Thursday, August 31, 2017

Superman's Neverending Battle Against Hate

One of the things I love about superheroes is their ability to inspire us to be better. We may not be from Krypton, or Themyscira, we may not have a billionaire's budget, hopefully we're not subject to lightning strikes or gamma radiation. But we can be better.

In 1949 DC Comics released a brown paper textbook cover (the kind some of us used to wrap textbooks in so they could be pristine as long as possible)(those were the days)(oldness sucks is awesome). It featured art with Superman and a bunch of kids, and these words:

...and remember, boys and girls, your school -- like our country -- is made up of Americans of many diffrerent races, religions and national origins. So if YOU hear anybody talk against a schoolmate or anyone else because of his religion, race or national origin -- don't wait: tell him THAT KIND OF TALK IS UN-AMERICAN. 

In the last few years, I've seen the image in color as a kind of classroom poster, but always with poor reproductions, torn, faded, but always wanted one for my classroom anyway. This week, DC Comics did just that. Kind of. They published a blog post that not only tells the story of that original 1949 work, but also a stunning remastered version of the same poster. They didn't update the language or art, so it's still old-timey...but it also reminds us that this character has stood for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" for 79 years.

There are some who twist the idea of being "American" into statements like "America First." Which, as it was in the 1930s, is also code for racism, for intolerance, for promoting hate. Superman, with his own take on this, is giving a definitive response to this. Anti-racism, pro-tolerance, pushing back against hate with a message that being patriotic is important, and that tolerance of those who are different from us and standing up for those who are being bullied is the most American thing there is.

In 2015, I read Rick Bowers' Superman vs the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of how the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate. It's a great read, and middle school appropriate. I wrote a whole review on it for Big Shiny Robot. The short version is that the producers of the Superman radio serials in the 1940s decided to take on the Klan. They, with the courageous support of their sponsors (Kelloggs, if I recall correctly) produced two different storylines that had Superman going up against the Ku Klux Klan: The Hate Mongers Organization (a kind of test balloon) and then a sixteen episode arc, The Clan of the Fiery Cross. Hard to miss who they're calling out there. You can listen to all sixteen episodes on YouTube.

The final paragraph of my review of the book is one I never thought would be prescient. I hoped it would never be anything other than the end of a book review for a nerdy website. Unfortunately, it seems to be relevant to us in the current climate.

This was a great book, a quick easy read for adults, but also an interesting one.  Even though there wasn't much about the Superman side of things I didn't already know, the history of the KKK was fairly new to me.  It was gratifying to see the creators of the Superman radio series invigorated with their new mission. Do corporations today have the same courage to stand up to bigotry? It's interesting to see how some things have changed over the last 75 years, and how some have sadly stayed the same.

As teachers, we all have different political leanings, we come from different backgrounds, we have different ideas about what's best for the country. But we also have a mandate to protect and teach all of our students. No matter their race, religion, national origin (or all of the many other ways our kids are beautifully diverse). I would love to see DC Comics release that Superman poster at cost for schools across the country to have in their classrooms. Not to get people to buy comic books, but to get Americans to realize the duty I have to stand up for you. Especially if you're different from me. For now, you can get a decent letter-sized print of the poster by going to DC's blog post and just printing it...but how great would it be to have it in a poster size?

Come on DC Comics, how about it?

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir. Liz Prince, 256 pages, 2014. 

I saw Tomboy a few months ago on some kind of “Best Graphic Novels Blah Blah” list, and added it to my “to read” stack. My “to read” stack probably has about two hundred books in it, but something about this one made it work its way to the top. I didn’t know much about it, but even quickly flipping through the pages, I knew I had found a great graphic novel.

We meet Liz when she’s four years old in Boston, screaming bloody murder that she doesn’t want to wear a dress that was gifted from her grandma. Her parents (especially her mom, who ends up a hero in the story) decide it’s not worth the fight, that they really don’t care – so they tell grandma “no more dresses as gifts,” and they’re cool. So we get an annotated “Liz Prince, Age 4” drawing, with her red baseball cap, a gray blazer, and sneakers. And that’s pretty much the gear we see her in for the first chapters of the book.

Early on, Liz tries to get at the definition of what a “tomboy” is – that she has nothing against pink and frilly and dainty, but it just doesn’t describe her. Is a tomboy an athletic girl? A girl with a short haircut? A construction worker? For Liz, it goes beyond clothing or extra-curricular activities, it was a defining part of her. Liking Battle Beast and Ghostbusters action figures, wrestling with boys, pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones instead of Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood. We follow Liz through the rest of her school years, moving to Santa Fe and trying to find friends to hang out with, acceptance, and love.

