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Graphic Novels in the Classroom: A Teacher Roundtable

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About a month ago, I shared an Edudemic post on my Facebook page about teaching with graphic novels, and I was startled by how many teachers responded to it. They talked about their own successful practices with graphic novels, shared how the books had transformed reluctant readers into obsessive readers, and they recommended dozens of titles—I’d never heard of most of them, but as soon as I took a look inside each one, I wanted to get my hands on them immediately. I quickly realized that any teacher who wants students to become avid readers should stock its library full of these gems.

I invited four of those teachers here for my first-ever Teacher Roundtable, where classroom teachers will share their thoughts and best practices on a specific topic. Today’s topic? Yep. Graphic novels.

Question 1: Why are graphic novels and comics valuable learning tools?

walthewAlison Walthew, English teacher, Yew Chung International School, Century Park Campus, Shanghai
The graphic novel (a good one) has depth of plot, character development, theme, etc. In short, it has the classic areas of study found in a prose text. It also has the elements of film we study with students, allowing them to develop literacy in the interpretation of image for meaning. When students combine both aspects to investigate a text’s effect on readers, they develop varied insights into how meaning is communicated and interpreted. It makes for a very rich literature study.

falterDr. Michelle Falter, Assistant Professor of English Education, North Carolina State University; former middle and high school English teacher and instructional coach
First of all, the fact that they are multimodal (meaning multiple modes of expression are used) facilitates and supports students’ ability to visualize and understand complicated ideas, which is also a 21st century literacy skill. Secondly, because of the multimodality of the texts, they are manageable for students to read. It reduces the overall text load, therefore decreasing anxieties students might have regarding print-based reading. Third, they are relevant, engaging, and positive. It is easier for students to relate to a text when they can see it. It captures student interest in this increasingly visual world, which then also increases student motivation and desire to keep reading because they can be successful at it, therefore promoting a positive association to reading. Finally, graphic novels are cross-curricular; there are many connections that can be made across the curriculum in a variety of different subject matters.

gillisBeth Gillis, 6th grade humanities teacher, Sea Crest School, Half Moon Bay, CA
I first noticed the power of graphic novels with my struggling 5th and 6th grade readers. As a visual learner myself, I wasn’t surprised that they were drawn to graphics. The wording felt more approachable, the images supported their comprehension, and they felt the success of finishing books in a timely manner in a way they weren’t typically experiencing. When I took a motorcycle safety course years ago, the instructor shared that driving a motorcycle would turn us into safer, smarter, more aware drivers when we were in our cars. In this same way, explicitly teaching the elements of graphic novels has helped many of my students to become stronger readers with more traditional texts. They pay more attention to what authors state explicitly and where they need to infer or read between the lines to come up with details or bigger ideas. They think about the choices authors have made. They have a stronger sense of characters by asking themselves to paint a picture of all the visuals that aren’t present in traditional books. Michelle mentioned 21st century literacies above; I have incorporated a great deal of media literacy and critical literacy into my humanities classes as we think about power/voice/bias/perspective/etc. Graphic novels have added another layer to these lessons, and I’ve found the visual elements can support struggling students to engage in this work with more ease.

greenhowBecky Greenhow, Elementary school teacher (grades 4-7), British Columbia
Yes, yes and yes to all the above. I would like to add to Michelle and Beth’s comments about struggling readers. My daughter decided in Grade 3 that she was not going to read chapter books because she could not read chapter books. This past summer, prior to entering Grade 8, she said she loved reading. Graphic novels have given this reluctant reader a sense of accomplishment and pride. She’s been able to tackle a piece of literature with confidence, because of the above-mentioned elements unique to graphics that she IS good at: visual thinking, inferencing, modern artistic appreciation, creative thinking, and the art of storytelling (she’s a talker!). Also, there are many graphics who have strong female characters at their centre, thus attracting girl readers and giving them social “permission” to read comics, which hasn’t always been the case. In my day, girls who read comics were a little left of centre. Now it’s totally acceptable for a girl to be seen reading a graphic novel or comic. This helps my girl want to continue reading, since she’s not viewed as weird by her peers.

