Fifty cents. Worth it.

I happened upon a decades old ad for the first run of Moon Knight comics last week. It read: “It is a time of turbulence. The city streets are full of violence. Governments flounder. Societies crumble. Civilization itself seems to be one long, agonized scream. It is time for MOON KNIGHT.” Then below the image (a gem by Sienkiewicz) “On sale at newsstands everywhere. Fifty cents. Worth it.” 

While the text is from close to forty years ago, the sentiment feels …relevant.

I became a Moon Knight fan in the early 80s, captivated by the “Fist of Khonshu” and wowed by not only the amazing standout issues (like #26) but by just about every incarnation of this odd, sometimes really odd, I mean really odd, superhero.

That vintage ad reminded me of a couple of truths. Our country has seen chaos and unrest in some way shape or form in every one of its many decades. Sometimes that disorder threatened the core of the country; often it sparked meaningful change. And even as we face uncertainty, battle for a cause, or strive to hold our own against stressors that can feel overwhelming, it’s healthy and human nature to allow ourselves some measure of escape. 

I’m not advocating for abdicating responsibility or throwing up our hands and walking away, but sometimes taking time to listen to music, read a mystery, or step back for a breath of fresh air is more than a little okay.

For some that kind of escape is reality TV, for others romance novels, for some it’s painting, others baking, and for some nerdy folks like me it might even include comic books like Moon Knight.

I like that the world of Moon Knight is complicated, unexpected, and difficult at times. He may face antagonists who can manipulate dreams, turn into werewolves, or summon Cthulhu, but he faces them with an insanity of his own, an insanity different from the world I live in. Escape.

Moon Knight, like the kind of escape I like best, is a combination of edgy and goofy. Good wins, sometimes after a hard slog and sometimes with a quip. Sometimes both. And then I close the book and get back to work.

The point of escape isn’t staying away, but rather allowing ourselves room to take a breath and leave the day’s latest news aside for a little while. Sometimes that’s what we need to feel renewed enough to face the world again. Whether it’s the Great British Bake Off, Beethoven’s Ninth, or a hero in a cape, when it is a time of turbulence, the city streets are full of violence, governments flounder, societies crumble, and civilization itself seems to be one long, agonized scream, it’s okay to allow ourselves a little bit of Moon Knight …whatever that looks like for us.

Crowning Madness: Moench and Sienkiewicz

You might tell me that it’s not poetry, and I’ll tell you that’s a lie. 

Moon Knight swings

My pursuit of poetry this year has led me to familiar quarters: Walker, Stafford, Hughes, and Atwood, each with their own specific voice and ability to conjure worlds more real than any in existence. “Hit it” (a Moon Knight comic book from 1982) shares this sorcery.

Together, Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz forge words and pictures in a way that transcends prosaic truth.

“Hit it” is a heck of a poem.

Even in style, the comic feels poetic. The opening pages, and indeed throughout the story, are free from dialogue, the story unfolding in a series of text boxes that read like lines from a poem:

MK 1First there is black.
Then there is light and
All the colors of jazz.
And there is sound in these colors.
A wailing trumpet drips cool
Violet, threaded with smoke.

Heavy blue lumbers from the bass
While the clarinet temps
And tantalizes in hot pink counterpoint.

But the drum
The drum beats blood red.”

Poetry, that.

Moench quotes William Blake in other Moon Knight stories, and Sienkiewicz’s art shares the epic and surreal feel of a Blake painting. “Hit It” deserves to be talked about in the same conversation as Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Illustrated poetry, but poetry both.

Innocence and ExperienceI’ve written about “Hit It” before, this comic that meant so much to me when I read it as a middle schooler. What I felt then holds up. It’s one of those rare treasures of childhood that didn’t turn tin when seen through the palsied eyes of middle age.

It was the narrow mindedness of my then thirteen year old’s English teacher that prompted my most recent visit to Sienkiewicz and Moench. She told her students: “comics aren’t real books and don’t belong in my classroom.” They were to leave them at home, she said; graphic novels were not novels, comic books were not books.

Quietly fuming, I gave my eighth grader the Moon Knight Epic Collection: Final Rest.

