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Teaching & Learning

Lessons and insights from the classroom.

‘That Kid...’

You can reach students who seem to be unreachable

First semester you got your feet wet. You have everything set up and running smoothly. The students are all learning. Except for “that kid.” 

We’ve all had one. We’ve fought to get him to do work—any work. We’ve struggled to get her to stay on task and in her seat. We’ve ordered him not to throw pencils, paper, or erasers at others. We’ve battled to help her find success, even when she doesn’t seem to want it. Oh yeah, every teacher knows “that kid.” 

So, what can you do? First, don’t take it personally. Start each day fresh, no grudges. I know this is the most difficult aspect of this situation. You care about your students and have put enormous effort into their learning; it is extremely challenging to realize their behavior is not always about you. These students are rebelling against life, not you. Take a deep breath and relax. 

Next, determine what causes these behaviors. This is not a job for you alone. Talk to counselors and administrators. They may already know something about this child that you don’t. Often, this information is not something they will email to you, but a quick conversation can give you all kinds of insight. You also can talk to parents about the behavior, but I would urge you to find out as much as possible prior to this conversation. Most parents want to help their child, but sometimes they are the issue, so be cautious with your approach. All of this information makes it easier to understand “that kid” and to create a better relationship with them. 

And that’s the key—you need to create a relationship with “that kid.” Talk to him or her, one on one, face to face, but not when either or both of you are frustrated or upset. A simple “I feel like you are struggling to sit through class, what can I do to help?” can start a meaningful conversation. And don’t leave it at just one conversation. Later, ask follow-up questions (“Is this helping?”). “That kid” struggles with relationships; the more you can do to build one, the more you are helping them long term.

Hilary Richardson, a member of the Jefferson County Education Association, has taught U.S. history and government at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County, Colo., since 2004.

A Picture Book About Slavery?

Yes, suffering and injustice can share pages with hope and strength of spirit in a book for children

Down in swampy, sultry Louisiana in the 19th century, slaves toiled in the fields from sunup to sundown every day of the week. The only exception was Sunday, when they had half a day in the afternoon to gather in New Orleans’ Congo Square—an open space that is now part of the city’s Louis Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood. There, the slaves set up an open air market and remember their African heritage through dance, song, and other cultural traditions. 

Freedom in Congo Square, a picture book written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, remembers this time. It is a poetic, vibrant reminder of how humans can come together to find joy, hope, and dignity, even under the cruelest circumstances.

Mondays, there were hogs to slop,
mules to train, and logs to chop.
Slavery was no ways fair.
Six more days to Congo Square.

Each day of the week is counted down with rhythm and lyricism and illustrations evocative of African folk art, all while conveying the cruelty of the slave system.

Wednesdays, there were beds to make,
Silver to shine, and bread to bake.
The dreaded lash, too much to bear,
Four more days to Congo Square.

In Freedom in Congo Square, the tyranny of slavery isn’t sugar-coated for young readers. Its presence helps them to understand how jubilant Sundays would be for slaves, when at last they could cast off their shackles, even for just half a day.

They rejoiced as if they had no cares;
half day, half free in Congo Square.
This piece of earth was a world apart.
Congo Square was freedom’s heart.

Freedom in Congo Square can bring history alive for students, portray a shameful and horrific period in our nation’s history, and spur discussions about race in America.

How to Bring African American History into the Classroom

Engage Readers With Music 

From congas, gourds, and bells to banzas, flutes, fiddles, and shells, Sundays at Congo Square were alive with music. Select music from the time period to play for students in a free writing exercise. Ask them to write about how the music makes them feel, especially after knowing the history of the music and where it was played. Select music from other books students have read and ask them to do the same exercise.

For Older Readers

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, by Roxanne Orgill and illustrated by Francis Vallejo, shares in verse how Art Kane gathered together a group of beloved jazz musicians in Harlem in 1958. Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound, by Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the story of the founding of Motown and its impact on the music world.

Ready Resources

ArtsEdge offers African American History Through the Arts, a collection for students of all ages to explore Black history through a variety of artistic disciplines, including music, poetry, and dance. Lesson plans as well as primary multimedia sources are available.

