Sunday, July 24, 2011


Sabriel by Garth Nix. The article is not about this traditional book,
but how how I use literature to change lives.

By Chris Wilson

The dark-haired boy sat down next to me, his red Converse chucks tapping the ground in rapid syncopation. I didn't even have time to say hello to his mother before he began describing his latest novel. It's hard to find great literature appropriate for students whose reading level is exceedingly higher than their age and maturity level. It's even harder when their tastes are not aligned with the school library's trappings or the school's reading comprehension program.

This boy who is stoic in many ways, giving hints to his feelings only through infinitesimal facial expressions and body language, clamored on about the story of Sabriel. He could scarcely keep the spoilers inside –– the story line dripping like sweat from his forehead. I listened and smiled and gently reminded him not to tell me this part or that detail so he didn't ruin it for me. 

Within a week we saw his family again and he brought his hard copy of Sabriel to me. I've heard from him twice in the week that followed, he inquiring excitingly as to whether or not I had started it. I'm still trying to finish the 1,000+  page novel I'm halfway through, but I told him I would look at it when I finished my book, but it would be a while.

The teacher in me finally realized my misstep, after his second inquiry. You see, I may not be his teacher, but I am a teacher and I recognized what he was doing. He was trying to connect with me. We have a literary sharing community he and I. I've thrown several comics his way and he's read many of them, but it has been a one way street for the most part. This was his attempt to take our literary circle to a deeper, two-way street.

It was very important to this boy that I read his novel, the one thing that has brought his so much joy and excitement. To put it off sends him a message that his books may not be important to me. That's not true, and as he grows older he will see the fallacy in that and gain patience. Right now he sees the world as a new 12-year-old who needs me to be excited about his book.

Despite the fact that I'm reading (for the second time) George R.R. Martin's acclaimed fantasy series A Story of Ice and Fire, the first novel of which is now a hot HBO series, as well as reading and reviewing comics and comics education textbooks, I knew that I had to make time for Sabriel in order to build the connection with this kid. Loving his book will mean so much to him and will affect him. 

Sabriel is not comic. Why am I writing this on my comic website? The relationship building I am discussing is the exact approach I use in my school and my classroom. Obviously, I cannot read every book that every student ever gives me. I don't claim to. I do, however, pay attention to my students, especially those who really need me: those who need a strong but loving man in their life, those labeled as at-risk, those with behavior problems, and those who are struggling academically or socially or emotionally. I pay attention to what they need. If they need me to read a book, I do it. If they need me to pull them aside and chit-chat, I do it. If they need me to have lunch with them during my break, then I do it. If they need comics to get into reading, then I give them to them. 

My approach at school is predicated upon relationship building. Everything I do –– decorating my room with my old toys, getting kids into comics, wearing superhero belt buckles and T-shirts, running a comic book club, dressing up as our principal (a female), eating with kids, talking to them as I walk down the hallway, asking about their day, complimenting them on a new hair cut or shirt or glasses, high fives, hugs, knuckle bumps –– it is all done to create an environment where I can connect with students and change they way they see education (reading specifically), and how they see adults, men, and the world.

I don't really have time to read Sabriel, but I'm going to. He will be better off for it. I am willing to be I will be better off as well. When our students trust us and we trust them, then amazing things happen in the classroom and in their souls. I am a teacher. It is my job to educate students and I get there by building trust and relationships.  

So, I started reading Sabriel last night and it's great so far. 


Maureen said...

AWESOME, CHRIS. This is what being a teacher-- no, a good teacher-- is all about. This is the stuff that isn't ever recorded in our observations and reviews, but it is what we do day in and day out during school and outside of the classroom. I was going to say that this kind of relationship building doesn't get measured on a standardized test, but the results of students' learning does depend on it to a degree most people don't realize. Important stuff to share! Thanks.

Sarah said...

I discovered your blog today. My students this year (eighth grade) are IN LOVE with comics and graphic novels. A casual reader myself, my fiance (a much more avid reader) was browsing the shelves at our local comic book store. He found an interesting title and searched online for me to see if the content would be appropriate for my students. Your blog was the first result. I cannot stop reading your posts, and I have already purchased one recommendation online tonight (The Unsinkable Walker Bean). Thank you for this post. I feel the same way about promoting literacy in my classroom through reading what interests my students. I will be sharing your blog with my school librarian and other teachers at my school. Thank you!!!