It’s the omnibus that presents Moench and Sienkiewicz’s work at its best, and the collection that includes “Hit It.” Truth be told, an artist himself, my teenager was most impressed by the art. But I’ll argue that art and words support each other, and along with those images it is poetry like this that elevates “Hit It” to something astounding.

MK last pageThe crowning madness
Long live the king.
And so, Moon Knight,
The night was yours after all…

And once started
The drum beats
Blood red …forever.”

To that foolish or misguided middle school teacher who says there is no place in her classroom for comics, I say there is as much a place as there is for poetry, and sometimes genre lines are as blurred as the cityscape in a panel by Sienkiewicz. No lie.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Dog Songs by Mary Oliver.

After Issue #200

WARNING: This post is about Moon Knight. For my constant reader looking for education related content, a peek at the history of my school, or some sort of musing about being a principal, stop reading now. Come back in a week and you’ll find a post on teaching and learning, or ACMA, or art. That said, to anyone willing to swoop into this post on their glider capes, I whisper “welcome” through my cowl mic and up to the moon copter. I hope for you, maybe, this post inspires a nod of acknowledgement to a nerdy kindred spirit.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.29.36 AM

They’re cancelling Moon Knight again. As a fan, and an avid one at that, I should be bothered I suppose, but having weathered the decades long starts and fits of the silver and jet avenger I half shrugged when I heard the news, vowed to enjoy the final couple of issues of the very strange current run, and pick up the collection from the Sienkiewcz and Moench years that comes out in January.

199By then someone new will have thought about what to do with my favorite superhero, made a pitch to Marvel, and started plotting the next incarnation of the Fist of Khonshu. Perhaps it will even be good.

For any devoted Spiderman fans, a monthly (or some decades even weekly) issue of their fellow’s comic book has been a steady staple since 1963. Peter Parker was slinging webs long before I was born, and looks to do so uninterrupted long into the future.

Moon Knight?

Starts. Fits.

Sure, Moon Knight is a little weird. Resurrected by an Egyptian god, multi-personalitied, a bit more violent than a good superhero should be, Moon Knight makes Bruce Wayne look well adjusted.


Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.37.53 AMHe’s a masked vigilante with a (mostly) steady love interest, a daughter, and a slew of charismatic friends. With the exception of the exceptional Ellis and Shalvey run, Moon Knight is more interconnected with real world characters than most folks who wear capes. Diner owner Gena and her boys, Frenchie and his partner, Crawley and the flies buzzing around his shaggy head, Moon Knight’s world is populated by diversity and rich with possibilities.

That his three personas don’t always get along, his relationship with his god is unhealthy more often than not, and his relationship with Marlene (a complex character in her own right who has only begun to be explored) is as complicated as it is may be part of the reason for the interrupted history of a character not easy to pin down.

There are those who say they’d like to see Moon Knight in a movie or a Netflix series. I guess, but which Moon Knight?

Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve come to realize that I care less about hoping for an incomplete cinematic version of Moon Knight and more about the next incarnation of the Fist of Khonshu that will show up in a comic book.

That could be a few months from now, or a few years from now. And that’s okay.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 9.57.28 AM

What does any of this have to do with anything? My very kind frequent readers know that my posts tend toward celebrating something positive or trying to make sense of something a little less so. This little ditty, they’ll comment, is just about Moon Knight.

Yes, and…

I think that there is something in my attitude toward this quirky hero that holds true for life writ large.

MKIn this world, the real one, not just the Marvel universe, there are cancellations and interruptions. There are optimistic beginnings, difficult endings, and lots and lots of weird stuff in between. There are days that the world feels wrong. There are days it seems to soar.

And time after time, when the universe hasn’t quite turned out like we wish it had, or we’re looking out the window after something important has ended, we find that just outside is something new, some wild creative approach that we never thought about and now can hardly wait to see happen.

Life, especially a creative life, isn’t always constant, or easy, or uninterrupted. Joy cycles through life, waning and waxing, dark always replaced by illuminationkind of like the moon.

Moon Knight

moon-knight-23-cover-bill-sienkiewiczThis one’s about Moon Knight.

If you’re less a geek than me, feel free to stop reading now, or at least be warned that these are the musings of a middle aged educator…about comic books. Dulce est desipere in loco.

