August 30

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How I Made Peace With Dogman by Susan Hansen

I confess I was always a little disappointed when my students would choose a Dogman book over one from my carefully curated and painstakingly displayed classroom library. But I would bite my tongue and never let on my true feelings about their choice. From avid readers to emerging ones, everyone loves Dogman. They are graphic novels (i.e. comic books) about a part human, part dog policeman. The books are hugely popular with kids, especially in elementary school but I have seen middle schoolers read them as well. Librarians can’t keep enough copies on the shelves. I did read a couple of the books myself because I wanted to be able to have meaningful conversations with my students as fellow readers. 

Then came along Luis. When he started fourth grade he came with a portfolio heavy on his weaknesses. We don’t know which came first: his challenges with learning to read or his difficulty in regulating his emotions. I won’t say Luis couldn’t read. He couldn’t decode but he loved listening to books on his laptop or to those read aloud by adults. He could retell books that had been read to him in first or second grade. He was on top of where we were in our classroom read-aloud book, books I chose intentionally because of their beautiful and sophisticated writing, their complex story lines and deep societal messages. For some reason all attempts at teaching him letters and sounds had failed.

One afternoon when we settled down for our independent reading time, Luis pulled out the latest Dogman book and sat on the floor by our window. His name had been pulled in a raffle to be the next person to check out the book from the library. He was turning pages and looking at the pictures. I sat down and offered to read the book to him. A few pages in,  I noticed the kids sitting nearby abandoning their own reading and scooting over to hear Dogman. Before I knew it a crowd had gathered. There was the girl who read 200 page novels all by herself, the boy who had arrived from Mexico just a few months ago, and all the other Dogman fans in the classroom.

What started happening around me was a literary conversation among readers. They compared the plot of this book with the others, they updated me on the back stories of the various characters, they agreed and disagreed with each other, they used evidence from the text to support their opinions. All this happened without me doing anything except maybe asking some probing questions motivated purely by my own curiosity.

Having had the opportunity to observe them in this genuine engagement with text testified to their abilities to do the kinds of things readers do, I was now able to draw on this experience when reading other texts: “Remember how you compared the plot of one Dogman book to another? Now let’s compare the message of this article to that of the poem.” or “Remember how you were telling me about why Dogman does what he does? That’s his motivation. Now think about the motivations of the characters in this book.”

That afternoon taught me a few things:

  • No one learns from someone who holds their tastes and interests in contempt.
  • Beginning by looking for what is already there will help us find a way to build what needs to be there.
  • Before all else, there must be connections – connections between teacher and reader, among readers and between reader and texts.

When my children were young and I worried about the variety and richness of their food diet, my pediatrician friend told me to look at what they ate over a week. They didn’t need to have all food groups every day. When it comes to reading, the same approach is helpful. Let the kids read what they are truly interested in and able to read right now. But as teachers and parents we can supplement that diet with other stories and texts that are still engaging, meaningful, thought provoking and necessary.

Susan Hansen has taught reading and writing in Spanish and English to third and fourth graders in Texas. She is currently an instructional coach, supporting dual language teachers in middle school. She blogs at miningforhiddengems.blogspot.com on educational topics and on writingfourlives.blogspot.com on everything else about life. She is the author of the children’s book biography From Behind All the Veils: The Story of Táhirih about the nineteenth century Iranian poet and champion of girls’ education and emancipation.