Speak and Project Lit

How do we get our students to read? How do we create a culture of reading? How do we increase empathy and human connection in an increasingly disconnected world? Project Lit has proven to do exactly this and more. This is a world-wide movement begun by Jarred Amato (@jarredamato) and I am eternally grateful. As a social studies teacher, I fully understand the power of books and why we need to talk about them with our students. I know full well why books and intellectuals are the first targets by those who seek to control a population…


My students and I founded a Project Lit chapter in our high school and I could not be more excited. My first experience with Project Lit was in my daughter’s middle school, founded by the inspiring Sarah Levy (@teachreadrepeat). My daughter loves to read, and as she grows into a young teen, we don’t always have the greatest things to connect with – but literature will always be a shared love. We were invited to attend these monthly meetings held during the early evening with teachers, administrators, parents, and students at her middle school. We ate together, laughed together, shared literature together, and found our young students/children deserving of so much credit for their mature insights into the world around them. Project Lit gives us a chance to talk about the world around us as these shared books focus on representation in characters and authors. I am now thrilled that my son has now joined the club and I get to spend time at home reading the same books with my kids.

This is also a good time to point out another wonderful aspect of this club – my Language Arts colleague, Paul G., volunteered to help me charter this club and we are partners in this endeavor! Too often, there are few chances to collaborate across disciplines in a high school setting (I teach social studies), so this is just awesome!

This year, my students voted to have the graphic novel adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (hauntingly illustrated by Emily Carroll) as the book to read for our first selection. (Our next books to read, as voted by the students – Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds, Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, and Pride by Ibi Zoboi). I have read and reread Speak so many times and continue to learn more each time I do so. The illustrations add so many layers to an already deeply meaningful story. Here are the resources that I have put together so far – feel free to use, share, etc. I am BRAND NEW at this, so please keep that in mind.


Handout – this is a general plan of discussing the book over two meetings of 45 minutes each, – https://drive.google.com/open?id=1GwJdlUdp6-qy-5vAZjyvVSdKVmOy8t-I

Handout Part IIhttps://drive.google.com/open?id=1OcXnPmuGN1wIU26pvarVQ8a_H7eueLMm – these are some FAQs directly from Laurie Halse Anderson’s website.

Teacher Guide from Macmillan – https://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/teachers-guides/9780374300289TG.pdf – created by my wife and I.

One concern I have going into this initial meeting is that I don’t want it to be run/dominated by the adults. I don’t want me to do much talking at all and to do more listening. I will certainly add my voice to the discussions, but as an equal participant. I did not put my examples or answers in the PowerPoint as the students would not be able to do so. Instead, we will all be pointing out panels/pages in our books as we discuss. Of course, this just means that my book is full of sticky notes!

Meeting Two –

Oops! I did exactly what I feared during the first meeting – I, and other adults, talked too much! We shared our views and our interpretations, especially when the conversation died out a bit. The adults needed to give better wait time and allow students to lead the conversation. On day 2, I would consider this task accomplished! The students were absolutely amazing, created their own questions, and even felt free to disagree with the adults. We were able to have a cross-generational discussion and learned from one another – as equals. I think part of this was due to first meeting nerves on the first day meeting. We even had new students join in the club – some had not even read the book. However, students were quickly pointing out parts of the book and the non-readers jumped into the larger social conversation. I’m going to do my best to jot down just some of the topics we discussed today –

*How to help a friend/student/fellow human showing signs of depression and self harm

*How we all feel alone and need to do a better job of looking outside our worlds. Parents need to SEE their kids.

*Older generation tended to be more “suck it up” – this is not appropriate for today

*Development of the teen brain and prefrontal cortex (the students brought this up!)

*Judge Kavanaugh hearings – what does this mean for those who have been sexually assaulted and coming forward?


*How the ideas of “boys will be boys” is outdated and as insulting to males as it is to females. We all agreed that this book is just as important for boys to read as it is for girls. I was honestly a bit surprised at how non awkward the conversation was – that we were all open to talking about the topic of rape.

*Gender stereotypes – the idea of “manning up” and being macho has changed. The lines are blurred are we need to be who we are. Many in the “older” generation have not yet realized this change.

*Rape is rape. End of story. It doesn’t matter how the girl dresses, or acts, or what she drinks. We need to make the conversation about the rapists, not the victims. If we only teach our girls the “proper” way of dressing, acting, etc. to not be a victim, what we are really doing is just making sure that our daughter is not a victim, but it does nothing to save others. You have to change the behavior of males and rape culture.

*We are all going through something – even Heather. Don’t be dismissive of what people are going through. Even Melinda was a bit dismissive – not paying attention to her friend’s struggle with anorexia, etc.

*The illustrations really added feeling to the story – students were very animated in pointing to the panels that stuck out to them the most. How the trees and climate changes had such a deep meaning. Emily Carroll also added a feeling of horror.

*Wonderful conversation about the differences between the prose and graphic novels. Each of us learned more from either version than the other. Those who were not familiar with graphic novels said they learned so much about how the illustrations added so much depth to the story – to slow down when reading graphic literature. I know that I personally did not fully understand the meaning of the trees until I had read the graphic novel adaptation.

*More and more voices are being heard today. It’s not that there are suddenly more rape victims, more depressed people, more trans people, etc. – it’s just that we are now finally hearing their voices and our society is trying to figure it all out.

*Discussion of rape kits that are sitting in warehouses – it’s like being forgotten, not being treated as a human. Why put yourself out there and speak your truth if those in authority are not going to help? Rape trials like being raped again.

*Stereotypes of high school and social hierarchy

*How would the story be different if set in a school today? How would social media play a part?

*When you speak up for yourself, you’re not just helping yourself – it’s about helping other victims.

*Not a happy/satisfying ending – but this is more realistic.

*What would/should be in book 2? What should happen to It? Melinda? Heather? Melinda’s parents?

*This one particular image came up multiple times in the conversation. How it can mean so much and in many different ways. Only graphic novels can create this type of individual meaning.

-These are just SOME of the topics we tackled over our two meetings, and we could have had many more meetings and still not have talked about everything on our minds. I learned that it’s not about TEACHING the book, but allowing it to lead us to a meaningful conversation about ourselves and our world. I could write even more, but will stop here – I am absolutely just awestruck at the power of Laurie and her story. At the power of Project Lit. At the power of books. I am looking forward to our next meeting as we read and discuss Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds.

I was also able to talk about my own childhood and the sexual abuse that I had experienced. Over the past few years, I have found it ever more valuable to be more human with my students and to share what makes us us. I related my experience telling Laurie about this and how she responded, “we are family now.” – These topics are not “R” rated and these books should not be banned from schools. Like it or not, these “events” are happening to our kids and they need to know they are not alone. Books like these save lives.

At the end, we also discussed Laurie’s other books – many were fans of “Fever” but did not know that this was the same author! I also loaned out a few copies of Shout (Laurie’s “sequel” to Speak) and the Impossible Knife of Memory – two books that shed so much insight into Speak. I HIGHLY recommend these two books. And this is the most wonderful part – students borrowed books to read, not even to be a member of a club, but because they became genuinely connected to Laurie Halse Anderson on a personal and emotional level. Thank you, Laurie.

During lunch today, I sent the following message to those in the group –

THANK YOU so much for everyone who was able to make Friday and/or today’s meeting(s). The topics we were able to talk about just absolutely blew my mind and I am so proud of everyone. I really believe that books, like those in Project Lit, can change the world. In a world where we are increasingly distracted by our devices, when we feel alone in a sea of connectedness, I appreciate you. Out of all the choices we have during I/E, to CHOOSE to be a part of a group to read and discuss books, to have the courage to talk about “difficult” topics… I just can’t thank you all enough and I look forward to an amazing year. Please help spread the word. I am so sorry that I forgot to take a picture today!!!!!!!
Next book is Jason Reynold’s Look Both Ways and we will be meeting to discuss on 11/6 and 11/7. All of my books were already borrowed today. When you are finished reading, please bring them back so that others may read them before the next meeting.




Avatar and Star Wars in Social Studies

Using Avatar and Star Wars in Social Studies

By Tim Smyth

@historycomics historycomics.net


In my social studies class, we often discuss how pop culture mirrors events in society and that comics, tv shows, music, art, literature, and movies can thus be considered as societal artifacts. So when introducing WWII and Western Imperialism, Star Wars and Avatar are, to me at least, obvious allusions for the events of these time periods and their impact on current events. Not only do these movies serve as amazing tools of engagement by getting students immediately hooked, they also serve as powerful ways to make meaningful connections that will be long remembered. The number one comment I receive from former students is that they remember our lessons because we were able to make memorable connections.

Before I even begin to have students read in the textbook or get into historical details about imperialism, I put an image from the movie Avatar on the Smartboard and ask students to jot down a few sentences on what they know about the movie. (I also put the word imperialism in the Do Now description). If a student has never seen the movie, that is ok, they are allowed to discuss with their partners. They will begin to animatedly discuss the movie, and some will then begin to ask what this movie could have to do with the lesson for the day. I then ask students to write about the connection between this movie and the Age of Western Imperialism as I show a definition of the term on the smartboard. The students begin to make their OWN connections and raise their own questions, they don’t need to rely on me to explain everything and they are already engaged in the lesson. Next, I show a trailer for the movie and have students bullet specific connections they see or hear in the movie to the term imperialism.

All year, I focus on the skill of students being able to critically analyze source material and use textual evidence to inform their arguments. At this point, we have already done this by analyzing music lyrics, poetry, text excerpts, and comic books. Evidence doesn’t just come from a textbook for historians – it is all around us and comes in many forms. When we finish the trailer, students compare their lists with each other and discuss. The lists will differ and I remind the students that this is just fine as we all bring in our own perspectives and strengths. Some students will focus more on the images in the trailer and others on the dialogue. Some of the terms we find in the trailer:

New world, natural resources (unobtainium), “indigenous population called the Na’vi, they are very hard to kill”, village, savages, diplomatic solution, natives, going native, the strong prey on the weak”, “gunships against bows and arrows”, “that they can take whatever they want”, “this is our land” and more. The images are also discussed as students make connections to Native Americans on horseback with bows and arrows, hairstyles in braids, a white military destroying a population of non-whites, massive bulldozers against nature and animals, etc. “ This entire discussion comes out of a three minute movie trailer, but better than that, the students will never look at this movie the same way again. What is James Cameron trying to say with this movie? Is it about imperialism during 1870-1914, or are there some connections to today as well?

Still, without using the textbook, I next ask – is the USA an imperialist nation today? Do we fit the definition? We then conduct some online research and determine how many military conflicts the US has participated in (this surprises many students), how many military bases the US has around the world, where our aircraft carriers have recently traveled, and even comparing the size and cost of the US military to the rest of the world. Students begin forming their own opinions and discuss in their groups. I do not offer my opinion as I tell them that we will revisit this topic after we explore the historical age of Western Imperialism. We then finally open the textbook and begin to analyze the historical time period which will be sandwiched between current events and pop culture connections. The students WANT to read the textbook as their curiosity has been piqued. All this with a movie franchise that is planned to release sequels until 2025, and so the lesson will remain relevant.

