Can equity in the classroom start with a survey?

When I saw a student nodding off in class during my first year as a high school teacher, I am not proud to confess that I responded with, “Gary, I’m deducting participation points. We don’t sleep in class.” I am forever grateful for his honest response:

That’s not fair. I mean, some of us have been up all night because of a crying baby sister. You just take off points because I closed my eyes for a second? I’m trying my best.

So many thoughts ran through my head in that moment, standing in front of an increasingly silent and watchful audience of 10th graders.

Wow, that’s a really understandable reason to be nodding off right now. I wonder, what are other reasons students struggle to remain attentive in class? How can I support students with meeting essential expectations like showing up, staying awake, and completing assignments?

Equity in the classroom means that every student has the support they need to be successful. It took several more years for me to establish systems, routines, and learning activities that would help all students meet high expectations. But one place to start is finding out about students’ lives outside of school at the beginning of the year. From there, we can plan instruction and assignments with students’ specific needs and challenges in mind.

What materials do your assignments assume students have access to outside of school? Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash
What materials do your assignments assume students have access to outside of school? Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

In the beginning of a school year, after some initial icebreakers and community building, I ask students to respond to this survey, so that I can design a classroom experience that will help them thrive as learners.

I discovered that some students had a two-hour commute to and from school everyday that involved hectic transfers on public transportation, making it difficult to work on assignments or catch up on sleep during bus rides. One student served as a translator for his entire extended family, accompanying aunts and uncles to doctors appointments and grocery stores every day after school. Many students worked part-time to help with family finances. And in some cases, students did not have a stable place to live, much less steady access to a quiet place to draft an essay.

In other communities I taught in, the challenges were different. Students had reliable places to work at home and didn’t need to contribute to the household income, but they had a series of counseling, therapy, and tutoring appointments to attend. Others just couldn’t concentrate because of toxic stress they experienced from fractious relationships with parents or siblings.

Beginning of year survey: What factors outside of school can impact students’ progress?

The digital divide – inequitable access to technology outside of school – is a known factor that impacts students’ abilities to complete assignments outside of school. But possibly a more common cause is our false assumptions about students’ access to time, space, basic supplies, and support from a trusted adult. Even in my first year I suspected my students wouldn’t have access to the technology needed to do certain projects outside of class. So we worked on the project during class, where students could collaborate, access materials, receive and provide feedback, and benefit from scaffolds and modeling. What I didn’t realize was that crying baby siblings and various other obstacles would impede students’ abilities to do even low-tech assignments outside of class.

When creating your own classroom survey, consider what you already know about the communities of students you teach and craft specific questions that will give you the information you need. Teacher Matt Hiefield advises that “it is not adequate to ask if students ‘have internet access at home’ as this question takes on different meanings for different students.” A student, he explains, might think a brief turn with his parent’s phone is adequate internet access. With precisely worded questions, we can determine the nature of students’ access and provide necessary support systems.

How do students interpret “internet access”? Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Once I asked students about their commutes, access to supplies, and available time, the results indicated that some of my initial plans for homework, group projects, and hands-on learning would need to be revised so that all students would have opportunities to participate successfully.

One assignment asked students to “Find a political cartoon in a newspaper or periodical and use close reading skills to critically analyze the visual elements you notice.” I intended for students to experience productive struggle with the analysis, not with finding a political cartoon online or in print. Some of my students would have to detour to a library and wait their turn for a computer, or ask a librarian for help locating a print periodical that might have a political cartoon in it. Some just wouldn’t be able to take that detour.

Some might say that the added struggle of commuting to a library, waiting their turn, and speaking to a librarian is “good for students” and helps them develop a variety of useful skills, like resourcefulness and perseverance. But if the homework assignment or school project is not intended for all students to develop these skills, then the added expectation for certain students is an unfair (and unnecessary) burden. Students who have to go to great lengths to complete a task are not getting the intended and necessary practice with the task. By the time a student finds the political cartoon, how much cognitive energy is left for analysis and written expression?

Knowing about students’ responsibilities outside of school, I can change the assignment in a few ways. If I want students to independently apply the visual interpretation skills I’ve taught, then I can provide time for that in class. If I want them to apply the skill outside of the classroom, I can ask them to consider any visual texts they see in their community (billboards, subway ads, commercials, signage, graffiti) through the critical lens they have practiced in class. They will be invited to share their thinking the next day.

And if we want students to explicitly practice skills like resourcefulness, time management, and perseverance in the face of obstacles, then we can teach those skills to all students and provide strategies students can practice to develop these skills over time. For example, if we want to teach students how to manage their time to meet a deadline, we can introduce strategies like using calendars, backwards planning, scheduling check-ins with a teacher or friend, and setting smaller deadlines. We can provide feedback and monitor progress with this skill, like we would with reading and writing skills students are learning.

Once we take that first step to survey our students about the challenges they face outside of school, we can begin the real work to ensure our classrooms are equitable. When a student nods off in class, we are more likely to know why. We can’t make the baby sibling stop crying, but we can approach students’ behaviors with understanding and a readiness to support them to meet their own high expectations for learning.