Not long ago a tweet floated across my computer screen asking about comics. It came from Gwyneth Jones, a librarian and educator I respect, and asked for help for a teacher. The call: “HS ELA teacher wants straight-up comic books. Any ideas?”

As a former English teacher, now principal, I miss the collaboration I had with colleagues around what books to teach and ways we could help students connect with literature. Our conversations could be spirited, offbeat, and inspiring. This request smacked of such adventure and I fired off a quick response: “This may be a little nutty, but the new Moon Knight (and old) could prompt discussion.”

comic-postThen I got thinking.

The phrase “straight-up comic books” stuck with me. I couldn’t shake the creative bug that buzzed in my brain every week of the thirteen years I taught English.

I’ve written about teaching graphic novels before, and even about one of my favorite comic book heroes, Moon Knight. Fresh off reading the latest collection of “The Fist of Khonshu,” the daring librarian’s tweet got me thinking about what it might really look like to use “straight-up comic books” in the classroom today.

As a first year teacher I used a copy of a Batman comic that reprinted the character’s first appearance and then retold the same story in a contemporary style. Juxtaposing the two versions of the same story prompted a discussion of narrative view and characterization that parlayed into the other literature we were reading. I thought it was a neat lesson, but truth be told, it was a bit of a throwaway.

A decade later I tried to use an Avengers comic to set up The Scarlet Letter, but the less said about that the better. It was not one of my more successful adventures.

As I thought about the notion of using comic books today, not graphic novels (those purposeful volumes that blend text and images and are designed to be book length, not episodic) but “straight-up comic books,” two things struck me as rich with possibility: comic books are serial, and at their best they invite unbridled creativity.

moon-knight-t6f6m1sd_0403151336141Enter Moon Knight.

I grew up on comic books, Fantastic Four, Batman, and the rest, and I remember the first time I saw something that blew apart the standard and felt different: Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight.

Theirs were odd and interesting stories, unafraid to vary in length, eschew the mores of superhero monthlies, quote Blake, explore religion, stretch the boundaries of a comic page, and present real issues from child abuse to mental illness. …all under the guise of a comic book.

Like many superheroes, Moon Knight went through phases, the ‘90s and early 2000s turning him this way and that, dragging him closer to conventionality than his earlier incarnations, occasionally sliding him toward ridiculousness, but in 2014 he sprang back with a retro vengeance as Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire brought back the spirit of innovation that had typified the comic in the gritty 70s and experimental 80s.


As a (recovering) English teacher, it’s both the richness and complexity of this history that adds layers of depth to the possibility of using Moon Knight in an English class.

What then, to do with it?

I’m more than a little out of practice with lesson planning, so for any teacher types still reading, imagine this as my end of a discussion we’re having while on a hike in the woods. We’re walking along a trail, trees reaching up all around, and as we fall into conversation about how we could teach “straight-up comic books,” I suggest that…

start-of-mkI’d start, as all good comic stories do, with brief intro of the character’s origin story, succinctly told. We’d look at the first renderings of Marc Spector’s death and rebirth beneath the statue of Egyptian god Khonshu; his adoption of not one, but three identities outside the white suit: mercenary Marc Spector, cabbie Jake Lockley, and millionaire Steven Grant; and the cast of characters who form the stable of support for the character: Marlene, Crawley, Frenchie, and Gena.

We’d talk about the standards in a superhero story (capes, secret identities, and other expectations) and look at how those expectations can be turned upside down. I’d follow with the class reading “Hit It” to see how that story explodes convention, mirroring perhaps a poet who interrupts the contract with the reader to break a sonnet or upend an established form.

maskBecause comics are visual by nature, a brief foray into art makes sense, and an article on negative space in one of the most recent runs of Moon Knight does a nice job of capturing the importance of the choices illustrators make. As the author of the article notes: “The utilization of all that negative space is not just a brilliant visual concept, it’s also an exceptional thematic choice. Held in a mental institution and informed that his entire life is a fabrication, Marc Spector must reevaluate everything he thought he knew about Moon Knight, Khonshu, his other personalities, and himself.” Thoughtful analysis of a comic book? Yep. And for those young artists in my class, a nice opportunity to talk about the finer points of another discipline.