As a quick add-on to the Imperialism lesson, I also have my students read a disturbing picture book titled An ABC for Baby Patriots, a British book published in 1899. There are many free ways to view this book in its entirety (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00086056/00001) and so students can read it on their own and then share their opinions of the book. I use this activity as a culminating summative assessment for the students as it brings together the entire imperialism lesson. The students will go through each image and its corresponding text and decipher its meaning. This is yet another skill-based literacy lesson as the students need to provide both textual and visual evidence in their answers. After analyzing and discussing the meaning of the book, students are then placed into pairs and given a letter of their own to illustrate. They will create an original image and quatrain (a perfect chance for cross-curricular connections) together and we will put them all together into our own book. The class also chooses a title for their book and we compare it to the books made in all of my classes. The images my students have produced will take your breath away and they cover events from around the world.


Star Wars is also another ongoing movie franchise that I use to make connections to WWII, the rise of Hitler, Nazism, propaganda, and dictatorships. The most immediate connection is made through the term “Storm Trooper” which is what Hitler called his SA, or Brownshirts, who intimidated his political opponents. In addition to the SA, the propaganda machine was everywhere in Nazi Germany and we look at pictures of Nazi Germany with their many displayed blood flags and propaganda posters throughout their controlled lands. These displays of strength are clearly displayed in many of the Star Wars scenes.  They can be compared to the historically accurate propaganda posters displayed in one of my favorite movies, Swing Kids, released in 1993. This movie is loosely based on groups of teens in Nazi Germany who listened to banned American Swing Music as a form of rebellion. This resonates with teens as we connect with music as generational rebellion and I even share how my own father made me return my Public Enemy CD. Students are left speechless at the end of this movie and quite a few tears are shed.

Similarly, I show clips from the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, (widely available for free online or for purchase on DVD) and compare it with film clips from Star Wars. I show one scene where Hitler is seen walking through packed stadiums of his supporters, when even farmers wield their spades as arms, and salute him as he slowly walks through the crowds. He and his officers then walk past Nazi Blood Flags and large fires to speak to their supporters. I then show two scenes, one each from Return of the Jedi and the Force Awakens. The connections are easy to make as the Emperor walks through his assembled forces when he arrives on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The connection to Force Awakens is also powerful when General Hux gives a speech to his assembled forces – the words, the flags, even the colors are all direct connections to the Nazi rallies. The actor who portrayed General Hux, Domhnall Gleeson, is eerily reminiscent of Hitler and we split-screen his rant with that of Hitler.

As part of this discussion, we also play a clip from Revenge of the Sith when Padme says, “so this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.” This is when Palpatine “reorganizes” the republic into the First Galactic Empire for a “safe and secure society.” This allows us to make direct connections to Hitler’s emergency powers in the Enabling Act of 1933, following the Reichstag Fire and how the Nazis reorganized the German government to consolidate “temporary” power. I then make a quick aside to the concept of habeas corpus in the United States Constitution whereas a person under arrest must be brought before a judge and evidence produced. This is a crucial constitutional right in stopping the possibility of dictatorship in the United States, but it can be set aside by a president as, according to the Constitution, “The Privileges of the Writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This Suspension Clause leaves wide latitude in the definition of “rebellion” or “public safety” and President Lincoln suspended this right during the Civil War in the attempt to round up Confederate spies. While this may seem a reasonable application of the clause, President Franklin Roosevelt used it to place American citizens of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps on US soil during WWII. We also discuss under what circumstances this clause might be used today, in events such as 9/11. Do we trade safety for security? (This is also a tie-in to Marvel’s Civil War comic…)

One other piece of “pop culture” I use with WWII and propaganda was actually produced by Walt Disney. The films, Der Fuehrer’s Face and Education for Death, are examples of US propaganda intended to help reinforce negative ideas of Nazi Germany and to help unite American feelings. This leads us to a more open discussion of the idea of propaganda and its use, both positive and negative. As societal artifacts, we analyze the racial stereotypes (bright yellow Japanese figures with buck teeth) in Der Fuehrer’s Face and even the homophobic portrayal of some Nazi soldiers in the film. Education for Death is unlike any Disney film I have ever seen with its terrifying portrayal of schools in Nazi Germany that shows how the youth were brainwashed into following Hitler’s evil ideas. The films are funny at times as well and the students learn much from them. Again – they make meaningful connections to the lessons and remember these important concepts long after leaving my classroom meaning they are better able to connect history to current events.

Pop culture is everywhere and just begging to be used in our classrooms. Make these connections with your students and they will gain a much deeper understanding of history and the world around us. Make your class the one that is talked about at home and remembered for years to come.

Representation In Comics

On 7/21/2019, Marvel announced, at San Diego Comic Con, that a new Thor movie would be released in 2021, starring Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Thor. Not only would there be a female Thor, but Valkyrie, as played by Tessa Thompson, would also be the first LGBTQ+ character in the Marvel cinematic universe. At the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Valkyrie was given the mantle of kingship and, as  Thompson said at SDCC,  Valkyrie would be “looking for her Queen.” This new movie, Thor: Love and Thunder!, will be released in November 2021. The director is the inspired Taika Waititi. There were many other exciting announcements, but I am going to focus on the impact of Jane Foster as Thor, as she is one of my all-time favorite heroes. She is also the favorite of my youngest daughter, who routinely dresses up as Thor for Halloween and comic cons. When this new movie was announced, I could not wait for her to wake up the next morning as to share the news with her and my other two children.

I travel the country giving workshops to educators on how, and why, to integrate comics in the classroom. I spend a lot of time discussing the fantastic increase of representation in comics and how important it is for students to see themselves in literature, as characters, authors, artists, etc. As a mid 40’s straight, white, CIS male, I know now how privileged I was growing up in that almost all of the positive heroes I saw in comics, movies, TV, etc. looked like me. So many adults haven’t read a comic since they were kids and haven’t been aware of how this has changed in modern comics. The movies simply had not caught up to the comics, and many only knew what was being done in the movies. However, this too is changing.

I was lucky enough to be asked by PBS to write two articles about how/why I use comics in my classroom, and this topic is discussed in both –



I was also interviewed for the local newspaper on this topic – even making the top fold on the front page! The text of the interview is here – http://www.montgomerynews.com/amblergazette/news/comics-in-the-classroom-how-one-wissahickon-teacher-uses-comic/article_aceed392-c658-5dfb-bec2-e339fecacd56.html

My family attends many comic cons, and my son said something to me at San Diego Comic Con that just struck me – he said – “Dad, look, anyone can be a hero (as he looked around at the many cosplayers). Boys can be princesses. Girls can be Captain America. Anyone can be anything they want.” If nothing else, this shared sentiment by my children has made all of these trips worth it. My kids have grown up in a house of books, including comics. To them, having a gay Iceman, black Captain America, Queer and Latina America with two moms, “overweight” Faith, bi-racial Spider-Man, Latina Green Lantern who suffers from anxiety, a 16 year-old Muslim, Pakistani American girl from Jersey City, etc. is all just the norm for them. And this is what gives me such hope for the future of our global society – that this will all become the norm.

This hasn’t always been without complaint or outrage from some. I am a member of many online comics groups and even created a Facebook group for Comics Teachers. I see people comment both in support and against what some see as a political agenda or forced political correctness. That these changes in comics are ruining their childhood and will destroy the comics industry. The argument is just not there for me – the traditional Spider-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, are still there. I have even gotten into a debate with a teacher who thought that Thor could not possibly be a woman as it flies in the face of historical Norse Mythology. Seriously? There are many Thors throughout the comics canon – including THROG – a frog Thor. This is all acceptable – but a female? Nope, that’s just going too far!  There really is no way to argue with these folks and I honestly don’t waste my time. I KNOW the power of this representation with my own kids and with my students. These people who are complaining are not the ones buying a lot of new comics today and they will fade over time.

I’ve even been seeing that Natalie Portman can’t possibly be Thor because she is took skinny, not strong enough. Ha! This reveals a true lack of understanding of what makes Jason Aaron’s Jane Foster Thor so truly powerful and inspiring. Jane Foster is not just battling intergalactic monsters, she is also battling an internal monster – breast cancer. Every time she picks up the hammer to become Thor, the chemo therapy she is receiving stops working. When she fights to save us, she chooses to do this, knowing that it will accelerate her cancer. The letters to the editor for this run have been full of thanks from women seeing the bravery in themselves and their female relatives also fighting this cancer.

When my daughter showed her Thor costume at school (third grade), many boys laughed and told her that Thor could not be a girl, that he was a man. (Notice the subtle GIRL vs. MAN, here?). Her response was to tell the boys that they needed to read the comics. I gave her some comics to take in and show them. She also corrected these boys when they called Jane Foster the “female Thor.” – “She’s not FEMALE Thor, she’s THOR”. Love it! She and her sister also corrected me at dinner one night when I was talking about PRINCESS Leia. They were quick to tell me that she is GENERAL Leia.

Today, I celebrate the news of the new Thor movie by wearing my shirt –

And this brings up another point about representation and our societal prison cells of gender norms. I often see girls wearing male hero paraphernalia, t-shirts, backpacks, even full on costumes. Many see this as cute, as normal. But when the opposite happens – when a male wears that of a female hero, he is seen as lesser than, as being “unmanly” (whatever that is). I proudly wear items to my presentations and in my classroom that represent female heroes – Wonder Woman tie, Bat Woman suspenders, Ms. Marvel shirts, and more. I have often been stopped by women telling me how great it is what I wear these items – but this shouldn’t be such a big deal. I’ve not seen someone make a big deal when a female wears a Captain America t-shirt.

When I told my kids that I had exciting Marvel movie news, my son excitedly asked me if they were making a Ms. Marvel movie. When I said no, he was disappointed. I love that this Muslim girl is his hero.

I have many pictures in my classroom with my family and our favorite comics authors/artists we have been blessed enough to meet throughout the year. I had an exchange student from Kuwait in my class, and she stayed after class to talk to me about the picture of us with G. Willow Wilson (author of Ms. Marvel and many other great books). She told me that it was the first time she felt accepted at our school and wanted to talk more. This showcases the importance of our students seeing themselves in our classrooms.

I also connected with a shy African American student who came to talk to me about Miles Morales. He was more impressed that Spider-Man looked like him than did the US President at the time!

Is there still work to be done? Absolutely. While Loki is gender fluid, we need more characters who are transgender, nonbinary, questioning, and more. We need to increase the representation in the front offices of comics companies. But things are so much better than when I was growing up. When I was in school, no one was gay (or so I thought). I had never heard of the word transgender. We are getting better and we need to keep increasing the visualization of all types of heroes. One great example is a conversation I had with my kids at Denver Pop Culture Con. One of the favorite series in our house if Phoebe and Her Unicorn, by Dana Simpson. I was lucky enough to present with her and other creators during a panel on fairy tales in comics. (I was the diversity on the panel – certainly a first for this white guy!). My youngest, who is a HUGE fan of Dana, had a question. Yep – Dana is transgender. My daughter asked what this meant and I explained to my 2nd, 4th, and 6th grade kids in about one minute what this meant. It was not a complicated conversation. It was not a topic only for adults. My kids basically said “ok” and that it was great that she was happy. I really love all of her books – it’s a modern take on Calvin and Hobbes  – witty, funny, heart-felt, and imaginative.

Also pictured here are Tracy Edmunds – a fantastically inspiring educator on all things comics in education. Check out her website – tracyedmunds.com

Also – Nidhi Chanani – author of Pashmina and amazing artist. Pashmina is a wonderful book about Indian culture and a favorite in our house.

