Aldo Zelnick: A Great New Comic Novel Series

When I first started hearing the buzz about Artsy-Fartsy and Bogus, the first two books in the new Aldo Zelnick comic novel series, I wasn’t too sure what to think. After all, any time words like “educational” and “moral” are used in conjunction with books, I approach with caution. I’m only interested in juvenile fiction if the characters and plot are compelling, as well.

I needn’t have worried, though. Not only is Aldo a delightful ten-year-old boy full of believable and endearing quirks, but he is surrounded by a supporting cast of equally charming characters. Since these journal-style novels are written and illustrated by Aldo, we are treated to his curmudgeonly perspective on exercise, vegetables, most girls, and using his precious allowance for anything other than Slushies. However, Aldo is coaxed along by his artist grandma, Goosy; his rock-hound best friend, Jack; his wise neighbor, retired teacher Mr. Mot; his athletic brother, Timothy; his outdoorsy, bird-watching mom, Claire; and a host of others, including a bully and a couple of dogs.

 To make all this even better, the pictures don’t simply illustrate the text. They add a whole other layer of meaning. Whether they are literal interpretations of metaphors (keep your eyes peeled), priceless expressions, allusions, or “hidden” pictures of the feature letter, the illustrations are as entertaining as they are adorable.

What about the educational vocabulary and the positive messages? First, I had no idea vocabulary could be so much fun. It is defined Aldo-style in the glossary. One of my favorites is “abysmal,” which is “really, really, hopelessly bad (the abyss of badness).” Or “alert: I don’t know…what’s a lert? Do you have a lert in your house? (Just kidding. It means paying close attention to what’s going on around you).” And the illustrations for “agape” show three things that are agape: a mouth, a door, and a pant’s zipper. As for the feel-good messages, they are woven into the stories so seamlessly that they are natural rather than treacly.

Best of all, these books pass the real litmus test: my students love them, too.

Here’s the author’s/illustrator’s website for the books:


The Eclectic Gardener

Kildare – Saint Fiachra’s Garden [Patron Saint Of Gardeners]

What do you sip
behind your privacy fence,
in the shade of your neon palm trees?

Do they speak to you equally?
The enigmatic plaster gnomes,
the blocky wooden bear,
the dainty fairy balancing an opalescent glass ball,
the rainbow windcatcher shaped like a hot air balloon,
the concrete statue of the boy and girl bent over a book,
all nestled amongst your fastidiously manicured garden.

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Why I Hate Maraschino Cherries

My first real job, the kind with a paycheck and withholding taxes, was at Dairy Queen. I was twelve years old, in seventh grade, my first year of junior high school. It was 1973, and I made 75 cents an hour, below minimum wage. I used all of my money to buy clothes made from shiny polyester. My favorite colors were mauve and green.

My mother drove me to work and picked me up, a chore made onerous by the sour-milk odor of my uniform at shift’s end. Even in the bitter cold of winter, with sleety rain pelting the car, we rode home with the windows cracked.

What made up for the low pay and hard work, however, was sneaking ice cream and other treats, especially the maraschino cherries, which were considered an expensive delicacy at my house. The cherries were the easiest food to sneak: small, quickly eaten, and in one of a series of recessed bins between two ice cream machines.

I worked at Dairy Queen almost a year, and while I can’t remember the specific moment when I realized I hated maraschino cherries, I know I hated them by the time I quit. I still hate them — their chemical flavor and their squeaky texture.

I do still like soft-serve ice cream, though, in spite of what I know about recycling the overflow. But you don’t want to hear about that.

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Cognitive Dissonance #1

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Coming Around

It’s appropriate that, in a class titled “Theories of Writing,” we’ve spent a good deal of time discussing the role that multiple semiotic systems and digital literacies should play in the composition classroom.

As I read the first chapter of Multimodal Composition, “Thinking about Multimodality,” by Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia Selfe, I found myself reading every argument I’ve ever made against going multimodal, especially in the digital arena. Of course, I also found myself reading the counterargument to every argument I’ve ever made. In brief, my four major concerns have been: multimodal composition detracts attention from traditional composition, I don’t have time to teach it all, I can’t be expected to know how to teach it all, and traditional composition is more important for academic success than multimodal composition.