Armed with this history, possibility, and artistic vernacular, the students would be ready to engage with new texts, and it would be fun to provide different groups with different versions of the silver and jet hero.


Neatly packaged are the four most recent story arcs of Moon Knight as well as some of the best of the Moench and Sienkiewicz issues in the collection Shadows of the Moon. Six copies of each could provide a half dozen groups of students in (comic) book groups with enough to talk about to make things interesting.

Helping to frame their group reading and discussion, I’d need to come up with some guiding questions and challenges that apply to all the collections.  What this would look like would take some conversation with fellow English teachers. Certainly students would benefit from noting the real-world issues they see reflected in the stories. It would be smart to ask them to look for motifs either visual or thematic. Art. Color. Language.

On our imaginary hike, it’s on this point that I’d listen most and try to capture the ideas beyond my own that raise teaching and learning past what any individual teacher can come up with.

Along with each collection, I’d ask students to read a bit of non-fiction, an interview, or analysis of the work they are engaging with. I could point them toward an overview of the Moench and Sienkiewicz years, an interview with Declan Shalvey, a discussion with Cullen Bunn, or a Q&A with Greg Smallwood.

smallwood-allusionI’d also push them to make connections between the books they’ve read in class and the comics they are reading. I could see students finding parallels between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Moon Knight collection Lunatic or between In the Night and Edgar Allan Poe.

Beyond links to fiction or nonfiction texts, Moon Knight comics have a long tradition of addressing real-life issues, and prompting students to make connections between the story arcs they read and issues like mental illness, political crises, or fanaticism would be a worthy adjunct activity. Dead Will Rise, for instance, takes on issues suggested by homeland security and Guantanamo Bay. In the Night covers a range of topics, providing rich catalysts for discussion and thought provoking hooks on which to hang research into everything from religious belief to animal cruelty.

ghostsAny of the collections, particularly From the Dead provide a good source of allusions, and just as I’d pair up the Bunn and first Smallwood groups, I’d have the Moench team work with those reading Ellis to see the many connections drawn between the two.

Much as I ran “Bistro Days” as an English teacher, a day of tablecloths, croissants, and conversation, during which students had an opportunity to talk about independent reading books that shared common themes (as they sipped coffee and listened to accordion music), I’d invite students to take a class period and cross pollinate, explain their reading to others from other groups, and find the connections between the various versions of the lunar avenger.

Each of these slim volumes has enough story, characterization, and innovation to spark discussion and prepare the students to make one last literary jump, to the present.

crazyComics are our twenty first century version of serial stories. Read “live” they force readers to finish a segment and wait a month to see what happens next. Like Dickens’ or Collins’ Victorian audience, the contemporary comic book reader has time to mull over what has happened and anticipate what will happen next. With the 2016 run of Moon Knight, prediction is nearly impossible.

The current run of Moon Knight, as of me writing this today, is a whirlwind of storytelling, part homage, part fever dream, all unexpected fun. Following the issues collected in Lunatic, the story of Moon Knight has veered into a mashup of religion, mental health, and unreliable narration.

moon_knight-22After our collective introduction to the character, their group interaction with a specific Moon Knight text, and the discussions that brought them up to date on the character’s story, we’d be ready to take a look at the current story as it is being written. A lesson or two could catch us up with issue #9, which sees the various personalities of Moon Knight and his alter egos in confrontation. Some might notice that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened in the Moon Knight canon; back in 1982 the fellows in Moon Knight’s head scrapped a bit; meet the new boss same as the old boss.

But the new boss isn’t simply reworking old stories. Even as he pays homage to the legacy of the character, writer Jeff Lemire is fashioning a story as trippy as it is innovative. For old Moon Knight fans like me, who appreciate the nods toward the past, and for new readers alike the question of “what happens next?” looms large over every panel.

Taking the students up through the story arc so far and then allowing them a few months to experience the dynamic storytelling of a monthly comic would be a nice way to extend our discussion of narrative, perspective, and author (and illustrator) voice.

9It would be fun to teach a living text as it was being written, a text that could be downloaded every month and shared with the class. Discussing what we anticipate will happen, while none of us (even the teacher) can know what that will be, would be energizing and (it seems to me) have that tightrope feel that good teaching and learning often does.

