Graphic Novels Meet Historical Fiction in New Series for Reluctant Readers

Timeline graphic novel
Timeline graphic novel

I’m pleased to serve as the historic consultant to the TIMELINE SERIES- graphic novels that falls into the genre of historical fiction. In each novel, a fictional story unfolds against the backdrop of a significant historical event or time period. Among the backdrops on offer are: Qin dynasty China, pre-revolutionary America, medieval Islam, ancient Egypt, Viking Europe, and others … More on Timeline Series

The protagonists of Timeline books are usually young people whose lives are altered when they find themselves caught up in the events of world history. In Pearl Harbor, for example, the young Alison Quigley finds that her life is shattered and her friendships challenged when the Japanese mount a surprise attack on her home island of Oahu. This is the question posed by many Timeline books: what would it have been like to be on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in 1962? What was it like to be taken as a slave from Africa’s shores? How did it feel to be under siege in Constantinople in 1453?

In Timeline novels, real characters from history make cameo appearances but are only rarely the focus of the narrative. Napoleon features as the ambitious but benevolent uncle who meets his Waterloo in Napoleon’s Last Stand. In Trapped in Gallipoli, readers catch a glimpse of the young Mustafa Kemal, decades before he became the founder of the modern state of Turkey. In Pearl of the Tsars, Catherine the Great is the steely monarch who will do anything she can to ensure the throne passes to her son, Paul. We see her through the eyes of her (fictional) niece, Elise.

The line between historical fact and fiction is deliberately blurred in the Timeline novels. The books can be read as satisfying stories in their own right, having the structure of traditional fiction. But the reader also comes away with the experience and knowledge of other times and other places, of real people who made their place in the history books. The fiction in the novels is balanced by the fact in the Time Outs at the end of each chapter, pages that focus on the historical side of things in more detail. In the Introduction and Moving On sections, readers are given the historical context for the story they are reading.

So Timeline is neither fact nor fiction—but something in between. While the text is kept simple for the series’ target audience of “reluctant readers,” these readers will have to work hard to grasp the balance that each novel strikes. The graphic novel format, too, comes with its own conventions. The vivid illustrations will be an irresistible draw, but to follow the action, readers will have to parse the “grammar” of the graphic novel format. The result is a series of books that should increase readers’ ability to navigate the twists and turns of fictional stories—while providing a ‘lite’ introduction to world history.

Writing the Book on Test Prep

I don’t think the answer to improving student achievement is by narrowing the curriculum to devote more time to test prep. As I said in a prior posting.. “as if being a struggling learner is not punishment enough, increasing numbers are pulled out of classes that offer hands-on learning and outlets for their creativity. What awaits them is likely “drill and kill’ that doesn’t sound like much fun for students or their teachers.” More

I’m pleased to have just concluded a project that turns test prep on its head. In this case, eighth grade students designed and published their own guide to passing the eighth grade NYS English Language Arts exam. I was joined on the project by Pat Martin. We worked with the nearby Albion Middle School. Ten sections of students spent about 6 weeks reviewing various literacy and test taking strategies with their teachers. As they did, they generated their own guide to the strategies they felt worked best. Thus learning strategies find audience and propose. Students had the opportunity to reflect on strategies and rework them for a peer audience of “seventh graders.” And don’t kids love to give each other advice!

A team of student editors from each class worked to do the final edits with the three teachers who supervised the project. Each class designed its own 100-page book using’s web-based, print-on-demand publishing technology.  The publication cost was about $6 per book. (color covers and interior b/w pages.) Ten editions of the guide were published and a finished book for each student author arrived about a week before the exam.  This gave students time to take pride in their accomplishments and refocus their thinking to the task of the taking the exam.

The state test is given in mid January, but it will be months before we see the final results. As Albion’s superintendent said to me – this project isn’t just about higher test scores. It’s about giving the students and their teachers a chance to see themselves as innovative creators of content, not just a passive audience. Already there is talk about starting a new test taking guide written by the seventh graders.

For more on student publishing see our website Read > Think > Write > Publish. Check my blog entries under the Commentary heading for more on students and 21st century literacy skills.

Teaching Innovation in Routine Schools?

Tough Choices or Tough Times
Tough Choices or Tough Times

On December 14, 2006,  the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, unveiled a report which should keep educators and policy-makers talking for months to come. Tough Choices or Tough Times, offers both a sober assessment of the challenge (Tough Times) and a radical proposal for reform of our educational system (Tough Choices). Executive Report  1.9MB pdf

Already the report is drawing both praise and heavy criticism. See: “U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools” Education Week December 20, 2006. More 35kb pdf

The report assesses the demands of the information age / global economy against the current trends in American education. In our efforts to shore up the basic competencies of our students we have sacrificed creativity. Our schools have been taken over by the “test-prep” mentality. Typically that involves putting our student through relentless repetition of formulaic approaches to finding “the right answer.” More

As Washington considers the reauthorization of NCLB, I hope someone asks the question, “Why are we training our students to perform routine tasks, when routine work is increasingly done by machines and low-wage labor?”