To get copies of The Mighty Thor run written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Russell Dauterman, you might still be able to find single issues at your local comics shop – I have every one. As an educator/librarian, a cheaper and longer lasting option, is to order the collected series (there are five hard bound volumes). The ISBN for the first volume is 9780785195221. This is a great way to teach about the impact of current events and pop culture as artifacts. I have a lot more to say on the subject of representation in comics, but I will stop now and thank you for taking the time to read this much.

Thank you to G. Willow Wilson, Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli, and so many other visionary authors for their willingness to give us the heroes we need and deserve. (You need to watch G. Willow Wilson’s Ted Talk on the fears she had creating Ms. Marvel, I show it to my students every year – https://youtu.be/piWo4200G0U)

I also wrote another blog post on my learning about the term Blerd and the awesome @TheBlerdGirl http://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/10/12/blerds-the-beauty-of-nerdism/

Excellence In Graphic Literature Awards 2019

EXCELLENCE in GRAPHIC LITERATURE – the name of this award speaks volumes to where we are with comics as a medium and its acceptance as literature.  In the late summer of 2018, I was asked by several colleagues to be head judge in the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards Young Adult Category run by the inspiring folks at Pop Culture Classroom and hosted by the Denver Pop Culture Con. I knew of the awards, having attended the inaugural awards ceremony in 2018, and was honored to play an active role in the second awards process. (Feel free to go past my reflection on the ceremony and process to look at the award finalists and winners). Let me first say that I am posting this as an individual and not officially on behalf of the organization, but as an individual and personal reflection. Deciding the winners was not easy and all of the finalists truly deserve a place in libraries and classrooms. Each category had over 50 submissions (we read and scored A LOT of graphic novels!) and so many of the titles should have made it into the finals; this speak volumes to the amazing depth and breadth of the graphic novel medium! I am thankful to all of the publishers and creators who submitted their books for review. Think about the graphic novels YOU are reading/creating this year – please urge the creators of your favorite 2019 books to submit for next year’s awards! I was disappointed that some of my favorite titles of 2018 were not submitted for the awards. You can’t win if you don’t submit!

The juries were made up of professional librarians and educators – people who understand the powerful impact of graphic novels on our students and patrons of all ages. In order to keep the judging free of bias, the head judges were given the names of those on their juries, but the jurors themselves did not know who the other jurors were, nor did the chairs know who one another were. Tara Bannon was the person who held everything together as she was in charge of everyone and directed us all on our journey. She tirelessly answered all of our questions and offered encouragement as we read and scored so many wonderful books in a short amount of time. As directors at Pop Culture Classroom, Katie Monnin and Adam Kullberg were also crucial to the success of the process throughout the year.

Pop Culture Classroom is such an inspiring organization full of people who fully understand the value of comics in education. They are the force behind Denver Pop Culture Con and organize all of the educational programming offered at the convention every year. I was on multiple panels and sat in on others and was constantly getting new ideas and titles to use in my classroom. One of my favorite moments was being on a panel with some of my comics heroes – Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. I have used their Action Philosophers book in my AP Euro and my World History courses. My son absolutely LOVES their Action Presidents and has read the books many, many times – sharing them with great glee in school. The history in these books is accessible, hysterical, accurate, and allows the reader to see the “Great People” of history in a human and personal way. While they did not win in their category during the awards, they were deserving finalists and winners in my heart.

I was also finally able to meet the other judges and made many new friends at the convention as we presented together. All of this culminated in the awards ceremony on Saturday night and this was open to anyone who attended the convention!

I was the head judge for the Young Adult Category and we read over 50 books. It was tough to read through all the rubrics from all the jury members, and then tallying up the scores to determine the winner. On the rubric, we needed to take into account the educational possibilities of each for the classroom – unique to anything I have seen in the comics world! It was wonderful to see the differing opinions from each juror in the rubrics about the meaning of each title and how it can be used in the classroom. Thank you Pop Culture Classroom for helping further the legitimacy of comics in education.

I LOVED reading that Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo was the YA Nonfiction award – it was a secret that I had been anxiously wanting to share with everyone! This book has been borrowed by so many of my students as the truth Jarrett shares resonates with us all. This is a must-read book.

Here is the speech I gave at the ceremony before introducing the finalists and winners – I will let my words speak for themselves on my feelings about the award itself and the power of comics.

“Working with the folks of Pop Culture Classroom and the jurors of the Excellence in Graphic Novel Awards has been an honor, a lot of hard work, a lot of great reading, but ultimately an honor. My own children LOVED all 50 of the graphic novels, yes 50, sent my way to read, and it speaks much to the power of this medium for literacy. The books I was blessed to read really speak to the many genres that are available in this visual literacy medium. This category was comprised of fiction and non-fiction, sci-fi and futuristic, historical and current events of world importance, intimate biographies, travelogues, adaptations of classic stories, and so many also demonstrated the importance of representation and inclusion. They made me laugh and cry, look to the past and wonder about the future, and they all enabled me to see the brilliant characters on a personal level while experiencing the story through their eyes – and this truly is the power of comics. The decision to choose a winner was not an easy one for our Young Adult jury and I am so very thankful for the diligence and hard work from each member of the jury. We each brought our own experiences into these books and often had different take-aways from the stories – which is always great to show students how graphic novels are open to interpretation as visual literacy. The winning entry did stand out, however, as a book that, while devastatingly honest and emotional, allowed us to see the core of humanity and to offer hope despite tragic adversity. I am honored to have been a part of this journey and I truly believe that these stories stand out as the award title suggests –as showing EXCELLENCE in Graphic Literature. And that’s what these books are – deep and meaningful literature that not only deserve a place in the classroom and library, but in the world for they will truly change lives.”

If you have any questions or would like more information, please feel free to contact me.

During one of the panels, I was asked what books I would have liked to have made the finals that did not —

WaterSnakes by Tony Sandoval. A Flower in a Field of Lions by Tyler Button. Amazing books.

Category judges:

EGL 2019 Children Category

EGL 2019 Middle-Grade

EGL 2019 Young Adult

EGL 2019 Adult

2019 Children’s Fiction Finalists 

The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America by Jaime Hernandez and published by Toon Books

Small Things by Mel Tregonning published by Pajama Press

Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas by Dav Pilkey, Scholastic.

Petals by Cris Peter and Gustavo Borges, Boom! Studios.

Tiger Vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri, :01 First Second.


2019 Children’s Nonfiction Finalists

Snails Are Just My Speed! Kevin McCloskey. Toon Books.

We Are All Me. Jordan Crane. Toon Books.

Little Tails. Frederic Brremaud and Frederico Bertolucci. Lion Forge.

The Eye That Never Sleeps. Marissa Moss and Jeremy Holmes. Abrams ComicArts.

The Mushroom Fan Club. Elise Gravel. Drawn and Quarterly.


Middle-Grade Books Fiction:

Crush. Svetlana Chmakova. Yen Press.

Be Prepared. Vera Brosgol. 01: First Second

The Hidden Witch. Molly Knox Ostertag. Scholastic.

Sheets. Brenna Thummler. Lion Forge.

The Cardboard Kingdom. Chad Sell. Random House.


Middle-Grade Nonfiction

Stinky Cecil in Mudslide Mayhem! Paige Braddock. Andrews McMeel.

Lafayette: A Revolutionary War Tale. Nathan Hale. Abrams ComicArts.

The Faithful Spy: Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler. John Hendrix. Abrams ComicArts.

Action Presidents #1: George Washington. Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Harper Collins.

Ocean RenegadesL Journey Through the Paleozoic Era. Abby Howard. Abrams ComicArts.


Young Adult Fiction (I was chair of this category)

Monstress Vol. 3. Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda. Image.

The Prince and the Dressmaker. Jen Wang. 01: First Second.

Illegal. Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin. Sourcebooks

Manga Classics: Macbeth. Crystal S. Chan. Udon.

On a Sunbeam. Tillie Walden. 01: First Second.


Young Adult Non-Fiction 

Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation. Ari Folman. Penguin Random House.

Grand Theft Horse. Greg Neri. Lee and Low Books.

Strange Fruit, Vol. 2; More Uncelebrated Narratives From Black History. Joel Christian Gill. Fulcrum Publishing.

Hey, Kiddo. Jarrett. J. Krosoczka. Scholastic.

Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Adult Fiction

A Sea of Love. Wilfred Lupano and Gregory Panaccione. Lion Forge.

Infidel. Pornsak Pichetshote. Image.

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles. Mark Russell and Mike Freehan. DC Comics.

Berlin. Jason Lutes. Drawn and Quarterly.

Upgrade Soul. Ezra Claytan Daniels. Lion Forge.


Adult Nonfiction 

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World. Penelope Bagieu.

Algeria is Beautiful Like America. Olivia Burton and Mahi Grand. Lion Forge.

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees. Olivier Kugler. Penn State.

All the Answers. Michael Kupperman. G 13.

Monk! Thelonious Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution. Youssef Daoudi. 01: First Second.


Mosaic Award Winner – chosen from among all categories. 

Book of the Year Winner – chosen from among all categories.


Laurie Halse Anderson, poetry, and WWII


I am lucky enough to have gotten to know Laurie Halse Anderson over the years, both in person and by reading her emotionally brave and honest writings. My wife and I wrote the teacher’s guide for the powerhouse graphic novel adaptation of Speak (https://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/teachers-guides/9780374300289TG.pdf), even using the book to teach our own 7th grade daughter about the importance of finding her own voice and standing up for herself. I also find the Seeds of America Trilogy (Chains, Forge, Ashes) to be a powerful read – if you are teaching US history – it really is a must have in the classroom! Another of Laurie’s many books that stuck out to me was The Impossible Knife of Memory, about a young girl having to navigate the perils of her alcoholic father as he struggled with PTSD since fighting in Iraq. Little did I know that this story was actually about events in Laurie’s life and her own father struggling with similar demons after WWII. This year, I looked forward to reading Laurie’s newest book, Shout, as I knew that it would help so many victims find their voices and empower our youth. However, the first two entries in the book, both poems, took me completely by surprise. These two poems center on Laurie’s father and his experiences in WWII and helping to liberate Dachau. Needless to say, this has a long-lasting impact on him and Laurie’s family. As soon as I read these poems, I knew that I needed to integrate them into my WWII lesson as it helps to humanize such an overwhelming era. It also happens to be National Poetry Month and I knew that we could also discuss current issues through the poems as well. This is the power of approaching social studies courses through a humanities lens.

My lesson consisted of having students annotate the two poems, “in the name of love” and “stained glass curtain’s in my mother’s mouth” – this is such a crucial skill for all classroom, not just Language Arts. Even as a social studies teacher, I expect students to interact with text – asking questions, making connections, reacting, etc. – and I model this with them as I share my own annotations. After they completed the annotations, they then are asked to write a brief overall reaction and then ask two specific questions of the author. The students then pair/share what they have annotated and their questions as they sit in tables of four students. This allows me to sit with each group and discuss with them and, this is so important, to LISTEN to them and not run the conversation as the teacher. I am so often astounded by the deep connections students are able to make between history and text when I just get out of the way.

