character if reading one character satisfied him. After time, I could give him a wry smile and he would then volunteer to read more. I didn’t force him, but I encouraged him. Because of our relationship, he understood what I was asking and he agreed. Toward the end, he was choosing to read multiple characters. It was his idea, his choice, not mine. Once he discovered that our time together was for him not aimed at him (meaning he maintained significant amounts of control over the experience), he opened up to the experience of reading for enjoyment.

I stopped Brett often and he would retell the story so far and answer questions:

  • “Why did the men disobey Odysseus? (lower order thinking skill)
  • Is it wrong for the men to kill some cattle so they would not starve? Why?” (higher order thinking skill)
  • “Predict what will happen next?” (higher order thinking skill)

After reading, we took a break and he got a snack and we talked more. I often had to test him to track progress, which was done after the break. I then gave him a persuasive writing exercise (100-200 words) where he tried to persuade me to read his book, PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE TITAN’S CURSE.

I purchased his book from the bookstore and made sure he knew it. That act alone, reinforced our relationship and signified the importance of his opinion to me. It also built trust. I encouraged Brett to use a graphic organizer to write his article and gave him the choice to craft it on paper or on the computer. There were a couple of times when he dictated to me and I wrote. He really struggled with writing and I modeled proper writing for him. It also demonstrated that I was willing to do the activity I was asking of him.

I could have used the data to demonstrate his increase in reading levels. I wasn’t as concerned about that as I was his increase in reading motivation. He was, after all, reading above grade level to begin with.

On our last evening together, I bought Brett the book of his choice. His mother looked at me and said:

“I can’t get him to close a book and stop reading. You’ve created a monster!”

She went on to ask me if I was tutoring again next semester. I was not. To which she responded that Brett would not be back. He didn’t need the tutoring anymore and if I was not going to be there, then he didn’t want to come.

Brett did not need assistance in reading; he needed guidance in discovering the power of literature and he needed the opportunity to choose his own genres and books. Having choice, reading comic adaptations in his interest area, and having a relationship with his teacher created an environment where Brett became a life-long lover of reading. His mother has since reported that he reads a novel every week or two.

If I were a betting man, I would wager that he might go on to read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and other great canonical works.

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