However, I’ve also been paying close attention this semester to how people receive information. I’ve wanted to take my own experience out of this as much as possible because I don’t think my life is necessarily typical right now. As a teacher and graduate student, I’m pretty much immersed in print.

One incident in particular stands out. (I got it from a book. What can I say?) I just finished reading Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali fled an arranged marriage on route from Kenya to Canada and, by misleading officials, obtained political asylum in The Netherlands. Within only eleven years, she gained citizenship and was elected to Parliament. She was extremely controversial and received numerous death threats because she spoke out against the oppression of women by Islam.

However, it wasn’t until she mixed words with images that things turned truly horrifying. Ali wrote an eleven-minute film titled “Submission,” which Theo Van Gogh filmed. In it, a woman in a sheer niqab appears – verses of the Koran showing through – and prepares for prayer. However, instead of kneeling, she raises her face to speak to Allah. This alone is blasphemous, but what she says marks her an apostate, punishable by death. She tells Allah that she has been devout all of her life, yet for this she has been abused by men, and He has stayed silent. Moreover, men have used the words of the Koran – Allah’s words – to justify their actions. The film shows another woman, beaten, with torn clothes, the damning verses tattooed on her body.

The death threats against Ali are more serious after this, and security is heightened. Van Gogh, though, is a regular citizen, not a Member of Parliament, and doesn’t receive protection. Several days later, a young Muslim man guns down Van Gogh as he rides his bike to work. As he lies there, riddled with bullet wounds, Van Gogh asks if they can talk about it, and the man slits his throat with a knife. The man then uses the same knife to stab a letter addressed to Ali to Van Gogh’s chest.

My purpose in telling this terrible story is this: Ali appeared on television, radio, and in the newspaper many times. There were death threats against her before this. She was outspoken before she had the protection of Parliament’s security forces. It was only once she used images – and not even a forbidden image of Allah – that someone was murdered for her message.

If I don’t let my students explore the power of images, music, video – these other semiotic systems available through multimodal literacies – then I may very well deprive them of a powerful means of communicating. As Takayoshi and Selfe write (9):

In short, whether instructors teach written composition solely or multimodal composition, their job remains essentially the same: to teach students effective, rhetorically based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively, to multiple audiences, for different purposes, and using a range of genres.

That really doesn’t seem possible any more without including multimodal compositions.



Hirsi, A. A. (2008). Infidel. New York: Free Press.

Selfe, C. L., & Takayoshi, P. (2007). Thinking about multimodality. In C. L. Selfe (Ed.), Multimodal composition: resources for teachers (pp. 1-12). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Writing in Digital Environments Research Center Collective. (2005). Why teach digital writing? Kairos, 10(1). Retrieved April 25, 2010, from

What Do I Look Like, the Shell Answer Man?

This week’s texts by Mina Shaughnessy, Mike Rose, and Min-Zhan Lu highlight ongoing problems with philosophies that shape the approaches colleges and universities have taken and continue to take to remediate. . .um, scratch that. . .meet the needs of remedial students. . .no, scratch that. . .basic writers. Shaughnessy’s work has helped people re-envision basic writers as lacking the academic discourse rather than ability; their errors have logic, and they can learn the discourse. Rose points out that it is critical to treat writing as more than a set of skills that can be taught – or remediated – in a semester. Lu acknowledges the contributions of Shaughnessy, but wonders if students’ meaning – the actual intent of their message – is changed in the “translation” to academic discourse.

Shaughnessy’s claim has been around for over three decades, long enough that we have research and policy developed around it. Today, an educator who questions the ability of every child to learn, and, moreover, to learn to proficiency as measured by standardized tests, is a pariah. Rose’s ideas, even though they are from roughly the same time, are more controversial. Teachers of writing certainly view it as a complex, “integrated body of knowledge” (592), challenging both to teach and learn. We lament Rose’s too-true contention that writing is reduced to a set of skills because, this way, it is easier to measure (590).

Then along comes Lu, and her claim complicates things so much that – okay, this is very nonacademic of me – I want to put my hands over my ears and go “nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you.” Because, frankly, I don’t have any answers, and the idea of screwing people up is really scary. How do we honor students’ nonacademic language in an academic environment? What is the purpose of the academic environment? Are we preparing children to pass a test so we can keep our jobs? So they can access higher institutions of learning? Do we want them to know the academic discourse because many jobs that pay well expect it? Because we want them to have options? If we just recognize and acknowledge that translation, even if it’s from home language to “Engfish,” always changes meaning in some way, will this be enough to counter the cultural hegemony of the great white beast? If we pull children from class in order to give them a double dose of language arts, are we harming them by labeling them? If we don’t, aren’t we harming them by failing to teach them to read and write?