As Tough Choices or Tough Times states, “A swiftly rising number of American workers at every skill level are in direct competition with workers in every corner of the globe. …If someone can figure out the algorithm for a routine job, chances are that it is economic to automate it. Many good well-paying, middle-class jobs involve routine work of this kind and are rapidly being automated.
…The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people  on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services. This will be true not just for the top professionals and managers, but up and down the length and breadth of the workforce.
…Strong skills in English, mathematic: technology and science, as well as literature, history, and the arts will be essential for many; beyond this, candidates will have to be comfortable with ideas and abstractions, good at both analysis and synthesis, creative and innovative, self-disciplined and well organized, able to learn very quickly and work well as a member of a team and have the flexibility to adapt quickly to frequent changes in the labor market as the shifts in the economy become ever faster and more dramatic.”

To prepare our students to lead productive and fulfilling lives, they will need both core competencies and opportunities to explore creative solutions that are “outside the box.” Let’s not forget “synthesis” – one of Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills. It’s been defined as: “Creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge and skills to produce a new or original whole.”

We can’t blame teachers for abandoning project-based learning when they get the message that we have to get “the scores up.” It’s time to refine our thinking about educational accountability.  We will need to produce a new generation of students with both solid skills and the ability to apply them in new and creative ways.

As the report concludes, “Creativity, innovation, and flexibility will not be the special province of an elite. It will be demanded of virtually everyone who is making a decent living, from graphic artists to assembly line workers, from insurance brokers to home builders.”

See new post “Teaching innovation in routine schools? Part II”

Parents’ Literacy Publishing Project

I’m very excited by a project designed by a Patricia Martin, a friend and colleague. The project engaged parents as literacy partners with their children. It included opportunities for parents to reflect on their learning and reading experiences with their children. Pat documented the entire project in a book, published using print on demand technology. For more information on how you and your students can publish your own books visit our website Read > Think > Write > Publish

Pat describes the project:

“The increased attention to high-stakes testing and charter schools should re-emphasize the need for public schools to engage parents, as well as, students in the daily classroom learning experiences.  Of course, it’s not the Parent Association, room mother, field trip chaperon who needs a nudge to be involved in school activities.  Disengaged parents may be new to a school district, occupied with child-rearing responsibilities, isolated by culture or language or a victim of negative school experiences.  Some districts have found successful methods for reaching out to the disengaged parent.

The Parent Project is one district’s response to the growing absence of parent involvement.  Based on the work of James Vopat, The Parent Project – A Workshop Approach to Parent Involvement, the district created a planning team that included several parents to plan and implement a series of parent workshops. During each workshop the parent leaders and teachers coached targeted parents to become partners in their child’s literacy development.

The workshops were planned to include fun, learning and reflection. As much as possible, the parents experienced learning much as their child would in the classroom. Parents were given the opportunity to practice each session’s learning with their child through carefully designed take-home activities.  The next session began with a sharing of parental insights during these practice activities.  Parents and teachers captured their experience in a personal journal.

Additional characteristics of the Vopat model build a sense of community and shared commitment among the participants. 
• Family meal with teachers and administrators before each workshop
• Child care for all children during the workshop
• Transportation to the workshops

The final product, beyond a published book, was evident.  The five original teachers elected to remain on the CORE team and five additional teachers volunteered to join the CORE team for the next training session.  Three-fourths of the parents elected to form a Parent Alumni Group to continue the workshop experience.   Half of those parents also volunteered to serve as Parent Leaders with the next set of parents.  Parents “graduates” of The Parent Project are volunteering in classrooms because they believe that they are an integral part of the educational scene.”

Pat’ blog “Literacy is All” / email

Foster Higher Order Thinkers

This week I was in the metro-Detroit area giving a workshop at the St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency in Maryville, MI. The one-day session was sponsored by the Successful Practices Network.

We focused on techniques for fostering student skills in higher-order thinking and problem solving.  Participants included high school teachers and administrators.  I used my TurningPoint audience response system and posed questions which probed participant expectations of students and instructional strategies. The system allows me to capture participant thinking and use it foster some lively discussion and reflections. You have to model what you preach, so we worked through some higher-order thinking and problem solving ourselves. Participant feedback on workshop strengths included:

“Practical strategies that can be immediately implemented.”
“The way Peter took us through the response process modeled the struggle our students would go though in class.”
“He challenged our thinking with the data we submitted with the response units.”
“We convinced ourselves that our students / all students can think and perform at higher level.”

Updated handout with audience response data Download pappas-handout-stclair.pdf 1.8 MB pdf.

For more information on TurningPoint contact Mike Venrose at

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