We then talked as an entire class about the connections that we made and began to conduct some research on the topics that came up. The most common topic was that of PTSD and the impact on soldiers and their families. The laptops were then flipped open and we began to dig deeper about suicides from today’s veterans and came across some disturbing figures. We made sure that our news sources were credible, even using official US Military findings, before discussing further. Finding out statistics such as – 20 veterans committed suicide each day in 2016, 321 ACTIVE duty military personnel committed suicide in 2018, half of all military personnel know a vet who has committed suicide, and much more. These numbers would mean much less if not for the human connection the students were able to make through Laurie’s poems. I then discussed how my grandfather never opened up about his experiences in WWII and that family members refuse to discuss experiences in Vietnam. This, of course, leads into the discussion of the changing definition of what it means to be a “man” today and that we all need to access our feelings, fears, and to seek help when needed. We are now discussing what we can do to help. More on this later.

Too often, the textbook will just end with WWII is ended, now onto the Cold War. Text can often be dry and dehumanizing – it is through personal literature, such as these poems form Laurie, that help us find the connected humanity in all of these events. The wars are not over when the fighting is complete and the witnessed events will continue to have impacts. That Laurie was brave enough to share what happened with her father, his decline into alcoholism, even hitting her mother, will help so many. Her book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, though fictional and set in more modern times, it is a haunting view into Laurie’s own life. This point is not to be overlooked when we discuss literature in the classroom, that the author’s life and experiences need to be examined and taken into account. We will now be able to better discuss the events of wars throughout time and their continuing impacts.

What makes this lesson all the more powerful, is that my students are 10th graders and many were lucky enough to have seen Laurie speak when she visited our Middle School and chatted with them as an author in my Language Arts wife’s classroom.

Some questions and connections that have come up from students:

So many who fight in wars are just “kids” – just like the actual child soldiers we learned about in Africa

Emotion is essential for being human

“The image of my father hitting my mother picassoed in front of me” – this is like the painting of Guernica from the Spanish Civil War – I can really imagine this situation in my mind.

“Rearranging the truth on the floor” – turning point in the author’s life.

Allusion to fairy tales which are usually seen as romantic/lovely, very out of place here.

Motif of internal self-destruction, broken family

These are typical signs of abuse

Why didn’t the dentist or her parents try to help?

“I think that this poem really demonstrates how difficult it is to understand the experiences of someone else’s life. Simply by looking at him, it would be impossible to know all of these hardships that Laurie Halse Anderson’s father endured. Even after reading about it, it is difficult to comprehend exactly how he must have felt, and I think that that is one of the main messages of this poem”

“Did the father force the family to lie and cover up abuse or did they decide to not share?”

“How does Anderson feel about her father today?”

“The War was more than just what happened on the battlefield”

“When the mother kept on saying that he “had to” hit her, she was lying to both her daughter and to herself. Deep down, she knew that what he did was wrong, but it was easier for her to take if she told herself she deserved it. Her weakness made me upset because if shes spoke out, she wouldn’t have to feel trapped”

“He was just an 18 year old kid!” “Not his fault”

“PTSD… when she said that the war was over, but not really, it seems to allude to the battle within himself”

“What would have happened if his ‘mental crate’ overfilled?”

“The war after the war”

“The war caused as much trauma to Laurie and her mother as it did to her Dad.”

“Why did her mom think she deserved it?”

“I feel that her father’s actions are irredeemable, but they are also understandable”

“I can’t even imagine the pain he had inside for 40 years”

“It angers me that some women or anybody who’s experienced abuse think it’s their fault that the abuser got mad and try to fix themselves to the abusers satisfaction. The Dad is obviously still trying to overcome his experience from the war, but that gives him no right to hit her. Reminds me of the Women’s march I went to. I wonder how this impacted Laurie’s view of men throughout her life?”

“This reminds me of learning about Freud and repressed memories…”

“This was well done as I felt like I was a lost soldier. I like how she emphasized his age (18) because I am not that far away from that age, scary to think he was at war as a teenager.”

“When/how did your father finally tell you the story of his experiences?”

“gut-wrenching” “saddened my heart”

“sounds like Laurie can forgive, but not forget”

“a living nightmare”

“It is terrifying to see the evil of mankind”

How can we help those with PTSD?


AND THEN – we were able to live tweet with Laurie for a bit – she is awesome!



Jerry Craft Author Visit

5/10/18 – Today was awesome! Members from two of our high school clubs – Comic Book Club and CASA (Celebrating All Students’ Achievements) – came together for a Skype session with author and artist Jerry Craft. I have loved reading all of the books Jerry has written and illustrated and was immensely pleased when he agreed to spend some time with our clubs. I was prepared to spend about 15 minutes or so having a Q and A session from the kids, but we wound up spending an hour sharing stories, laughing, and learning so much. Jerry is such an awesome human being who cares deeply about his work and sharing it with young people. He immediately made my nervous students feel comfortable as he teased them, called them out by name, and gave them invaluable insight into the process of writing and illustrating books. Holding the attention of a roomful of teens is difficult at times, but they were completely focused on the discussion, even though some of them were stressing about the AP US test being given the very next day. It was great to see the kids relax for a bit as Jerry made them feel valued.

Jerry shared with us, under pain of execution, pages of his upcoming book, New Kid, published by HarperCollins, that will be published in February 2019. My students let out audible gasps as they were told that they were among the first to get a peek into this upcoming book! (I was giddy myself!) This really left an impression on the kids – that Jerry would not only trust them with a sneak peek, but that he was so excited himself to share what he was doing. Several of the students remarked on this repeated reaction from Jerry – that he was so passionate about his work. This then fired up the students as well. Jerry not only shared much of his book with us, but he also walked us all through the process of writing and illustrating. Some of my students want to become authors, illustrators, and journalists and the knowledge that Jerry dropped was invaluable. He has been working on the illustrations for 13 months at this point and still has months to go before completion. Jerry shared that he mostly works seven days a week and up to 15 hours each day on this project. He shared with us feedback from his editors and countless small “mistakes” or oversights that needed to be fixed on what he had already completed. He also shared the process of just choosing the right cover for the new book and how many changes were made – we love the one that was finally settled on. He gave huge compliments to his editing team at HarperCollins and explained how much they have helped him in the process. Jerry did not complain about any of this process – we could easily tell that he loves what he is doing.

Passion – this is a word that Jerry used often in the conversation. Find what you love to do in this world – there are lots of cool jobs out there. Success will find you. But do what you are passionate about. Jerry then shared that this is what I do as a teacher – that I am obviously passionate about what I do and integrating engaging resources in the classroom – not just opening the textbook. I smiled when my students laughed at this and all nodded their heads in agreement. I preach this all the time – it took me awhile to fully realize this concept, but I love what I do and incorporating my passion in the classroom. Jerry told the kids to find their superpower as people will benefit from their passion. However, with passion comes hurdles as well – Jerry shared his rejection letters and the long road it took to find his success. This is an invaluable lesson in today’s instant gratification and “reality” contest shows were people seem to become instant successes.

Jerry talked to the kids about his background and how pop culture has changed over the years, from Blaxploitatation and Good Times and What’s Happening to Black Panther and Creed. He also shared how this was an influence on his creation of the award winning Mama’s Boyz comic and books. He was initially rejected because he purposely did not want to fall into the traditional Black stereotypes of basketball and gangs. Many publishers were looking for traditional books on MLK, Jr, Frederick Douglas, civil rights, and slavery. Jerry wanted to write authentic stories of his life without falling victim to these overdone topics. He knew that his own kids were interested in Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. This reminded me of my experience in a NYCC panel on Blerds – http://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/10/12/blerds-the-beauty-of-nerdism/ This is when he decided to self-publish – even going to the library to read a book about self-publishing to do so! There is no violence or gangs in his stories, but they are also hard-hitting and meaningful. He tackles topics on bullying, nutrition, respecting elders, music, and more.

We were ready to say our good-byes – all of the kids were clapping for Jerry. But he wouldn’t let us go! Here I was afraid that we were taking up so much of his time, but Jerry still had more to share with us. He began talking about a possible sequel to his upcoming book – showing us an actual story arc that would make English teachers everywhere excited! He told us about how he is always observing and watching people so that he can be authentic in his drawings. He is able to look at the most ordinary and repetitive interactions in life and see so much beauty in them. This was simply amazing.

Jerry’s book, New Kid, comes out in February 2019. I was able to get a peek into it and can’t wait to read the entire book! There was so much honesty, emotion, heart, and laughter in what I was able to see. There was one part in the lunchroom… well, I promised I wouldn’t give away details. But trust me, it hit me in the feels! In the meantime, check out Jerry’s existing books which I cannot recommend enough at http://www.jerrycraft.net/

Thank you, Jerry. The kids kept talking about you for another 30 minutes after we ended the Skype session. You have fired up their imaginations and have filled them with hope, and a dose of realism, for their future. There is no greater gift an individual could give to my students.


My son has been on my mind a lot, as he is most days. I have written about him before (http://historycomics.edublogs.org/2017/04/09/a-human-humanities-course/) and the obstacles that he has to overcome in life and school. We have been in large IEP meetings with his speech therapist, occupational therapist, and other specialists. He has a rare form of Meningitis that causes him a lot of migraines, aches, fatigue, and hospitalization.  I’ll spare you all the details, but his condition is a central piece of this post and has helped me to be a better teacher and human being. I can often see the pain and fatigue in his eyes, but he powers through and inspires me everyday.  It is important to note that we LOVE the school district our kids are in and we have been blessed to have amazing teachers for all three of our children. This post is not a complaint about them in any way, but we did have a bad experience in a private school (we pulled our kids out as a result), and I am also reflecting on what I hear other parents and teachers say throughout my life. This is also not a complaint about private schools either – just the one where my children were previously enrolled.

My son has fine motor skill issues with his hands and his handwriting is often hard to decipher as a result. His hands will hurt when he writes for too long and the upcoming state tests always have us on edge. When he took the exams last year, he came home from school, ate an early dinner, then went directly to bed and slept for 14 hours as a result of his fatigue. It has been suggested that he sit out the exams, but we also know that he can’t be excused from too much in life, that we need to find ways to adapt. We also know, as educators, that if he does not take the exam, that it will count as an automatic failure against his teacher and school district. This is just one of the criteria that teachers are often judged upon, even though they have little control over it. His team at school (and it is a TEAM!) have put together a game plan with a scribe and to keep us in the loop as to his fatigue levels during the tests. He will also have someone bubble in the bubbles on the answer sheet as this task is all but impossible for him. Enough on my standardized testing rant, I could write a book on this topic alone.

All of this is to get to my central point for this post – his handwriting. We often cannot read his writing, and, especially frustrating, is that he often cannot read his own writing. He LOVES to write stories and to illustrate them with amazing original art (I credit the many shelves of comics, graphic novels, and traditional books in our home). He keeps a little black book to write in as inspiration finds him and he will often read these wonderful stories to family members. We need to have a little patience as he sometimes has to figure out a word or two that he cannot read, but it is so worth the wait. He had a teacher, in his former school, that would often comment on his “messy” writing and that he needed to put forth more effort. He also had an art teacher who would comment on his “messy” drawings that needed more detail, or cuts with scissors that were not straight enough. He was already termed a “reluctant reader” at school.  Add up all this and you had a kid who was being unfairly judged and whose confidence was shattered. He began to rebel at school and to withdraw from the lessons being given. We also saw this rebelliousness at home and were trying to figure out how best to help him. It was comic books that gave my son the confidence and engagement he needed to become the amazing reader, writer, and illustrator he is today. It was also enrolling him in his current public school district where his amazing teachers also helped him to find his confidence.