Maybe all this is dreamier than it is possible. I honestly don’t know. It’s days like today that I realize how long I’ve been out of the classroom and how invigorating it can be to be a part of a dynamic teaching community.

That kind of professional and creative connection really is, in its twitterish way, what the tweet that started this all invited. That, and it invited the inner comic book nerd in all of us to come out.

Are there lots of comic books that would be great in the classroom? Sure, and I’d wager that teachers far, far more insightful than I am have a thousand ideas of comics that would work brilliantly with students. I wish I had a few hours with each to talk capes and masks and teaching over a pot of coffee. Thanks, Gwyneth Jones for your question, and thanks teachers everywhere willing to acknowledge their inner geekiness, try new things in the classroom, and swing into action like a superheroes!

For only the nerdiest of us…

Seriously, deep geek here…

I’ll note that I’d ignore the earliest versions of MK, back in his werewolf fighting days, when his cape was still connected to his wrists. I gloss over his time wearing armor, carving moons into foreheads, and living in LA. West Coast Avengers? Nope (though I dug those comics as a kid). There’s something to be said for some sort of discretion after all …though for that one student, and there’s always one intrepid soul, who digs a little deeper, I’d be ready for a lively, old school discussion of The Committee, The Slasher, and Stained Glass Scarlet!

Harry Potter and the Kaleidoscopic Academy

CursedThe discussion at the breakfast table today was about Harry Potter. Specifically, the kids were deciding if they knew anyone who would want to go with them to the party at the local bookstore to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Conversation turned to the realization that between the two, my kids really only had one friend who likes the little wizard as much as they do.

What struck me most as I listened to the kids talk was the fact that this independent taste wasn’t a problem for them. They have lots of friends who like baseball or soccer or art, but reading and Harry Potter not so much. And they were okay with that.

In a world so often overrun by groupthink and guided by peer pressure, examples like this one, silly as it may seem, are a welcome reminder of the joy of independent thought and sense of self.

Those qualities can be even tougher to hold onto during the middle and high school years, when peers take on importance of religious proportions and insecurity comes as inevitably as pimples on one’s nose.

As educators, and as schools, it’s important for us to nurture the individualism of our students. There are times and places that convince me of the progress we’ve made on this front; high school today looks a lot less like a John Hughes movie than it did when I was in school, but one needn’t look beyond the internet to see examples that remind us how insecure we all are and how much we’ll compromise to feel that we fit in.

mkBeing adults makes it easier to own our individual tastes, even it they’re nutty or unrefined. I’m okay today saying that I dig Sherlock Holmes, Sammy Davis Jr., and Moon Knight, while in high school it mattered more to me that I had a letterman jacket and didn’t wear embarrassing shoes. As we get older, most of us come to that point where we own who we are, at least more than we did as teenagers.

So the challenge is to take this adult security and help our students see beyond the consistent and ubiquitous pressure to conform and hold on to (or even develop) their individual tastes and passions that are their own. Unapologetically.

I’m not so foolish as to believe that this won’t feel a bit like punching ocean waves, but the perspective that our own opinions matter, that our tastes help to define who we are, is valuable in the developing health of our kids.

In classrooms this can take a thousand forms. I’ve seen teachers provide students with more freedom to choose some of what they study. Some teachers use project based learning to allow students to apply concepts or methods to a topic of their own.

I once had a student when I taught in rural Oregon impress and surprise his classmates with a presentation on his gingerbread building prowess. In an urban California school I watched as a student talked at length about her grandfather, a boxer in the 1930s who almost knocked out Joe Louis.

Great teachers understand the importance of knowing, really knowing, their students, and they create classroom cultures that are safe and encourage students to tell their stories. Often these teachers model this truth telling themselves, and always they value what students have to say.

Schools can model this culture of acceptance and celebration by encouraging clubs, taking time to honor students’ diverse talents and interests, and presenting the many human faces, student and adult, that make up the school as a whole.

I’m blessed to work at a school that honors and values individuals and individuality, all while celebrating our collective, kaleidoscopic life. Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, a commitment to helping students find, and own, their own voices can be …magic.

