I did not intend to read ALL THREE of the graphic novel series RUST as a read-aloud to begin the year, but I found it was impossible to stop.
Now RUST may not be your favorite genre (sci/fi), and graphic novels might not be your favorite format, but this year, for these kids, they grooved on it so I kept on reading and reading and reading. And as we read and talked, I thought a lot about reading and the teaching of reading, and even (darkly) whether Reading Class is a valid subject to teach. 1
For those who do not know the series, RUST is set in a sepia world during an undefined time. Early in the book, we discover that there has been a long war that pitted robots and people against other robots and people. A “jet boy” (Jet Jones) from that war 48 years in the past shows up on the barren wheat farm of Roman Taylor and his family. A creation (part robot/part boy) to aid in the war effort, Jet arrives at the farm pursued by a giant robot intent on doing him in. Roman rescues Jet from the robot, and Jet stays on the farm to help out, which is a good thing because Roman is barely able to keep the farm together. You see, Roman’s father went to war many years ago under mysterious circumstances and has never returned to the farm. Throughout the books, Roman writes him letters (but never sends them), he attempts to reclaim robots he’s found in a scrap heap in order to keep the farm running, and he tries to avoid thinking too far into the future.
RUST offers a complex world to think about together. The discussion has been fascinating and the fact that it is a graphic novel, for these readers, has helped highlight some of the ways complex fiction works. It has given us some meaty “author’s craft” stuff to think about, but in a form that slows down the pace of words coming at us, so we might keep track of how the author does what he does.
For example, the sparseness of the word-text has helped students identify important dialogue and description because it stands out more clearly. When we read the prologue to book 2, we encountered the following scene, which focused our attention on the idea that Jet was rebelling against the purpose of his creation, to be a super-weapon that would turn the tide of the war, a necessary evil who would relieve humans of the obligation to fight in any war ever again:
As we have read farther, we kept Jet’s question in mind, and began to think about whether this is a question we need to answer for ourselves, too. What is our responsibility to others? Is power enough? Do the ends justify the means? What is our purpose?
The artwork helps us focus on details that we might have missed if presented simply in words.
The difference in these power cells, and the way the illustrator allows us to linger on them (and on the eyes of the man collecting them from the battlefield) has become a central question we have thought about over the course of 3 books and nearly 600 pages. What a great experience to “hold onto” a detail (and a question) for so long! Maybe with this practice, students will be better able to do that kind of work with denser written text, too.
One more example. Complex narrative devices such as parallel stories are difficult to recognize, much less to track for these kinds of young readers. Yet, it sure was fun when we got to the section below and the kids realized that what appeared to be an action scene (which is was) was also a way to tell the “backstory” of Roman’s father’s entry into the army. In this scene, we get Roman’s letter describing the memory of his father’s conscription at the same time Jet is trying to deal with a robot who seeks to bring him back to his “maker.” The students got the chance to connect that decision to resist conscription to Jet’s decision to sacrifice his super-powers for a more “human” life. That’s what bravery looks like.
Besides bringing up important ideas about bravery and duty, the children now have experienced keeping track of parallel stories and have been able to construct some very concrete ideas about how authors construct a story. They are on the lookout for that kind of complexity because they have experienced the delight in recognizing when it occurs.
And all of this made me question my lesson plans that carefully lay out progressions designed to help students become independent, insightful readers. So much of what we did while reading aloud was “in the moment” instruction. We tried to figure out what this complex text meant, and we noticed what we did to figure it out. I was not all that important in the process, nor were my carefully laid out lessons all that useful. But what was useful was a good text, some thoughtful people who really wanted to make sense of stuff, and a little time to do it. 2
- Yes, I have this existential crisis every year. In my regular life, I read and write not as ends in themselves, but as a means to a larger end. So, I ask: How might reading and writing in school serve other ends that are larger than ‘READING CLASS”? What other ends might these be? These are the questions that bring on my yearly crisis, and my struggle to answer them drives some of what happens in the classroom. ↩
- I know, this seems like the “easy way out,” doesn’t it? But my yearly existential crisis comes down to this: I wonder if a lot of what we (I?) need to do in teaching is along the lines of the kind of work we did with RUST, which is difficult to place within a simple, single “I can…” statement, for example. I’d call this sort of a mutual cognitive apprenticeship. We learned by watching each other think. My role was, essentially, to name what we did. ↩