My blood boils as I write this, but I am so happy that he is in a better place. However, his writing will always be a struggle. I have had parents joke around about their own child’s writing and make a comment about messy handwriting and to even seem embarrassed about it. Kids hear these comments and internalize them. IT is too easy to judge at first glance. This often happens when I pull out their writing folder and share their child’s work with them. I ask them to look beyond the handwriting, and like my son, look at the content of their words. This is when the conversation becomes uplifting and empowering. Messy handwriting is often not a sign of being lazy or unmotivated – for many, it is just too difficult a task. We need to actually read what our kids are writing and give them specific feedback and encouragement.

After over 15 years as an educator, I have learned perhaps the most important skill – the ability to laugh at myself and to forgive mistakes. I used to be a strict A-type teacher – the one who needed perfect handwriting, to have the torn edges taken off of loose-leaf, to discuss with parents how their child needed to do less doodling on their notes and actually pay attention, etc – groan! I now understand the brilliance being shown in the “doodling” shown on papers and I now encourage sketch-noting and making these important neural connections. (It’s also why I refer pen to paper rather than computer writing – but that’s another post). It is because of my own children’s experiences with ADHD, my experiences with comics, and our Art Department Chair that I was able to open my mind. Years ago, I was sitting in an IEP meeting and the Art Chair spoke up about the doodles I was complaining about. He was (and still is) a teacher for whom I have profound respect and his words hit me hard. He spoke to the creative genius and the imagination and connections being made on the student’s papers. I did not become defensive, but began to research and to see the light. Again, it is also my love of comics that helped me with this journey. I know that much research shows that students with ADD/ADHD can benefit from doodling with a purpose (sketch-noting) and taking notes in class. We do not excuse our children from taking notes and have found this expectation to be helpful (for us). I am also a fan of purposeful homework, despite my son’s physical issues and the ADHD in all of my children. But, again, a topic for another post.

Keep a writing folder for your kids and show parents the power of their words. I know that my son will continue to be shy about sharing his written work, but we continue to encourage him and are so happy that his teachers are able to look past his disability and see the amazingly curious, intelligent, and creative boy behind the “messy” words. Be conscious of the comments you make to students and the confidence you may be undermining. Also be aware that this confidence may have been shaken in years before you. Embrace creativity – no matter how “messy.”

Importance of Imagination

I teach high school social studies and firmly believe in the importance of rigor and high expectations for myself and my students.  We do a lot of analytical reading in writing in the course as I want my students to leave with the most important skill – being able to formulate an individual argument/opinion based on evidence and reason.  That being said, I have come a long way from the teacher I was years ago when I was taught to never let the students see me smile until Christmas.  I have managed to balance fun and being personal with being professional and challenging.  I like to have fun in my class and to make students laugh everyday, and I can have this fun due to my class management and high expectations.  This past week, however, I was struck by an event in my classroom with a grade of students who are showing many signs of anxiety and perfectionism as they chase points.  We have had several discussions this year about the importance of learning and not focusing on points, that it is ok to fail as I do myself, etc.  I thought we were making progress until I gave an assignment that, I thought, was fun and engaging.  After I explained the assignment, I expected to see excitement and wonder in the eyes of my students and was disappointed when they began asking for the rubric, asking how many points it would be worth, and if I would tell them more about my expectations.

My classroom is full of wonder – posters of superheroes, WWII photos with stormtroopers photo shopped in, graphic novels and comic books galore, giant chairs to read in, and more toys that I can possibly explain away.  Here I was, encouraging my students to have fun with an assignment and they simply could not let go of their anxiety to do so.  I found out that they were reading Frankenstein in their Language Arts classes, and I wanted to make a humanities connection.  I firmly believe that we need to study the time period and life of authors to better understand the influences on their writing.  We happened to be starting the Industrial Revolution and so I was able to quickly put together a lesson that would infuse history and pop culture to not only engage my students, but also to allow them to have fun.  I gave them a excerpt from Frankenstein and simply asked them to complete the story – in any way their imagination took them.  It could be funny, sad, scary, – it just had to be a complete story.  (and for the potential wiseasses like me, it could not be “and then I woke up.”  The excerpt –

  • “I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his opened eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulated sounds while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.  He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand stretched out, seemingly to detain me.”

After the story was complete, the students were then to draw a representation about their story (to summarize – a key literary skill).  These two parts of the assignment unfortunately caused a little bit of a panic.  I can’t draw – will you take off points?  Does it have to be colored in?  How long does the story have to be?  I don’t remember this part of the book, what if I get the story wrong? -These are amazing students who care very much about their education and grades and tend to “do school” very well. This reaction really made me take a step back to evaluate the entire educational process.  How many tests do these students have to take over the course of the year? How much are their grades affected by these exams?  Do we give out too many rubrics for assignments to strictly define the assignment parameters?  How much freedom do we allow our students to explore and flex their imaginations?  I know we all have curriculum to cover – but I also believe that we can make time for what is important and that it is a cop out to say – we can’t do that, there’s not enough time.  So we talked about the assignment and I was finally able to convince them that I was not looking for a specific answer or drawing – that, yes, they were to have fun.  I also shared with them some of my “drawings” and allowed them to giggle at my pathetic attempts to even make stick figures.  The entire dynamic of the class changed and the students were the most engaged I had seen them this year.  The rest of the session flew by and the students were disappointed when the bell rang.  They were eager to finish their creations (see what I did there?) and to share with the class the next day.

I was being observed for the second part of this lesson and I was terrified that the students would not volunteer to share their stories or drawings.  I had set aside time in the beginning of the class to do so and was afraid of the potential for dead space with a principal in the room.  However, the students came in, sat down at their tables (we sit in groups of four as a collaborative education is the most effective) and began to share with each other without needing to be told to do so.  The class was loud and I loved it.  However, then I asked for students to either volunteer themselves or a partner to share with the whole class and then turned the floor back to them. I was so happy to see students eagerly encouraging others to volunteer their stories or drawings.  Students stood up to share – one even came to the front of the class to read his story in a Shakespearean fashion as he pantomimed a sword fight between him and the monster.  The students were constantly clapping for one another and it was awesome.  Sometimes we laughed and other times we were hushed into awe by a story or drawing.

The last part of the last part of the assignment was to draw the creature as seen today.  What does our society see as the creature?  We talked about the importance of symbolism in drawings and specific evidence.  Again, some were hysterical, some creepy, and some just were beyond words.  Some drew about the need to wear designer clothes, the control of smartphones on their lives, LGTBQ+, Muslims, educated women, and so much more.  As the students were talking in their groups on a second part of the assignment, I quickly scanned the collected drawings, took pictures, and put them onto a PowerPoint.  Some students declined sharing their drawings with the class and this was my opportunity to show them off anyway – I took off their names and showed them to the class.  Wow.  The students were able to understand the dangers of making humans into “others” and how some in our society fear what they do not know/understand.  For tenth graders to have such an amazingly mature insight into the world gives me great hope.

We also discussed the connection between Hulk and Frankenstein’s Monster in this amazing comic.

Also the amount of death that surrounded Mary Shelley in her life and how reanimation must have been on her mind.  This has also been written about in the below comic where the scientist actually brings back her son –

This was the result of allowing students to use their imaginations to create and share as I took a step back.  This then led us to a conversations about modern technology and the fears of new technology.  The students and I discussed potential issues with cloning and cyborgs – we can, should we?  Of course, we then made connections to Star Wars, the clone army, and the creation of Darth Vader.  But more on that in another post.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6bEs3dxjPg  – tell me this isn’t a homage to Frankenstein’s Monster from George Lucas!

Begun the Clone War has – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dylqDO4uEXc




Social Studies is Complicated

I saw a Twitter post today that had been reTweeted more than 18,000 times and liked more than 17,000 times, with more than 400 comments.  The post was about how King Leopold killed more Africans than Hitler killed Europeans – good point (we can quibble about specific numbers, but the point is valid and thought provoking).  The second part demanded to know why were weren’t be taught about this is in schools and that’s when I felt defeated.  With a simple retweet, thousands were immediately voicing disappointment, if not outrage, at educators across the country.  I felt defeated because I go very much in depth on Leopold and the genocide in the Congo, and also the African Holocaust.  The tweet may be an accurate criticism of a particular teacher, or maybe even school district, but I was also lumped into this grouping.  I wonder if this person reached out to their school district or social studies teachers before reaching out to social media?  I am not angry with the tweeter – I want to thank her for opening an important conversation, for knowing her history, for her courage in sharing, and for her passion.  This gives me a chance to blog about the importance of bringing home and school together, and why social studies is complicated.  I will share my lesson plan and resources on this immense tragedy at the end of this post.

When I signed up to take the social studies teacher exam as I began to plan for my career in education, I wondered how I could possible prepare for this all inclusive exam.  I finally decided that there was no practical way to fully prepare as the exam could have questions from ANYTHING in history.  Think about it.  Any possible historical topic could be on the exam, from any point in time, and from any place on earth.  Not only that, the exam would also have questions on economics, religion, culture, geography, psychology, pop culture, art, gender studies, astronomy, science, music, political structures, civics, etc.  I can be asked to teach any social studies course, grades 7-12, and I have taught many.  Don’t get me wrong – this is why I love being a social studies teacher as I can teach anything.  I open up my class every year with a discussion on “what is social studies?” as I show students pictures on a PowerPoint and ask them to write down yes or no, then explain why.  I show them a hip hop video, a movie trailer, pictures of comic books, drawings from major battles, maps, social media images, images of the universe, sports players, etc.  I then ask them to discuss with their partners why they answered yes or no for each answer. I am always fascinated by their discussions and do not interfere with them and say that all answers are valid.  When we come back to a full class discussion, I then tell them that the “right” answer for each is YES.  Everything is social studies – be it from thousands of years ago or what happened moments ago.  I hope you can now have a better idea as to the wonder and terror of teaching social studies, as my students often tell me that I blew their minds.

I am going to use the example of the previously mentioned to tweet to explain how we can tackle this issue and make it an amazing benefit for our students, our parents, our community, and for social studies teachers.  We all have a textbook, a curriculum, and a course title to guide us throughout the year so that we don’t just immediately shut down when tasked to teach a course.  This year, I teach Modern US and Modern World to high school students.  As a past teacher of European History and World History, I thought Modern US would be so easy because the content was much more defined.  However, my greatest strength, and weakness, is that I like to go down the rabbit hole of history – I like to explore and make connections.  I think it is so important to not “just” teach about the Civil Rights Movement in terms of the 60s, but also to explore modern civil rights leaders – in LGTBQ+, mental/physical disability, Latino, Japanese-American concentration camp victims, etc – and also to those in the past who fought for gender equality, historical struggles of the impoverished, etc.  When I teach about 9/11, I begin with the Crusades, focus on WWI and its impact, and end up with “terrorism” in the world today.  Everything is connected and we need to understand the historical impacts on the world of today.  Right now, you may be wondering why I didn’t mention _______________ in my listings above.  This is the heart of the issue – the more I try to encompass everything, the more I feel I leave out.  Allow me to get back to the tweet and my lesson about King Leopold.