Graphics are also fabulous for tackling sensitive, difficult, or meaty topics (relationships, Shakespeare, etc.) that are often difficult for teens to want to discuss with adults. The visual nature and format of graphics makes such topics more relatable and makes students more connected to the piece.

The quality of characters is one criterion I look for when purchasing a new novel (like Alison listed above). Females in graphics (comics especially) are often portrayed with unrealistic bodies, shallow personalities, and in the shadow of their male counterparts. Good graphics don’t do that. They build up female characters, showing them as strong, dynamic, interesting, realistic. Important perspectives for both girls and boys to learn in school.

Graphic Novels: Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

Question 2: What misconceptions do people have about graphic novels and comics?

Alison Walthew: Many teachers believe comics and graphic novels are the same. Essentially, they are, but a good graphic novel is not an Archie and whatever-her-name-was comic. It has layers of meaning like a good prose text. You wouldn’t choose to teach a Mills and Boon novel in an academic programme. In similar vein, you wouldn’t teach a silly comic as a novel.

Michelle Falter: I think a lot of people see graphic novels as a cop out to reading traditional print-based texts. In other words, it’s kind of cheating to give kids pictures and words. There is a stereotype that graphic literature is a lesser form of writing. This is absolutely untrue. The tasks and thinking skills required to read a multimodal text are actually higher level than if reading a print-based text alone. You have to see images and words work together, and when and why authors chose to put them together in a frame. I also think people think graphic novels are for ELL or elementary and middle grades students only. Although they are definitely very helpful for these students, this misconception comes from the fact that people see this genre as “easy”—and it is not.

Beth Gillis: I would agree with Michelle. I’ve had a few experiences where parents were highly concerned that their kids (often struggling readers) were choosing graphic novels, and that somehow this would slow down their learning or that it wasn’t “real” reading. Although I do think it’s important to insist on varying what kids are choosing throughout the year, if the alternative is to never finish a book, I’ll put graphic novels in their hands every time. I’ve been lucky to work in settings where parents have trusted my expertise as a literacy teacher, so I feel like I’ve always been able to confidently talk them down from these misguided beliefs. I’ve also had strong students who love to read, but who have never read a graphic novel (nor thought of it as a viable reading option). Many of them are pleasantly surprised to discover that they love the experience and end up choosing them more regularly as independent reading once the unit is over.

Becky Greenhow: I’ve had similar experiences as Beth, with parental concerns about easy reading vs real reading. When I know a student well, I can make recommendations towards more novels, or more non-fiction, or more current events. But if a child is a reluctant reader and gets joy from reading a graphic, LET THEM READ THE GRAPHIC. The main purpose in having kids learn to read in early elementary school is have them learn to have a positive relationship with text. If the relationship is not positive, then the struggle will be real for them in our text-based world.

persepolis

 

Question 3: Share one of your favorite graphic novels or comics to teach, and talk about the lesson/unit you used it in.

[Editor’s Note: Teachers should preview these books before giving them to students. Some include content that may be considered inappropriate for younger students. When in doubt, see if Amazon has suggested an age range for the book or enter the title into the search bar on Common Sense Media to see their recommended minimum age.]

Alison Walthew: I have only taught V for Vendetta. By the way, the movie is terrible. It must not be shown to students if you are studying the novel. I started the novel off by telling the students to write out in prose exactly what information they got on the first page. They had to include everything as if it were the first page of a prose novel. The characters needed to be described, their facial expressions, the surroundings, etc. It was discovered that the page was jam-packed with information, even though there were very few words. This was to make them aware of the rich medium that is a graphic novel. They found they needed film technique words, as well, to try to describe how the visual conveyed meaning. The juxtaposition of graphic novel page and written text only was powerful.

Michelle Falter: How do I choose one? I love so many. I think I will focus on one that maybe people are less familiar with: Pride of Baghdad. The story is about a pride of lions that escaped the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid. It could work in both middle and high school English or social studies class. I have used this book as an ELA teacher to talk about symbolism, personification, imagery. The themes of freedom and alienation are big in this book. Also the anthropomorphism of the animals is particularly interesting. Because it deals with concepts of right and wrong and the consequences of war, rich discussion and debate occur.