Conferring with students about their graphic novel reading

If you’re a teacher with a classroom library, your graphic novels are flying off the shelves. Your students gravitate to the same titles, wait their turns, and reread them almost obsessively. We’re all happy for young readers when they find something so engaging in a book that they want to reread it. But sometimes we wonder what they’re getting out of rereading the same graphic novels.

Are they just looking at the pictures? we think. Do they like it because it’s just easier to read? and even the best of us sometimes think Is this even real reading? As a visiting consultant and instructional coach, I’ve heard these questions from dozens of teachers. In our coaching conversations, I’ve discovered that the real questions they have are How can I find out what students are doing as readers when they read graphic novels? And What could they be doing as they’re reading graphic novels to make deeper meaning?

The typical reading conference

In reading conferences with students, teachers are generally well-equipped with a stash of powerful questions that lead students to articulating the strategies they are using to make meaning from their reading – whether it’s prose, verse, drama, or any other familiar form. Based on students’ responses, teachers guide them to fine tune their current strategies and layer in additional ones that will help them with reading challenges they’ve encountered:

So you’re telling me that when you don’t know who a character is, you go back to the first paragraphs of each chapter to find their name and remember? And you say that sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t? And also that sometimes you lose interest in what was happening because it’s taking too long to find the character’s name? Can you think of another strategy we’ve learned in class that could help with this challenge?

From here, the teacher guides the student to reflect on strategies modeled in class that might be applied to this challenge. The teacher’s mind is probably brimming with so many tools and solutions she just can’t wait to share with this student: We can keep track of new characters on a graphic organizer. We can use sticky notes to mark when we encounter new characters. We can stop and think of a person in our lives or in our readings who a character reminds us of so they will stick in our minds better. We can visualize the character by using any descriptions offered in the text. We can make predictions about what will happen with this character so that we are anticipating their return into the story.

The Graphic Novel Reading Conference

But when a student brings their graphic novel to a reading conference, I’ve seen these expert teachers get a little sweaty when they try to guide the student with a reading strategy that will help them solve comprehension challenges in this seemingly simple but actually complex form. They rely on general advice like Try rereading those pages. And Keep reading and it might make sense later.

When debriefing with teachers about these graphic novel reading conferences, I discover that they struggle to provide specific reading strategies for making meaning out of visual texts because they don’t have any in their toolkit. A logical next step, given the increasing frequency of students bringing graphic novels to reading conferences, would be to learn about the complex devices at work in a graphic novel.

Next Steps

It’s particularly helpful for teachers to read about the graphic novel form through experiencing the form as a reader. I recommend Scott McCloud’s classic guide Understanding Comics – which teaches you about graphic form in graphic form (genius!). Also top on the list is the seminal guide to comics devices by renowned comic artist Will Eisner: Comics and Sequential Art – which is full of close readings of a variety of comics and graphic novels that demonstrate the technique or device he is describing.

As you read, ask yourself, what meaning are you making from the graphic page? What do you try when you encounter a comprehension challenge? If you are comprehending, what is helping you? I encourage teachers to record their responses to these questions. At their next reading conference with a graphic novel reading student, they can’t wait to truly partner with them and share specific strategies for making deeper meaning from their graphic novels, strategies that recently helped them with their own challenges.

If you are not able to read these recommended guides, you might consider the shorter, less comprehensive guide You Can Do A Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate, Graphix’s Educator Guide (specifically page 8 onwards), or Reading with Pictures Teacher Guide (which includes a history of comics written in graphic form and lesson plans).

See it first: a model video of graphic novel close reading

As teachers, we love to learn by reading, but we also benefit from explicit modeling before attempting something new in our classrooms. For an example of how a reader can apply strategies and understanding of devices to make meaning from a graphic novel page, watch me and a fellow reader closely read page six of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir Persepolis:

Two readers use what they know about graphic novel devices to closely analyze one page of Persepolis

When viewing this close-read discussion, note down phrases, questions, and references to devices that help the readers in the video make meaning from the page. To use this as a teaching tool in your classroom, reference this practice page to create an active viewing experience for students.

Questions to ask in a graphic novel reading conference

Before you follow the links in this post to learn more about holding meaningful conferences with graphic novel readers, you might need guiding questions for the conferences you will have today and tomorrow.

When prompting students to tell you about the graphic novel pages they have read, begin with open-ended questions that allow them to show the thinking they have already done. Prompt them to examine their conclusions by asking how they know what they know. To lead students to close reading of a page’s panels, ask them to consider how their understanding would change if the pictures or words changed in specific ways (sizes, color, background, dialogue, etc.).

When we as teachers learn something new, experience that productive struggle we strive to create for our students, we return to our classrooms with empathy, excitement, and better instructional strategies.

For more on how to teach students to closely read and analyze graphic novels, and make one themselves, visit my comprehensive post on Cult of Pedagogy.