Makeup, Moon Knight, and Meaningful Connections

I love that I work at a school where the question “Are you going to shave this month?” can be asked of me by a student and not seem out of the ordinary.

photo 2Today begins the “Make-up Free and Manly Month of March” at San Dieguito, where students and faculty alike have an opportunity to embrace their natural selves and pledge to avoid razors and lipstick for 31 days. It’s the kind of nuttiness that runs in the blood of proud Mustangs, and underscores our willingness to be a little irreverent, albeit with a noble aim; the subtitle for the month is “embrace your authenticity.”

Evidently the authentic me wears a beard.

Along with the question of shaving, just this morning I’ve had conversations with students about time capsules, Holden Caulfield, and spring training. In and of themselves, I know such topics may not carry all that much weight, but taken together I think they point to something pretty important: students feel comfortable talking with adults on campus.

Connections between students and adults on campus matter much. We measure student view on this through our Healthy Kids Survey and we’re proud that the percentage of students who say they have at least one adult they can trust is high. When students know that they are surrounded by adult allies, they have a higher likelihood of being connected to the school, feeling like they aren’t alone, and reporting negative behavior they witness or experience.

Teachers, counselors, classified staff, and even administrators can be these adult allies, and as students know they care, they open up and talk.

Sometimes the topics are serious: depression, stress, conflicts with other students. More often than not, however, students just like to talk. I’m convinced that being able to chat about the little things makes talking about the bigger issues more possible.

MKThis afternoon, walking out on campus at lunch, a student caught me and said: “I read your blog and you like Moon Knight, right?” I nodded. “I just read issue #2.”

We chatted for a while, him about Shalvey, me about Sienkiewicz . There beneath the March sun we were just two moderately dorky fellows united by a costumed superhero.

Tomorrow may be heavy; today I’m thankful to be offering my unshaven opinion on the best run of Moon Knight comics.

Beyond Batman

photo 1 (3)It was the Classics Illustrated Robinson Crusoe that captured my six year old son’s imagination. Filled with swords and shooting, pictures of Crusoe’s nightmarish hallucinations and a gory melee with a band of “cannibals,” it brought all the fruit forbidden in a liberal 21st century household to his nightstand in glorious technicolor.

For me growing up it was The Fantastic Four, entertaining companions on long road trips and always ready to engage my daydreaming thoughts with the possibilities of a flying fantasticar and traveling into space.

Moodier superheroes took over as I got older, Batman and Moon Knight broadening my world view, even as they wore masks and capes. Storytelling, visual and otherwise, has the capacity to stretch minds and get readers to think about the world in new ways. Before Shakespeare, Twain, and Ellison, for me that meant comic books.

photo 4 (2)Not to sell short some of the best of my youth (Moench and Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight is still a favorite), today the term “comics” hardly captures the depth of the medium. Serious novelists from Brad Meltzer to Michael Chabon have penned comic books, and others like Neil Gaiman jumped from comics to novels. Add to that the sheer variety of illustrated stories: Fanny Britt’s Jane, the Fox, and Me, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Frank Miller’s 300, and the broad appeal extends well beyond the familiar confines of Gotham City.

What this means is that today’s comics, relevant and resonating, have the capacity to invite even reluctant readers (though certainly not only reluctant readers) into the world of text.

The benefits are many.

photo 2 (3)Offering opportunities to read and think about big ideas, comic books and graphic novels from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant to the latest incarnation of Moon Knight can serve as a welcoming portal into the realm of ideas.

For my six year old son those ideas of exploration jump off the page like a flock of birds startled by Crusoe’s flintlock. For my ten year old daughter, it’s Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters and Smile side by side on her bookshelf with Colin Meloy’s Wildwood and the indefatigable Harry Potter.

photo 3 (4)At Diegueño I’ve seen Gene Luen Yang’s Boxer and Saint, collected Avengers comics, and plenty of anime. Bright young readers gobble up graphic novels like The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Watchmen, and The Graveyard Book, and their lives (both reading lives and otherwise) are richer as a result.

I suspect that these excursions into comics are like scouts sent into the woods of adult literature, curious, capable of bringing back information, and starting the first maps into literary adulthood.

Plus, comics are fun.