Beth Gillis: My favorite book to use as a mentor text with my graphic novel unit is March, Book 1. Since I’m teaching in a humanities model, it’s always a win to find books that complement our social studies units. My reading-based lessons begin with the elements of graphic novels: layout and how to read the panels in the correct order, author’s choice around font/size/placement of words/how big or small or plentiful (or varied) the panels are on the pages, powerful “moves” that authors make to shift the tone or emphasis (having one sole picture on a page spread, using black and negative space, the absence of pictures and what that might represent). I almost always use the content for more traditional reading lessons around comprehension, especially to support struggling readers, but also often connect the content back to our community or to draw parallels with social studies or current events.

march1

In the first year that we used March, the Black Lives Matter movement was really starting to surface in the mainstream media. I was working in a school in San Francisco where many students were aware of the inequities around them, but still felt quite disconnected with their personal experiences in a mostly privileged community. One of my students went to Union Square for the Christmas tree lighting and saw a group of BLM folks protesting on the square. He came back to school the next day and asked if we could talk about what was happening. We had been raising awareness around Ferguson, Michael Brown and the regular shootings of black American males by the police throughout the fall, but his experience that night helped our conversations feel more real. It also ignited an activist spirit within him that has become a big part of his identity.

All throughout these events, we were reading March, drawing parallels to the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and what we were seeing in present-day current events. At one point, that student made an observation that many people look back to the Civil Rights era and imagine how they might be different if they were living at the time. “So now you have the chance to be that person today. Who will you be?” he challenged his classmates. I remember having that warm and fuzzy feeling that we teachers get when the stars align and the class is pure magic. The visuals in the book made the history come to life in a way that couldn’t have otherwise happened for many of my students.

Becky Greenhow: I got interested in graphic novels due to my daughter’s reading disability and her abhorrence of literature (GASP! I know!). Despite having a very large YA fiction collection of my own, I was inexperienced with the graphic genre, and wanted something that would engage students (my daughter especially) with high interest/ age appropriate content, low vocab, visual cues for comprehension, and strong (mostly girl) heroes. Thus was born our graphic collection! PS: Most of our collection has accumulated in the last 3 years, when I have not been employed in a school. Therefore my teaching of graphic novels in a classroom setting is limited.

Question 4: What other books have you and your students loved?

Alison Walthew: Colleagues have taught Persepolis (story of a young girl growing up in Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution) and Maus (story of the Nazis and the Jews during WWII, but using cats and mice to depict them). The books have been used in the Language A: Language and Literature International Baccalaureate course. This is an external essay exam in which a question is addressed, using two texts, and investigating style and context as well as the usual literature elements. The graphic novel lends itself to this as the difference between prose and graphic style can add to the discussion.

Michelle Falter: Like Alison, both Persepolis and Maus were highly impactful reads for my students. Myself and a colleague have put together a list of Graphic Novel Recommendations for middle or high school teachers that deal with social justice topics. This list is by no means exhaustive or inclusive of every great book out there, but we are happy to share it.

abc_cover_rbg

Beth Gillis: Thank you for that list, Michelle! We fly through titles in book club-style during our unit, so I don’t explicitly teach these books, but I’ve heavily vetted them for their content, quality and diverse representation (which is even more difficult with graphic novels than traditional as main characters in the middle grades/middle school levels tend to be white females.) I’m also always on the lookout for approachable, high-interest nonfiction graphic novels. My students have loved/are loving:

Michelle Falter: To add onto Beth’s comments, I absolutely love Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol, and all of Reina Telgemeier’s novels are brilliant. Three more graphic novels that are pretty new that I have personally loved and would love to see someone teach are Trashed by Derf Backderf about the untold story of garbage collectors and what happens to all the trash we throw away, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel by Isabel Greenberg, a sort of mythological tale, and The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins, a really interesting allegory about conformity, fear, and hate.

Becky Greenhow: Thanks Michelle! For the list and additions. Yes! Everything in Beth’s list. Here are some more from our house:


UPDATE: I have found versions of several of these books in Spanish as well!


Question 5: What does a teacher need to do to be successful with graphic novels? Are there any Do’s and Don’ts?

Alison Walthew: I do think a review of film technique will assist in making the teacher aware of the use of colour, angles, framing, foregrounding and backgrounding, etc. These aspects need to be addressed in any analysis of the graphic novel.