When I begin teaching about the Jewish Holocaust, I ask my students to write down what they know about the events in general, and how many Jews were killed in particular.  I am always impressed with their background knowledge and that many can tell me that about 6 million were killed.  I then ask students how many were killed in the African Holocaust, Native American Genocide, and Holodomor.  This is where the room gets quieter as the students are not sure of the answer when they discuss in small groups.  Very few have ever heard of the word Holodomor (this word continues to not even show up in spell check) and they begin to ask questions.  This also then leads us into a discussion on the terms genocide and holocaust and how they may be misunderstood or applied (as I did here).  Some students even ask why they had never been taught these ideas before, and as part of the discussion, I bring up how some folks even believe that the Jewish Holocaust did not happen and that Jewish groups are just pushing their agenda, to you know, take over the world and stuff.  I quickly point out that so many Jewish organizations are the ones leading the charge about genocide in general – not “just” about the history of Jews.  I then made it my mission to teach about several genocides alongside the Jewish Holocaust and to make connections between all off them and the lessons we must understand.  I thought I was doing my due diligence in expanding the knowledge base of my students and was proud of not just following the textbook.  I was also determined to go in-depth on the genocide in the Congo with a multimedia presentation, primary sources, etc.  Then, in one class, a quiet young woman spoke up, I had not heard much from her all year, and she asked – “what about the Armenian Holocaust?  My Dad was angry that we weren’t learning about it.”

Immediately I saw the flaw in my thinking – by trying to widen my approach, I had opened minds, and now everything was on the table – and I mean this in the best possible way.  To my credit, I acknowledged the “failure” in my approach and said that we would scrap my initial plans and brainstorm on how to approach this “complication.”  WE decided to research a list of genocides in history, form groups, and teach each other about them.  I would teach about the genocide in the Congo, other students would pitch me ideas and present on events where they felt connected.  After all of my classes did the initial research, the list was shared between all four classes, and we came up with a game plan on how to research, what needed to be in the presentations, etc.  WE then had it all formalized into an assignment sheet and it was sent home with a written explanation.  WE asked parents to give input, to let us know of any other ideas that they might have about events in their own cultural backgrounds.  So many students came into class excited to tell me that they had no idea that this had happened in so many other places in the world and that they couldn’t wait to do the research.  I told them that I would present on the Congo Genocide and would do the research and work alongside them.

The presentations were amazing and I learned so much from my students.  Most importantly, I learned that I didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility to know EVERYTHING in history -that I had classes full of motivated researchers in front of me every day.  I will now leave this assignment open every year for topics and I have broadened this approach to everything I teach.  I put this on my class syllabus that goes home and I say it to parents on back to school night – please let me know what you think we are missing.  If you have a personal connection to history and want to share, let us know.  If you think I missed something important, let me know.  I will do my best to teach about a broad range of topics, but I can never cover everything and I cannot possibly know everything.

To bring this post full circle, I would encourage the author of this Tweet, and you, to reach out to your schools and teachers when you have similar thoughts and feelings.  History is passionate and important to everyone – we need to build a community where we can learn from one another.  If you don’t get a response, then take other actions.  But please, I implore you, reach out to the teacher first.  When we take to social media first, we confirm often wrong assumptions, something I try so hard to make sure my students never do.  Just because you or your child didn’t learn about something in your class, doesn’t mean others aren’t doing a great job.  Perhaps this teacher missed this point, but does amazing things on other topics.  Just give them the chance to learn with you and your child.  Education is a boat we are all surely in together and we all want what is best for our students.  I never want a student, or parent, to feel that they are marginalized or ignored in my class.  This is also why I allow my students to choose their own topics for the research paper, but this is a topic for another blog.

Below are some of my resources for teaching about Leopold.  It is difficult to fully translate the full classroom experience and our discussions, but I tried to give some highlights of the lesson below.  Much of my information comes from King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Step 1 Do Now –

  • Interpret the following poem – think – who was Leopold? Why would he be burning in Hell? How does the poem tie into the picture?  What questions do you have/want to know more about?

“Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost

Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host,

Hear how the demons chuckle and yell

Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.”

 – it is important to allow students to discuss in small groups after they have had a chance to write down some ideas. Ask for textual evidence when students volunteer to the large group discussion.  

 – Step 2 – set geographical context.  How can such a small nation come to enslave a much larger nation?

Step 3 – Why were the hands cut off?  State officials would see to it that the victors severed the hands of dead warriors.  During expeditions, Force Publique soldiers were instructed to bring back a hand or head for each bullet fired, to make sure that none had been wasted or hidden for use in rebellions.  A soldier with the chilling title “keeper of hands” accompanied each expedition.  Force Publique soldiers were slaves who had been press-ganged through hostage taking or stolen as children and brought up in child colonies founded by the king and the Catholic Church

Step 4 –  we now discuss what else we see in this photo.  I have students create questions about it.  I let them brainstorm and we discuss.  One of the most important questions is often overlooked – who took the picture and why?  When I put this question to the class, their conversation takes an entirely different course as we try to figure out the purpose of the picture.  These photos were taken to counter King Leopold’s powerful propaganda machine and his being reinvented as a Christian philanthropist.

Step 5 – I then read some excerpts from Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone  to make a connection to more current events in the same area of the world.  I then ask the students why – what did the Europeans want from these people then and today?  I explain that Leopold wanted rubber from the trees.  Why?  What were new inventions that would make the value of rubber rise so much?

Step 6 – How did these “examples” lead to European domination of the Congo?

  • As reported by George Washington Williams – an African-American journalist who wrote a letter to King Leopold. He was informing the King of what his representatives were doing in order to gain territories from the Africans – he gave several specific examples:
  • “A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand, the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet.… When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.”
  • “The white man took a percussion cap gun, tore the end of the paper, which held the powder to the bullet, and poured the powder and paper into the gun, at the same time slipping the bullet into the sleeve of the left arm. A cap was placed upon the nipple of the gun, and the black brother was implored to step off ten yards and shoot at his white brother to demonstrate his statement that he was a spirit, and, therefore, could not be killed. After much begging the black brother aims the gun at his white brother, pulls the trigger, the gun is discharged, the white man stoops . . . and takes the bullet from his shoe!”
  • The Europeans also often gave bottles of gin to the leaders

Step 7

  • King Leopold never saw a drop of blood and never stepped foot in the Congo.

An account in 1884 describes the actions of an officer against those who refused to collect rubber or failed to meet their quotas – “I made war against them.  Once example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies ever since.  My goal is ultimately humanitarian.  I killed a hundred people… but that allowed five hundred others to live”

There was no written language in the Congo when the Europeans arrived – therefore, history is skewed, as, instead of African voices, there is largely silence.

8 million dead (most likely much more) in this one nation – comparison to Jewish Holocaust.  Why is this not in the textbook?

Step 8 – role of propaganda and the importance of media literacy

  • Henry Stanley – “American” journalist – was actually from Wales and was a bastard – he even changed his name.
  • He fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War and was captured at the Battle of Shiloh. He was sent to a prison camp in Chicago where he was promised freedom if he fought for the Union – which he did.  He was assigned to the USS Minnesota that wound up shelling a Confederate fort – so he fought on both sides.
  • Livingstone was a celebrity – he had “explored” throughout Africa and was the first all-white to cross Africa from coast to coast. He disappeared for five years on another journey – Stanley set out to find him.
  • Leopold II – was largely ignored by his father growing up and was left to his own devices. He was only the second ruler of Belgium – a newly independent country. He thought the country to be too small (half the size of West Virginia) and wanted to expand his kingdom through imperialism.  He was also upset that kings were losing power to constitutionalism and wanted more power – his own colony would allow him full autonomy.
  • Eventually, Leopold used Stanley to do his bidding and set up a one-man colony under the guise of philanthropy.

Step 9 – Video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5z4M1dPYZ4 .  I ask the students to pay particular attention to the museum curator towards the end and why he thinks that having a museum paid for and dedicated to Leopold is acceptable.


In AP Euro, I took this lesson a bit further and had the students read and annotate Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy –  the entire text can be found online http://diglib1.amnh.org/articles/kls/twain.pdf – I print it and have the students mark up the text and answer the following questions when they complete the reading:

King Leopold’s Soliloquy – Mark Twain

Answer these questions on lined paper – you do not have to rewrite the question, just write your answers after the number.  Be sure to give specific textual evidence to back up your answers.

  1. What questions do you have?
  2. What sources were made to make the argument against Leopold by Mark Twain?
  3. Bullet some of the evidence amassed of the atrocities – include the page number from the writing
  4. List Leopold’s defensive arguments
  5. How did Leopold stop information of the atrocities from becoming widespread?
  6. What was the one form of media Leopold could not stop? Why?
  7. What makes Leopold II’s actions different from other rulers?
  8. Why was Leopold not tried for his crimes?
  9. What one item stuck out to you the most, why?
  10. How many died?
  11. How does this compare to the Jewish Holocaust?


A Human Humanities Course

I first ran this lesson in 2017, at the bottom of the post, I updated it for 2018.


When I first began as a teacher, the advice I was given was to not let the students see me smile until Christmas and to not divulge any personal information.  Now in my fifteenth year of teaching, I realize how true it is to say only a Sith deals in absolutes.  (I always wonders who reads my blog – pop culture nerds or educators?  lol).  I have allowed myself to be more flexible and to see my students as individuals and humans – I also try to have them see me in the same way.  Don’t get me wrong, we can also go too far the other way by obliterating the line between teacher and student.  There is a lot of my personal life that will never be discussed with my students and, likewise, I would never ask from my students.  That being said…

Image result for only siths deal in absolutes

Facebook is great for reminding us of what we did on a certain day throughout the years – it is often wonderful to see memories that have been posted.  However, it can also remind us of a painful time and today was one of those days.  My son suffers from a rare form of Meningitis – so rare, that we often need to explain it to medical professionals.  We are lucky enough to live in the Philadelphia area with so many wonderful hospitals, doctors, nurses, etc (we have been frequent customers at CHOP and St. Christopher’s — have also traveled a bit south to visit the amazing Johns Hopkins), and to have solid health insurance (don’t even get me started on the the healthcare debate in our country).  My son continues to suffer from migraines, body pain, extreme fatigue, and can even be hospitalized for days on end.  He has undergone so many tests and evaluations, but the best prognosis we have been given is that he will hopefully grow out of it – maybe by age nine.  This year, my little man turned nine and it just hit my wife and I – perhaps this is just something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.  Facebook often shows me pictures of him in different hospitals over the years, and this morning was one of those memories in my timeline.  He often has to miss out on so much with friends and it can translate into struggles at school as well.  As an example, we were at Camden Comic Con yesterday – it was a smaller convention on the campus of Rutgers University.  We had taken a break and were sitting in a lobby (we always need to schedule breaks for my son on any trip so that he does not get too fatigued – this is what will lead to hospitalization), when he asked if he could sit in my lap.  My first response was to tell him no – he is too big to be sitting in my lap.  But then I saw THAT look on his face – where I could tell he was in pain but wouldn’t tell me.  I quickly pulled him into my lap as I honestly just didn’t care what any passing adult might think.

My father, (my hero – a Philadelphia Cop) suffered through ALS for about two years and died five years ago this August.  I had to watch this proud man suffer the wrath of a disease that continually shut down his body while keeping his mind 100% sharp and intact until the bitter end.  He was the type of man who never wanted to rely on anyone or to ever ask for help – but he also had the most amazing sense of humor.  It was so hard to watch him have to rely on me as our roles switched and I took care of him.  I won’t get into much more detail here, I’ll get to my point soon.  My Dad died on the first day back to school and I decided to not take any time off and just dedicated myself to my students and the all important beginning of the year.