I do remember an apothecary,—
And hereabouts he dwells,—which late I noted
In tatter’d weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meager were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones;
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.
Romeo and Juliet V.1

Not long ago a friend of mine asked me why I blog. Why this salmagundi of ideas about (mostly) education? How, he wondered, did I decide what to write about, and when? I tried to answer him over the phone, a muddled answer at best, one that made me sound a lot like that apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, who stocked his shelves with oddities, some of which made a difference in the course of Shakespeare’s play. Asked again by another friend, I thought I’d do a better job if I jotted out an answer. Here goes.

I blog because I want someone to notice what I’m doing and give me a five issue story arc in the new Moon Knight comic book.

photo 1 (24)Just kidding.

I blog because writing helps me reflect, celebrate, explore ideas, and (when I’m at my luckiest) join the great conversation about a topic I care greatly about: teaching and learning.

Flannery O’Connor said: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I’m not quite that bad (or good; I’m sure there are some Flannery O’Connor fans out there; I’m one), but I do know that putting pen to paper puts me in a contemplative zone, and helps me reflect on my professional practice. In addition, I think that blogging regularly helps me live life in a more thoughtful way, observing more closely and engaging with the world more mindfully as I go through my day.

Through posts I’m also able to celebrate the great work of teachers and students at my school. I’m often out and about on campus and see inspiration, and writing about the positive events I see helps me appreciate the people I work with every day.

I hope my readers (from Minnesota to Australia) know my school, at least a little, and think: “now that’s a good place.” It is, and blogging lets me share our story in a truthful and celebratory way.

Blogging also helps me push myself to explore new ideas, and connections between education and the world around us. It prompts me to engage with educational theory, and see how I can bring this to my own professional process. And by its public nature, it puts a bright light on what I do, and invites me to be (or at least feel) accountable to more than just myself. I’ve had parents and teachers ask me about ideas I’ve blogged about, and this interaction is renewing, rewarding, and keeps me on my toes.

It’s this potential to prompt conversation that intrigues me most about blogging. This public collection of thoughts is a modest way I can join the greater conversation about education. Sure, my work is mostly local, but I hope that some of the ideas might resonate with folks with different zip codes and different points of view.

If one of my posts can spark discussion or be a catalyst for someone else, then maybe these odds and ends, these skins of ill shaped fishes, have a place in the conversation too.

Hit It

057-moon-knight-26-bill-sienkiewiczI was in middle school when Moon Knight #26 hit the comic book shelves. A seventh grader who liked reading Edgar Allan Poe in Ms. Sarver’s English class, but honestly not too much beyond what was assigned to me at Parrish Junior High, I remember picking up the comic and being confronted with something more relevant, more real, and at least as literary as “The Black Cat.”

I happened on the comic book again a couple of weeks ago, buried in a bankers box in my parents’ garage. Captured again by the artwork on the cover, I opened it up and re-read it with the eyes of the middle school principal I’ve become.

What struck me as I read was how important stories can be during the transitional time that is middle school. Beyond Roald Dahl and not yet ready for Shakespeare, though both authors sometimes make it onto the middle school reading list, students in middle school span a large range of maturity and reading levels. Recent decades have seen dystopian literature flourish, catering to the sense of fairness in our tweens. Vampires, unreliable narrators, and steampunk have all found or lost popularity.

For me, as for so many boys, reading in school meant reading stories I wasn’t really interested in. The twelve year old I was fixated on justice as much as kids today, but Dickens and du Maurier didn’t yet strike a chord. Jack London? Maybe. Poe? A bit.

Moon Knight? Heck yeah.

Written by Doug Moench, the Moon Knight story pictured on the cover is titled “Hit It.” It’s set against a jazz motif, which I most certainly didn’t appreciate as a youngster, but dug as an adult, and follows a man assaulting people on the streets of New York. Flashbacks told through Bill Sienkiewicz’s striking drawings show the man’s own childhood abuse and dare to equate the caped hero Moon Knight, at least through the man’s eyes, with his abusive father.

As an adult rereading the story, I realized just how much the story was an indictment of violence in contemporary society. Riffing like jazz musicians within the established structure of a superhero comic book, this author and illustrator pushed boundaries and challenged readers to face something serious.

Crazy, daring, unlike anything I’d read before, in twenty pages Sienkiewicz and Moench were able to shatter the expectations of a comic book, or any story a twelve year old like me had read. This was contemporary, morally challenging, and took on a grown up subject matter.