Michelle Falter: I highly recommend purchasing Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. He really is the guru of getting to know this genre. I have found the book extraordinarily helpful. Personally, I think the worst thing you could do with teaching a graphic novel is teach it like a print-based text. If you just focus on the story, and not on how the story is constructed through frames, colors, angles, word bubbles, etc., you are missing the point. Teaching Strategies for Graphic Novels, which I found by accident at some point, is a great free resource for thinking about activities to do with graphic novels; it comes from getgraphic.org, which also has a ton of wonderful resources for teachers and librarians. If teaching an entire graphic novel seems scary, there are also many wonderful classic novels that have been retold in graphic novel format that would be a great way to start, as a companion piece to the original telling. A good example of a classic retold in graphic novel format is A Wrinkle in Time.

Beth Gillis: Agreed re: Understanding Comics. The best thing a teacher can do is to educate themselves on the elements and components of comics/graphic novels so that they can use that knowledge for the end goal: teaching students to recognize those elements and make sense of them in a literary context. I took a graduate class on teaching with graphic novels with a fabulously quirky and passionate comic lover, Stephen Cary, in the last semester before he retired. He wrote Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, which I found to be super informative, even though I don’t work with ELL students.

Becky Greenhow: Thank you for the suggestions regarding learning about graphics as a purposeful genre, and not just a different format in which to insert traditional text and story. Future references, for sure! ♦

 


Do you teach with graphic novels? Share your thoughts and best practices in the comments below. And if you’re still getting started, ask questions so the community can help you out!


 

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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Latest posts by Jennifer Gonzalez (see all)

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

34 Comments

  1. This is so great! As a parent, high school social studies teacher, and reading specialist, I know that graphic novels AND comics are an amazing resource for our students. I travel around the country to comic cons and conferences to present and spread this word. Thank you for also spreading the power of comics and enlightening educators. I share my own lesson plans and resources – please feel free to share and peruse. Historycomics.net

  2. For those teaching Philosophy, a good suggestion is the graphic novel Logicomix by A. Doxiadis and C. H. Papadimitriou. It can be described as a historical novel which introduces the reader to some of the great ideas that modern Philosophy and Mathematics deal with and it is based on the early life of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
    I haven’t used the book in class because I teach English as a Foreign Language in secondary education in Greece and I only have two periods per week with each class. However I may use it for some project work in the future as I know that students love this kind of reading.

  3. This is extremely interesting. Okay, this applies primarily to literature and my work is often not in the mechanics that these fine professionals reside or does it? I am in higher ed and we discuss writing content that prospects and customers might respond to in websites, social media, and blogs and be drawn to points of view in decision making. The students are hounded that their writing must be in terms of how the customer reads the information and uses information. Teaching students to write better, they need to consider who they are writing to someone doing internet research and that there needs to be quick appeal or else the person leaves a blog or a website. The use of the graphic novel might also result in a great creativity flow or writing exercise to help students by taking a graphic novel or pieces of it and getting them to generate new thought. They could possibly verbally describe it, then write it.

    • Yes, Gordon, this sounds a bit like the lesson Alison Walthew shares above in Question 3, where students have to describe as much of what they see in a single page as possible. It’s so interesting to see what thoughts come up when studying something visual!

  4. I’m beginning a unit on reading comics this coming week in my college comp class; I share snippets of McCloud and also walk through basics. My experience is that the students I work with often haven’t had any exposure to reading comics so that they need to be walked through simple conventions, like reading from left to right through each panel (just as in a conventional print text) and the order of reading speech bubbles, which sometimes violates the left to right pattern (i.e. if one character’s speech bubble appears higher in the panel than another character’s, this arrangement means that character with the elevated speech bubble has spoken first, the character with the lower-down speech bubble is responding). Love that you’ve highlighted Gene Yuen Lang’s _American Born Chinese_; I’ve had success using that novel as my core text. This year I’ll be trying out Jill and Mariko Tamaki’s _Skim_.

  5. And wow, thank you to Becky Greenhow for introducing us to Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s _Red: A Haida Manga_. I’d been wondering about Native/First Nations authors writing comics, and it’s lovely to know about this one.