Along the way, she finds pieces of herself in other friends. People she meets along the way who help her reinforce her feelings about her “tomboyishness” realize it’s okay to be comfortable in her own skin. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, she has sad moments, but overall, this is a happy book about traditional gender roles and self-acceptance. Starting the book, and having read several LGBT memoirs, I kind of assumed (see? always assumptions about gender roles.) that she’d realize she likes girls at some point before the end of the book. By the time you’re halfway through though, you realize that Liz is heterosexual, and probably going to stay that way. And yeah, by the end, she’s still into guys, just…she’s not a “girly” girl. And she’s cool with it. We are too.

Tomboy reminded me of friends I had growing up, but reminded me of several of my students, too. Some of the kids we see pushing gender norms are LGBT, but there are some who aren’t (or that I know, or they know, or their friends/family know, or it’s none of my business I’m not prying I was just wondering geez), and our classrooms and schools need to be a safe place for those kids.

The graphic novel is thematically appropriate for secondary students, but the sprinkling of “f-bombs” in a few sections would move it up to high school pretty fast for many communities. I like that Tomboy is about gender without being about sex, that it approaches the topic in a completely unique way, and that Prince’s strong sense of self is reflected in her voice and art. As memoirs go, this is a new favorite. 

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Some New Graphic Novel Resources from Play Like a Pirate!

 Edutopia Graphic Novels
At the national ASCD conference last spring, I had the good fortune to meet an Edutopia editor. She was in my graphic novels session and asked if I'd be interested in writing for them. And of course I am. So my first article, Powerful Graphic Novels for Middle School, was published today. I'm proud of it. But not quite arrogant. Give me time. If you're interested, check it out -- many of them are ones I recommend in my conference sessions and workshops. I look forward to writing more for Edutopia, we've already discussed doing some things on student engagement and social studies, in addition to graphic novels and comics. I'm excited.

 School Comics

The other new resource I've got for graphic novels is a new Instagram account, School Comics. The goal with School Comics is simply to give a quick synopsis, star rating, and thumbs up/thumbs down for graphic novels and comics. Some of them have a suggested lesson plan, but most of them are just a straightforward review, what grades I'd recommend them for, etc. It's a mix of nonfiction and fiction, and so far it's been a lot of fun. If you're the Instagrammy sort, be sure to check it out.

Hopefully your school year is starting out great -- those human children need us!

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sidewalk Chalk -- Starting the School Year Right!

Most of us still have a few weeks before kids come back to school, but planning is ramping up. One of the great things about fall is that for a lot of us, fall is a last respite of good weather before snow comes in. Something I always try to do is find a way to use the outdoors while you've got it. And while the P.E. teacher in your building is probably doing that, there's no reason that you as a history, math, language arts, or music teacher can't use your school grounds too.

One of the easiest and cheapest and funnest (yeah, funnest) things to break out in the first weeks of school is some sidewalk chalk. This isn't a new or unique idea. There are a million ideas on Pinterest and edu-sites and even Crayola has a step-by-step lesson plan on Outdoor Geography. That's a good one to look at for some best practices before you take kids outside and turn them loose. I love the idea of doing this in the first few days of the school year, when you're setting the tone not just for your classes, but for the entire campus. Decorating the pavement outside your building is a bold way of doing that. We see this often with elementary schools...but if you're a secondary teacher who just wants to spring your kids from the 7 hours in their desks they're going to have in that first week of school, do it. Middle school and high school kids love doing this too.

Some of my favorite ideas for some core subjects:

Social Studies
Have students create a timeline of the span of what you'll be teaching in a history class this year. Break them up into groups, with each group finding the five most important events in that period.

Language Arts
Students create an alternate cover for their favorite book.

Have students choose a favorite scientist or invention, and not just illustrate it, but include their feelings about that invention in visual form. Be prepared for a lot of heart-eyed emojis.

For elementary kids this one is easy -- anything from simple number lines to basic arithmetic to fractions. For middle school and high school...well...that's all on y'all. My math kind of fell apart after counting mittens and slices of pie.

Have students illustrate their favorite song, or write out and decorate a favorite lyric.

You guys should have better ideas than anything I could come up with. Ya hippies.

Foreign Language
Have kids find the happiest word they can, and make word art out of it. For German (my personal favorite and most beautiful of languages) I'd go for SCHMETTERLING (butterfly).

Why not start the school year with communicable diseas--yeah, okay. That's a terrible idea. I'd start with healthy habits, and go from there.

Start the school year with positivity. With messages that welcome kids back, and get them in the mindset that it's going to be a great school year, that have some pieces of content, that are something better and more exciting than reading your class disclosure and syllabus that first day.

Principals -- most of us have those (often terrible)(not yours, if you're reading this) pre-first day of school faculty meetings. Take a 30 minute break from the paperwork and have your faculty write messages of positivity and hope and welcome. What's the thing they're most excited about this year? Have them get it on the school grounds. Remind us all that we have the best job in the world. Because we do. And it's starting up again.