And it did so with (literary) style.

The result was the result good literature can provide: broadened understanding, new perspective, and a memorable story.

In retrospect, “Hit It” may have been the best 75 cents I ever spent.

As I talk with readers at Diegueño Middle School I love seeing them excited about the stories that they love, from oddball detectives to anime. Their teachers, gifted as my own Ms. Sarver was -though less constrained by textbooks and tradition- inspire them to engage with the texts, ask meaningful questions, and think critically about the world around them. They aren’t limited to reading in class; our library does a brisk business in YA fiction, and it’s common to see kids carrying novels around on campus.

The students I talk with read beyond books as well, pages and pages of print on portable devices, volumes of text (well, texts), and paragraphs of information online that relate to their own lives. I don’t worry that kids don’t have enough to read, or really that they don’t read enough. Our world has become a more literate one (in its own way), even as Dickensian sentences fade away like the images on thirty-five year old newsprint.

mk1As I closed the cover of that comic book, and tucked it away until my own son is about twelve, I sent a quiet wish out to Khonshu, or whomever the kids today think of as a literary deity. I hope that every young reader, male and female, finds her or his own “Hit It.” I wish them all a Ms. Sarver to inspire them in class and a Moon Knight of their own to help them love reading and thinking about what they’ve read outside of class.

It’s not always easy to know what the perfect story is for any one middle school student, but they know when they find it. It’ll hit them.

Comic Books in the Family Room

photo (6)I just found out that Diegueño’s library carries a monthly subscription to the Justice League comic book. …and my excitement about our media center shot through the roof!
Yes, the major construction of the summer of 2014 is changing the face of Diegueño’s library. Yes, we’re adding all sorts of digital resources (books, research capabilities, state of the art connectivity). Yes, you’ll see a media center that will lead the way for similar spaces throughout the district. …and, it’s still (as the amazing Ms. Coy likes to call it) “The Family Room of Diegueño.” When I heard about the inclusion of Justice League that sense of hearth and home got underscored a hundred times over.

For me comic books were the gateway to a love of reading. I remember the Fantastic Four and Batman keeping me company on long car rides, The Avengers before there were movies, and realizing when I picked up my first issue of Moon Knight that comics could be more than just fistfights and swooping through cities. Sure Moon Knight did his fair share of swooping, at least when I was a kid, but there was something more: words I didn’t know, sentences that could have come from a novel, and storylines that questioned the world in ways the Uncle Scrooge comics of my youth never dreamed.

Since my car trip days much has changed with both comics and literacy. Educators now realize that graphic storytelling has a place in schools and classrooms. Comics can bolster a young reader’s ability to draw inferences, broaden vocabulary (I still remember when Captain America taught me the word “augment!” Thanks, Cap!), and show non-linear storytelling, transitions, motifs, and character development.

Some teachers use graphic novels, the comic book’s younger, more attractive sibling, in class. “Maus” and “V for Vendetta” are just two I’ve seen on syllabi in my own district. These two titles are nice examples of how the comics themselves have grown up since I was a kid. Certainly my six year old son is more captivated by Spiderman battling The Lizard than his nine year old sister, but for her (and a legion of other students) the reality is that comics no longer mean men in capes. Well, not only men in capes.

Beyond the socially conscious “Maus” and “V for Vendetta,” a raft of graphic novels comes down the YA river every year, with themes personal, relevant, and deep. “Anya’s Ghost,” “Persepolis,” and “Hereville” are just three that I’ll look for in our library. There are literally hundreds more. Any taste, from mystery to history, from coming of age stories to stories that help students understand death and dying, graphic novels have a range greater than ever, and with that range the possibility to touch a huge spectrum of kids’ tastes. While what the young me loved was Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s “Fist of Khonshu,” there’s something in the graphic novel world that could appeal to any reader.

What made me so happy when I visited Ms. Coy’s library website was that the Justice League had a space alongside the many other great titles available for kids. At the risk of sounding like a voiceover for an old fashioned movie trailer: “In a world of literary pretension, one place stands as a bastion of acceptance and a welcome place for all: Diegueño Middle School’s library, the family room of campus!”

…where even Moon Knight could feel at home.