Pokémon GO in the library!

A library media scavenger hunt that uses the latest craze

The objective: To capitalize on the engagement of the Pokémon GO app game, students will use digital devices and QR codes to explore the library media center and discover important sections, features, and resources, and also reveal hidden and very rare Pokémon.

The methods: First, I took pictures of 10 different locations around our library media center, then using a Photoshop template I super imposed 10 Pokémon (some very rare!) as if they were crouching, hiding, or sleeping in those locations. Then I created 10 QR codes, which the kids could scan using my devices or their own device, using Google URL shortener linking to those photos on Flickr. 

The resources: All of my printable worksheets and QR codes in two different sizes are available to take and use at (You also could consider a non-digital version without QR codes by printing out the Pokémon from my Flickr gallery and posting them around the library in key locations. Visit

Art and Text Unite!

Graphic novels can be rich resources for reading

You know a book or genre has made it big when it lands on “banned book” lists. In 2015, the top 10 most challenged books in the U.S. included two graphic novels. In 2014, it included three, including Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, which has spent more than three years on another bellwether list—the New York Times bestseller list.

What leads to a book being challenged? Nobody challenges books they’ve never heard popularity, for one thing. But also, according to an American Library Association analysis, books by authors of color—and those including issues or themes that concern communities of color—are more likely to be challenged and banned. With that in mind, it’s no surprise to find graphic novels on the blacklist. They’re popular, and they engage with issues that matter to our increasingly diverse students, such as immigration or sexuality.

These same attributes also make them interesting to English teachers. Even as graphic novels have moved onto banned-book lists, they also have moved from the fringes of English or reading classrooms, where they once were reserved for struggling or reluctant readers, to the forefront of instructional materials. 

“I believe they’ve become much more mainstream,” says Beth Sanderson, an English teacher at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Va. “People are starting to recognize that these are not the comics that you had as a kid. These are very complex texts.” 

In Sanderson’s classroom, which is full with nearly 1,500 books, including at least 100 or more graphic novels, students are asked to consider the dual elements of a graphic novel—text and illustrations. “How do the illustrations provide meaning to the story?,” she asks. Why would the author have a series of small-panel illustrations on one page, and a full-page illustration on another? What happens in the white space between panels? “The kids really get into it,” she says.

Other questions educators might consider for students to answer: How does the author use color? Does it relate to mood and tone? What’s a better way to convey mood: With text or with pictures? Sometimes a switch from color to black and white indicates a flashback in the narrative—an abstract concept made concrete through illustration. (For more ideas on teaching with graphic novels, visit

Meanwhile, including diverse authors and characters also is a concern for Sanderson and her colleagues. “There is a lot of missing text today. Some kids aren’t seeing themselves in books—and other kids aren’t getting to experience what [their peers] experience. We often talk to our students about reading books where the characters are nothing like them!”

Over the years, Sanderson has discovered a few favorite graphic books. They include:

  1. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. The title character is a young, confident shapeshifter, who is the sidekick to a supervillain. “It’s like a fairy tale, with a good guy and a bad guy, and you think you know who is good and who is bad, but then you start to wonder,” says Sanderson, who organized a Nimona book club last year. Stereotypes and identities were themes, and the girls especially loved it, she says.
  2. El Deafo by Cece Bell. Loosely autobiographical, the main character has permanent hearing loss. In several scenes, other characters’ speech balloons are empty or filled with gibberish—the perfect way to show readers what it’s like to be deaf. Last year, Sanderson’s students Skyped with Bell to talk about why she chose to tell her story in this format. 
  3. Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale. To date, Hale has produced a half-dozen graphic books that explore events in U.S. history, such as the Underground Railroad, through facts, maps, and detailed illustrations. Sanderson’s students particularly love the gruesome story of the Donner party—the 19th century pioneers who became snowbound in Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive.
  4. March, co-authored by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), congressional aide and award-winning comics writer Andrew Aydin, and best-selling graphic novelist Nate Powell. This three-part autobiographical series shares Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil rights. Book one includes his rural childhood in Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., and their battle to end racial segregation. “Spectacular,” says Sanderson.
  5. Shackleton: An Antarctic Expedition by Nick Bertozzi. Another favorite of Sanderson’s students, Bertozzi’s graphic book heats up their imaginations, even as he describes how the explorer’s vessel was trapped in polar ice. “They’re fascinated by it,” says Sanderson.