Here’s my point, and one I make to my students.  We are are human.  We all struggle.  We all need help and are often afraid to ask for it.  There might be a reason why a teacher, or student, was snippy or short with someone.  You never know what someone is going through as they come to school each day.  I know so many teachers who are suffering through horrendous circumstances, yet they come to school every day with a smile and nothing but encouragement for their students.  I also know that students come to school also dealing with serious issues.  I have shared some of my experiences with my students and they have with me as well.  I see heroic deeds in front of me every day.  I try to keep this in mind when a student has a “bad” day – I force myself to take a breath and think about what is happening that has nothing to do with me.  I am also a firm believer in restorative practices with my students – I truly believe that 99% of what happens in the day is never personal.

Image result for a hero can be anyone dark knight rises

Oddly enough, perhaps, when President Trump ordered 59 missiles to be fired into Syria, all of these thoughts came to mind and I decided to scrap what I was doing on 4/7 and to teach about the events in Syria. (I am a firm believer that teachers, especially social studies teachers, need to make connections to the real world, even if it is outside of the proscribed curriculum).  I knew that my high school students would have questions and that many would have heard different things – some true and some not.  I also knew that some would fear a coming war, attack, etc and would just increase their anxiety.  However, as we are heading into the Jewish Holocaust, I also thought this to be the perfect vehicle to discuss the false concept of “never again” and today’s modern atrocities.  I had a comic book in mind to use at some point, and this was the perfect time.

Image result for madaya mom

Madaya Mom was put together by ABC News and Marvel Comics – it is available for free and even has a teacher discussion guide – http://abcnews.go.com/International/deepdive/madaya-mom-mother-struggle-survival-syria-civil-war-42362213 .  Xana O’Neill, Rym Momtaz, and Dalibor Talajic have put together this amazing resource and have made it easy to access.  The videos that accompany the comic are very insightful – take a look for yourself.  This was put together after they came across a mother in Syria who was putting out information on social media about the struggles of her and her family.

When I looked through the teacher discussion guide, I came across the idea of asking students to reflect on a time in their lives when they felt powerless.  This is the moment when my lesson plan completely came together.  My Do Now was exactly that – think of a time in your life when you felt powerless and what steps you took to overcome it.  The students then shared with their partners (we sit in collaborative tables of four) and I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to the larger group.  This was one of the only times that I did not walk around the room and interact with students as they worked on the Do Now – I did not want them to feel uncomfortable with my presence.  I was astonished with what my students were willing to share and how much of a need for expression I had tapped into.  I will not share their responses here to respect their privacy.  I reacted to each volunteer, even taking the time to thank students for their bravery and to put my hand on their shoulder.  I think I took them a bit by surprise when I shared my own times of feeling powerless – both as a father and a son.  After speaking of my son, I related a particular time of powerlessness for me.  He was given a spinal tap (one of several through the years) and was too young to be given a sedative.  Four adults had to hold him down in the fetal position (I must admit a bit of pride there – strong lad!), and my job was to maintain eye contact with him and to talk with him so that he cold be as relaxed as possible.  I then told my students that I love them – that I do call them my kids and that I feel the same way when I see them struggle.

After this discussion, the students were all wondering why I had brought this all up – they know that I am notorious for making everything tie into academia, and this was no different.  I told them that, when I began teaching at 25, I thought I understood the Holocaust.  I “knew” that all the Germans were evil and that I would have stood up and protected my Jewish students.  But then I had kids.  I now have a better understanding, an understanding that I will never by able to fully comprehending these times.  No longer was life a simply choice – I now had to protect my own children.  I would like to think that I would still be the outspoken fighter for justice – I just now understand that, to say the least, life is more complicated.

We then related all of this to a mother in Syria. A mother who had used social media in an attempt to get the world to help.  To get the world to care.  For me, 18 million dead in the African Holocaust, some 4 million in Holodomor, 6 million Jews, etc – is just impossible to comprehend.  I am a visual person, but photos of ghastly images cause the brain to shut down.  But if I read about one person or one family – this personalization of  history gets through to me in a profound way.  Madaya Mom is a way to get this type of story and to make the events more accessible.  I want my students to be able to relate to people in these events as, well, people.  I want them to see them as normal people caught up in extraordinary events.  I believe Madaya Mom, again, is an amazing way to make this happen.

My students were chomping at the bit during this entire introductory phase to talk about the missile launches into Syria – I had heard some asking each other why we weren’t talking about it and were instead talking about our own lives in the Do Now.

I finally explained what we were doing and turned them loose on the internet (we are a one to one school) with some guided questions to find out about the civil war in Syria and why we were involved.  The final question was one that pulled it all together – I asked the students to write down whether or not the US should send in more ground troops and to defend their answers.  These types of culminating questions are so important – students should not only know how to research, they should also understand the impact of world events on their own lives.  They need to think for themselves and be able to defend their ways of thinking.  This research was done on their own – I wanted to see what resources they used to find information.  We had just spent several lessons researching fake news and source credibility – this was the perfect way to put this teaching to the test.

In 30 minutes, students were able to pair-share their responses and sources – I was impressed with their ability to gather a solid understanding of the history and current events in Syria.  Some even made the Jewish Holocaust connection on their own and began to discuss.  We then talked as a large group, looked at some maps, and discussed the impact of geo-politics on the region.  We discussed Obama and Trump’s choices in the region, the roles of the US and Russia and other players, etc.

For the next class, we will be reading the Madaya Mom comic and watching a video (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/teachers-guide-discussing-madaya-mom-students/story?id=42419439) Students will be asked to create a document with the one panel in the comic that stood out the most to them.  They will then have to explain the meaning of the image and why they chose it – using specific textual (visual) evidence.  Students don’t just read comics in my class as a “neat” thing to do – there are real analytical reading and writing skills involved – more so than in traditional text and writing.  We will then share them as a class and I will share my choices.  The next step is to Skype with a member of the Madaya Mom team – my students will come up with questions ahead of time.  My hope is that this becomes a call to action for my students – and not just for Syria.

I will update my blog when we do this next step on the week of 4/17 – currently on Spring Break!!!!!  I am truly thankful for the ABC News and Marvel team for not only creating this resource, but also for making it accessible to us all.  I was able to show the comic and lesson plan to educators at the Camden Comic Con at Rutgers University on 4/8.  The lesson was well received and I believe others will now be using it as well.


Big picture – we are all human.  We all have scary times of vulnerability – if we could internalize this, I truly believe our shared humanity would be the better for it.  I would love to hear your thoughts or suggestions in the comments below.


Update – 4/17

Since we were off of school for a week, students came in and were asked to summarize what has been happening in Syria – and what had just happened over the week-end.  I was impressed with the ability of my students to remember what we had talked about a week ago and many were drawn to the news when they heard about the recent bus bombing in Syria.  There were a lot of questions – what will the US do, what is Russia doing, I heard there were talks being set up, who was behind the bombing, etc – students were now personally involved in the ongoing events in Syria and it showed.

We then watched this video about the making of Madaya Mom http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/teachers-guide-discussing-madaya-mom-students/story?id=42419439 and students were asked to reflect on the video.  Rym Momtaz does a wonderful job of making this difficult topic easy to access and more human and personal.  We focused on why this was made into a comic book – how we are a visual society, how it might help readers to connect, etc.  Students were impressed that social media and text messaging were able to help get the word out of a struggling mother and her family.  Again – the students were now emotionally and personally involved.  It was also noted how text messages were being sent in Arabic – students had assumed that texts were just sent in English. We were also able to discuss the breaking up of Yugoslavia and why Dalibor Talajic was chosen to draw the comic. (over and over, the students remarked about the powerful illustrations and how they were able to connect to Madaya Mom through them.  In their reflections, students wrote about tearing up and becoming emotional due to Talajic’s work).   We will be discussing these events later in the year during the Cold War, so we will be coming back to this comic again.  The students also thought it was powerful that ABC News and Marvel comics took the time to get out this message when it seems like many in the world don’t care.  When Axel Alonso (editor-in-chief at Marvel) came on the video to discuss making the comic and why Marvel was quick to jump on was a great moment for many students – comics are not just capes and tights – we all know how comics are societal artifacts and can cause real change.  This really brought together the core of my teaching and why comics are so important.  Many comics tackle tough topics about our world today and are written on a deep and analytical level.  As educators, we need to reinforce the power of this medium as another way to engage students in a meaningful and intelligent way. Superheroes truly are all around us and Madaya Mom is certainly of them.

Students were then able to quietly read the comic and answer the following:

Read the comic.  When done, go back and choose one panel.

Write –

  1. Why did you choose this panel? (The power of Talajic’s images is such that students had a tough time choosing only one panel to discuss and analyze).
  2. How did it make you feel? Use specific textual evidence.
  3. What connections did you make to history/current events?
  4. Explain the meaning of the panel – describe it using specific textual evidence
  5. What questions do you have for the creative team?

This is the power of comics – we are able to focus on skills – close reading, textual evidence, etc while reading a powerfully visual text.  I will then collect the responses and send the student questions off to ABS News to prepare for our Skype session next week.

I did share my own thoughts on panels that I had chosen and why – such as

The use of angles and loneliness in this image are just so powerful.  In one image, I am able to garner an entire story about this woman and how she must be feeling.  The bare cupboards, the cracking walls, the look on her face – all powerfully resonated with me as a father.

Student reflections –

#1 –

#2 –

“This image made me feel some sort of responsibility for how helpless they are depicted. In the comic, most of the people’s mouths are not even drawn. I take this to depict how they feel like they don’t have and say/their words mean nothing. It makes me feel responsible for this because how I feel that I have to spread the awareness so the people in this picture, hopefully, will know that they are heard.”

“It made me truly realize how much I love my family and that I would make any decision to save them from experiencing this kind of pain”

The use of black creates a sense of darkness, isolation, and the scariness of the unknown. Splattered paint makes me imagine the mental/emotional state of the characters… “They had to step in their friend’s blood” – wow.

This comic made me feel grateful for what I have in my life… one time, during a snowstorm, we lost all power – it was very cold at night even under all the blankets… my power was out only for a few days makes me feel horrible for this family.

Panel #32 – throughout the comic, I felt teary-eyed and tried not to cry, but once I reached this panel, I hit a breaking point… it just shows Madaya Mom’s hope deteriorating. Her goal is to keep her kids alive no matter what it takes, but at this moment, she says that “death is more merciful than what they are going through now”

Seeing them sleep together pulls at the heart strings as we connect with them as a family.

This made me feel bad for the daughters because they look traumatized. The one girl on the left is clamping her fists together to show how angry she is. The other, however, looks as if she can’t even hold herself together because she is leaning on her mother who is trying to calm the girls down.

…Her sprawled position on the floor shows how helpless and weak she feels.

#3. We discussed the connection to the Battle of Stalingrad, Holodomor, German Hyperinflation from the 1920s, etc – all through the power of visualizations and how our minds connect to make meaning.  The most obvious connection was to the Jewish Holocaust – this even led us to make a parallel to Anne Frank – what if she had a cell phone and social media?  Could she have gotten out her story?  Would anyone have cared?  Would anything have been different?

This made me think of things that happen in the US – school shootings. I instantly thought of this because the panel has to do with girls watching their friends suffer from an event at school.

9/11 and the helplessness felt by the people in the buildings when they knew they were going to die.