Anyway, these are the questions I was supposed to answer in this week’s post:

Were you ever labeled a “remedial” writer by teachers or think of yourself as “remedial”? Did you have students in your classes or school who were placed into remedial sections? Why do you think this happened? What criteria were used to identify remedial students? Do you think those courses met the needs of the students placed into them? Now, thinking either as a teacher or a student, how do you think our educational system should address the needs of students whose writing abilities do not meet the standards? What should those standards be? How can writing teachers balance the need for students to be successful in college and beyond with a respect for the diverse literacies that they bring to the classroom?

Umm . . . I don’t know? I mean, no, I wasn’t a remedial student. In the primary grades we had reading groups. Now, it’s called guided reading, and it’s all about teaching students in their zone of proximal development (remember Vygotsky?). We kids knew who could read well and who couldn’t, so we figured the groups out pretty fast. Writing was more private, but instruction was not differentiated. In the intermediate grades, reading was whole class, including the painful round-robin read aloud. Then, in seventh grade, the last year of elementary school, we all took an IQ test. We gathered in the cafeteria and spread out at the long tables. Shortly thereafter, our parents received letters stating our IQ – determined on that single day by a single oh-so-scientific measure – along with notification of our placement in junior high. There was the college-prep track, the college-prep track with a gifted humanities class thrown in as an elective, and then all of the other kids. I don’t know what their track was called, and if it was one track or multiple tracks. I’m ashamed of my ignorance. Somehow, though, most, although not all, of the kids who ended up in the college prep track were middle income and white, and this in a school that was 60% African American. Imagine.

Now consider these snippets of information:

  • As early as 1969, researchers had documented the greater negative effects of test anxiety on African American students as compared to Caucasian students. Bronzaft, Murgatroyd, and McNeilly (1974) compared test anxiety between two groups of black students: American minority blacks with overall negative school experiences to Trinidad, West Indian majority blacks with generally positive school experiences. The black students in New York had significantly greater detrimental test anxiety. Perhaps even more significantly (and I’m sorry, I can’t locate the source, but I read this recently), African American students perform better on a given test if they are not told it is a high-stakes test. For example, if one group of African American students takes a standardized test and is told that it will determine their placement in a class, they will score significantly worse on that test than a group of similar African American students who believe the same test has no bearing on their future.
  • Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray published Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994. According to Plucker (“Human intelligence”), they claim that, while Asians have a slight genetic advantage over Caucasians when it comes to IQ, Caucasians have a substantial advantage over African Americans. The authors use IQ tests to help substantiate their claim. In the first several months, the book sold 400,000 copies.
  • In 1996 Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard paleontologist and author, revised The Mismeasure of Man, originally published in 1981. He wrote that he did so because biological determinists, who “have often invoked the traditional prestige of science as objective knowledge, free from social and political taint” (52), had found fertile soil in the political landscape of the 1990s. Thus, the success of The Bell Curve, which did not contain new ideas, just new packaging. In the book, Gould recognizes that “science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. …Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly.”

I haven’t answered this week’s questions. I can respect the languages that my students bring to the classroom and realize that nonacademic discourse does not correspond to lack of ability. But beyond that, there does not seem to be any consensus around what is best for students, whether we are talking about self-esteem, academic gains, or opening up future opportunities to access power structures.


Bronzaft, A. L., Murgatroyd, D., & McNeilly, R. A. (1974). Test Anxiety Among Black College Students: A Cross-Cultural Study. The Journal of Negro Education, 43(2), 190-193. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from JSTOR.

Gould, S. J. (2008). The mismeasure of man. New York: W.W. Norton.

Lu, M. (2009). Redefining the legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A critique of the politics of linguistic innocence. In S. Miller (Ed.), The Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 772-782). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1991)

Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources. Retrieved [insert month day, year], from

Rose, M. (2009). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. In S. Miller (Ed.), The Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 586-604). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1985)

Shaughnessy, M. (2009). Introduction to Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. In S. Miller (Ed.), The Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 387-396). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1977)