—Mary Ellen Flannery

Gene Luen Yang: The Genius of Graphic Novels

The sixth graders at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Va., are chanting “Gene Yang! Gene Yang!” Or maybe it’s “Genius! Genius!” It’s been 24 hours since the former teacher, a 43-year-old author of young-adult graphic novels like American Born Chinese, was named a winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

Yang is here to introduce his latest work, the six-part graphic series Secret Coders. It’s a little bit like Harry Potter, he suggests—his characters also attend a mysterious school where they learn exceptional lessons—

except Yang promises that his readers will learn to “code,” or write in a programming language, along with those characters. (Show me the Harry Potter fan who can actually soar above the clouds on a broomstick!) 

“You get to be a secret coder!” he promises.

His talk is equal parts inspiration—“The line between comic book fan and comic book creator is very thin, you could cross it tonight,” he tells students—and education, specifically in binary code. 

After his event at Swanson Middle School, Yang sat down with NEA Today to talk about diversity in young-adult books, and to recommend a few authors for teachers to discover.

Q: There is an illustrated chart, done by illustrator David Huyck and shared by author Ellen Oh, which shows the distribution of characters of color in children’s books—like how many are White kids, how many are Black, Latino, or Asian kids, etc. It turns out there are more characters that are talking cars or buses or animals than kids of color. What can NEA members do about that?

A: I haven’t seen that, but it sounds about right. As a teacher, the easiest thing to do is buy books with characters of color. Seek them out, and share them with students. Good stories with good characters are out there.

Q: Who are you reading, or who are you wishing more students were reading?

A: Meg Medina. “I’m in the middle of her latest—and it’s awesome!” says Yang. That would be Burn Baby Burn, a young-adult novel that follows a young woman growing up in New York while murderer Son of Sam prowls.

Matt de la Peña. “I’m a fan of everything Matt De La Peña does,” says Yang. Also a young-adult author, de la  Peña’s most recent offering is a children’s book: Last Stop on Market Street.

Jason Shiga. “He’s brilliant,” says Yang, who particularly loves Shiga’s Meanwhile, a choose-your-own-adventure comic book that explores “the role of probability in life,” says Yang.

Tim Federle. “I wish he was better known—he has such a compassionate voice,” says Yang. Check out Better Nate Than Ever, the story of a teen who crashes an audition for “E.T.: The Musical.”

Your Attention, Please!

Educators share right (and wrong) ways to capture students’ attention

Engage Students During Classroom Transitions

To get students’ attention as they enter your classroom or transition from an engaging activity, use cues. Teach them that when you call out a series of three math facts, they should collectively shout out the answers and then stop what they’re doing to get ready for the next activity. Vary this across subject areas by naming three U.S. states and having students shout out their capitals, or three elements on the periodic table and having students call out their chemical symbols. Students love showing off and you have their attention for whatever comes next.

Avoid Power Struggles with Students

Disruptive and confrontational students are sometimes an unavoidable challenge. Here’s how to defuse tense situations and get learning back on track:


  • Engage students by providing a “hook” for each lesson at the beginning to keep them thinking and interested.
  • Try to understand students’ backgrounds and lives at home. 
  • React in a way that allows a student to save face.  


  • React to every little distraction unless it is distracting to other students.
  • Let the student get a rise out of you.
  • Attempt to get the last word.

Simulating Sherlock

One of my favorite detective shows is the Sherlock Holmes series, “Sherlock,” by the BBC—not just because of the actors but because of the way Sherlock visualizes crime scenarios. I create problems, and we use Sherlock Holmes’ “mind palace” image of facts, figures, and clues to create our own solutions. The students have great fun playing John Watson to my brilliant Sherlock Holmes, throwing out their theories or pointing out new clues. Find more information about the mind palace at


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