I can connect as a lot of my family lives in Venezuela – not as bad as Syria, but – is currently going through a severe economic recession. There are protests that have been going on since 2014.  Violence is at an all-time high. People can’t earn enough money because of inflation to buy groceries ro medeicine.

#5. Why isn’t the Syrian government letting these people get aid?

Why is the mom called a superhero when the dad is there as well?  Did he have any role?

Why is the comic in black and white/muted colors?  Was this a conscious choice?

Is the family still alive and in contact?

Do you think Marvel has a future in other current event journalism type pieces?

In the comic, the characters are not making eye contact with the reader – why?

Has this comic made a difference?  Had the US or Syrian government responded?

Has the Syrian government tried to find her and silence her?

What was the most challenging part of this process?

What feedback have you gotten from the comic?

How do YOU feel when reading her texts? Do you feel powerless or empowered?  What goes through your mind on a personal level? (to the creative team)

Why don’t more people know/care about what is happening?

How did you initially find Madaya Mom?

How do you know what Madaya Mom is saying is true?

Did she tell you other things that you decided not to publish?  If so, why?

Will there be a Madaya Mom #2?

How much artistic license was used in drawing the panels?  How did you know what to draw with no pictures?

How does Madaya Mom feel about her story being published?

Will you create comics for other struggling people around the world?

What do you want the reader to take away from the comic?

What is your opinion about the USA stance on taking in refugees?




Next step – Skyping with members of the team who made this resource available for all of us.  I will have students ask questions as we discuss what we have learned about in class.  Stay tuned for the next update on 4/24!

4/18 – As we are currently learning about WWII and the Jewish Holocaust, the students are also researching other genocides throughout history – Cambodia, Holodomor, Armenia, etc — the students asked to form a team to research the events during the break-up of Yugoslavia because of Talajic’s emotional testimony in the video we watched and what he witnessed!  Wow – the students have amazed me their genuine interest and ability to personally connect to the events in Syria through this comic.  They see what the power of journalism, and yes, comics can accomplish in the world.  Talajic’s artwork had a strong impact on the students as well.

And Now – an update from ABC – http://abcnews.go.com/International/thousands-bused-mass-evacuation-besieged-syrian-towns/story?id=46788854 — my students will be reading about this as well before the Skype session next week. Heartbreaking.


4/24/17 – Update.

Wow – Today was one of the most memorable days I have had in 15 years of education.  We had the honor of Skyping with Rym Momtaz and Xana O’Neill today for 30 minutes.  The experience was funny, human, sad, empowering, and inspiring all at the same time.  After the session ended, my students immediately began to brainstorm ideas on how we can help – we decided to present Madaya Mom to our clubs and to get as many students involved as possible.  I am going to take a backseat on this – I want the students to lead the charge.  Students no longer felt helpless when learning about depressing news – they knew that they were part of a larger world – the walls of the classroom had been successfully broken down.  Xana and Rym shared their personal feelings with my students and how they sometimes questioned themselves if they were doing enough.  We told them that they should feel empowered, as now three classes of students felt a personal connection to a far away place and people – something not easily done with all the distractions in today’s world.

I have never Skyped before and was so nervous to make this happen – but it was simply amazing.  The buzz from the students continued when the bell rang an I cannot wait to begin planning the next steps with them.  I will update this again after I have had more time to digest and to come back down to earth a bit.  I will go through my notes from today and share specific responses in the upcoming days.




I again chose to share with my students my own personal struggles – my children, the death of my father from ALS, my own depression and anxiety. I have a class that has been “tough” to get through to as they are the types of kids who are going through their own personal struggles in life. This lesson was empowering to them as they shared with each other the hurdles through which they struggle. I won’t divulge their stories here, but, wow, these “kids” inspire me through their strength! We had two powerful moments in the class when a student, with whom I had been butting heads, told me of how he needs to take care of his father and how shaken he has been to see what happened to him. We shook hands as I apologized to him, in front of the class, about jumping on his case in class the previous day as I was having an awful day – but then, so was he. I also had a student stand up to say thank you to me for sharing and that he was so sorry for what my family has gone through. I went to shake his hand, but he brushed it off and give me a giant bear hug. Wow – he wanted to comfort me! Another student, who has been withdrawn, became so defensive of my son and told me what a great job I was doing as a father. Wow.

Sadly, the topic of Syria is still in the news this year, and the events are that much more tragic and dire. President Trump has promised to retaliate against the Assad regime this week (4/12/18) following another chemical attack. Putin has responded that he will shoot down US missiles and possibly retaliate against the platforms from which they were launched. We have been following the president’s tweets as historical record and how they will be used by future historians to understand the time period.

This conflict is of utmost importance to the world, but can be overlooked in all the distractions. My students came to class with background knowledge of the events in Syria due to the Madaya Mom comic we had just read and the research that was conducted.

I also found an AMAZING Syrian-American Hip Hop artist who raps about Syria and events so very important to the world – Omar Offendum. I chose to share one of his songs to the class and handed out the lyrics before watching the video. We discussed some of the lyrics and their meaning before listening to the song. (I placed most of these lines in bold.) The students and I shared that this one song is something we should use at the beginning of the year to confront Western stereotypes about the Middle East and that this is a complicated issue. Through this one song, we were able to discuss culture (food, music, fashion), geography, refugees, geopolitics, and much more. The song, Crying Shame, can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOpZrd8D-nQ . The lyrics –

I have also explained the many groups/countries involved in Syria, but I wondered how well it came across to students. As a visual learner myself, I found this image from CNN to be very helpful:

Much of our area had also lost power for multiple days this winter, including my own home. We had to throw out so much spoiled food and my kids were exhausted from the days and nights of inconsistency, having neighbors sleep over (we had a generator large enough to run a space heater), etc. I took pictures of my kids at a restaurant when we went out for breakfast. I shared these images with my students to discuss that, while we were certainly inconvenienced, we were still able to get food and to purchase new food for the fridge when our power was restored. Certainly unlike those in other areas, including Madaya Mom.


UPDATE on 4/15/18

The artist for Madaya Mom,  Dalibor Talajic, had offered to allow my students to ask him some questions about the comic this year via email. He emailed back with some amazing answers. His timing could not have been better as my students have been emailing me this week-end about the most recent joint-US strikes into Syria – especially as the US government is stating that we are ready to make more moves as well. I have adjusted my lesson planning for Monday to discuss these current events – we need to make time in our classrooms to set aside the formal curriculum and help students understand what is going on in the world.

Dalibor is also a prolific artist of other titles for Marvel (http://marvel.com/comics/creators/11560/dalibor_talajic) and I have much of his work in my classroom.

Emailed questions and responses:

Your artwork really moved my students and you told the story of Madaya Mom so powerfully.

1. Why did you choose the color scheme? We noticed that there were some panels when you added in reds and blues – were these done on purpose?

Actually, Miroslav Mrva was the colourist. And a pretty good one.
My initial idea was to make a black and white comic, but that simply does not fly with the American comicbook audience.
So, Axel Alonso – Editor in chief at Marvel at that time, Miroslav and I came to conclusion to colour the story as discretelly as possible.
To indicate certain emotions, rather than just making blue skies and red sweaters….
2. So many students remarked that you were emotional in the video when discussing the role of a mother in this war. Did this make it, at times, difficult for you to draw certain panels?
Of course it did.
I myself am a parent of two, and having lived through Yugoslavian war I have seen too many dead children, and I simply can not believe that wars are just as present as always. But it is not just war. When you focus yourself on a particular person you get involved, you become responsible, you truly fear for this person and always think you could have done more.
3. We are going to learn more about Yugoslavia in a few weeks. Will you consider making a comic about your experiences in Yugoslavia? This would be so powerful.
It is quite an idea – but really a tricky one.
Post war situation here is quite difficult and really bad.
It was really everybody against everybody, and historical and judicial data is not clear. So if you’d make a story about it, you’d probably be siding with someone for probably the wrong reasons. And you’d most certainly be lying.
And social atmosphere over here is as if the war ended yesterday, and not quarter of a century ago. Things really are not clear.
So, no I haven’t been planning to do something like that. But… you just got me thinking.
4. How can you make a comic that is this emotionally powerful just from text messages? Did Madaya Mom ever send actual pictures? Did you conduct research on how the city/people looked? If so – what was your process? Or was most of this from your imagination?
No, no pictures. Not even from Madaya in general. I had to browse the net for pictures of war and people form around Syria to come up with the general look. And then I did some math – Syria was a nice, civilized country. So people weren’t poor. But anything decent they had, they probably had to exchange for food. So finally they ended up looking as they do in my comic.
Portraits were tricky.
They – especially Madaya Mom herself – had to be graphically universal so to speak. And yet they had to have  some  feature that would make them convincing and relateble. Very tricky….
5. Are you involved in other projects like this one?
No, not at a moment. There is a project cooking up, inspired by Madaya Mom story, but…. let’s wait a bit with that one. 🙂
6. Would you have any tips for how students could help those in the world like Madaya Mom?
Be truthful!
Just tell the truth whatever you do. Whether it’s journalism, essay, comic, film… Just tell the truth.
And remember that truth does not need to be objective. YOUR truth. What YOU FEEL TO BE THE TRUTH.
And guess what – that particular truth usually is the truth.
7. Our teacher had us pick out one panel that had the most impact on us – and it wasn’t easy to narrow down to just one. What panel had the most impact on you?
The one when she divides food to all family members, but she herself decides to stop eating. It was the hardest one to draw, and it still rings in my head. (below is the referenced panel. Many of my students have also commented on this panel as well.)
     Dalibor and I are about the same age and with children. His experiences are so different from my own, but we both connect to the events in Syria in the same way – as parents. When we discuss genocides in the classroom, it is difficult to understand numbers like 6 million, 18 million, 10 million, 250 thousand, etc. It is when we focus on an individual or family that allows for students to understand the events on a personal and emotional level. I will be sharing Dalibor’s answers with my students in class tomorrow and I know that they will have the same emotional impact on them as on me.
    In class, we are currently learning about WWII and genocide, but we will soon be moving on to the modern impact of this war and the Cold War. The break-up of Yugoslavia is an intricate and difficult to explain topic, but one that is such an important lesson. This is another example of humanity failing to learn the lesson of “Never Again” and that these events can happen anywhere. As we struggle with increased tribalism in the United States, I feel strongly that we need to reexamine the events in Yugoslavia and what can happen when we refuse to leave our own corners and ideologies. The world learned of “ethnic cleansing” – what an insane word to use. Were we just trying to make ourselves feel better about yet another genocide? I fear, as Dalibor stated, “everybody against everybody.”
    You can really feel the emotional impact of these events in Yugoslavia in the Madaya Mom drawings that are so powerful. My students were able to connect on a personal and emotional level as well. As we move into learning about Yugoslavia, Dalibor was kind enough to offer to answer questions from my students about his experiences. I am moved beyond words at the offer and now my students will again have an emotional and personal connection to important events. This is something that they will always remember.  I will update this blog again as we continue to go through additional lessons.
Here is a succinct 6 minute video I found on the origins and complexity of the conflict – https://youtu.be/JFpanWNgfQY
UPDATE 6/7/18. Dalibor Talajic, Marvel artist and artist for this comic, answered questions from my students about his experiences in the breakup of Yugoslavia. This made history powerful, emotional, and personal for my students and I am forever grateful: 
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