  6. Thanks for the information of teaching with graphic novels. I’m new to the genre and will dig into your references. Meanwhile, our 6th grade ELA curriculum includes Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. We also have a few copies of the graphic novel version. Until I’m more knowledgable, what would be the consensus of the quality of that graphic version, and the recommendation for using it with disinterested students alongside the original novel?

    • Cheryl, I taught this novel several years ago when I taught 6th grade. As our final project, we created our own graphic novels. Students were responsible for condensing a whole chapter down to a single page and created additional content like character and setting pages. We selected the “chapters” we thought had the most complete storytelling and made copies of our own graphic novel. It was a great couple of weeks of distilling the most important aspects of each chapter, allowing the artistic students a chance to thrive, and discussing the importance of communication between the writer and artist of any comic or graphic novel. Total engagement from start to finish for reluctant readers, first-time readers, and students who had already read the book but now had to read with a different purpose.

  7. This is my 11th year teaching Maus in my middle school classroom. Students have overwhelming loved it. It’s such a great story!

  8. Storytelling has always been an excellent teaching method, and graphic novels, by combining images and text presented as conversations, advance that legacy. School and public libraries are increasing their graphic novel collections for both fiction and non-fiction topics. There are now many graphic versions of biographies, science topics, historical and recent events, and social and cultural topics, in addition to all manner of fiction. To gain the full benefit of the possibilities of graphic novels for any school subject area, talk to your school librarian!

  9. Thanks for this overview. I teach creative writing to upper elementary students who publish their finished projects using the ComicLife app. I am always looking for graphic novels appropriate for this age group, but pickings are slimmer when it comes to work as “literary” as traditional novels for the 8-12 readership–one that is beginning to outgrow picture books but not quite ready for many of the titles mentioned here. I’d love a list of graphic novels to teach with this age group.

  10. I absolutely agree with everything on this blog. I’ve been preaching about graphic novels for a long time and think they can expand all curriculums. I just transitioned from being a reading teacher to a history teacher and wanted to give a shout-out to the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, which I didn’t see mentioned. They are so wonderful – well-researched and accessible. They are written and illustrated by the same illustrator of the Rapunzel/Calamity Jack books. My middle school students cannot put them down. Heck, I learn so much by reading them and I know a lot of history! They are super creative, funny yet make history vital and relatable AND they can be read by both elementary and middle school students. There are many more history graphic novels that really bring history to life like Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi, Drowned City by Don Brown and Around the World by Matt Phelan (well, anything from Matt Phelan) to name a few. Oh, and Boxers and Saints is amazing as well. One of the most powerful books I have ever read, graphic or print.

  11. Thank you for all the great information and resources! Teaching with the use of graphic novels has been on my mind for some time now (coincidentally). However, I am a High school Science teacher and struggle with finding graphic novels with a science background. Do you (or someone reading this) know of any graphic novels that could be used in a science classroom? I would greatly appreciate any sources or recommendations. I am certain they are out there, Im just having terrible luck at finding them! Thank you!

    • Hi Jaime, I am an author interested in both reading and writing science-focused graphic work (“novels” doesn’t seem quite right, since the idea is that they’d be nonfiction!). Anyway, First Second has recently started publishing a line of science comics. Here’s a link to the announcement: http://www.firstsecondbooks.com/books/new-books-science-comics/ One of the authors mentioned there, Maris Wicks, also has another terrific book out (also published by First Second) called Human Body Theater. I don’t know whether any of those would be useful for high school students, but it’s a start! I’ll be interested to hear other suggestions if anyone has them. Lisa

  12. My son’s junior and senior high school used a variety of graphic novels to help kids with dyslexia, while other kids in the class read the original works. They included “Jane Eyre” and “The Odyssey.” And while they greatly helped my child, he failed to be hooked on reading and still hates it. But that’s just him, and I’m glad to read that other people have found success in making readers out of formerly “reluctant” readers. Maybe he will one day catch onto the pleasures of reading, or maybe he won’t, but graphic novels sure did work. I also applaud teachers who have expanded their “mindset” to realize that every student isn’t cut out to sit down with a 500-page book. If only there was a graphic novel for “The Crucible”!

    • Hey Barb!
      I hate to hear that the graphic novels didn’t really grab him. I can’t help but wonder if it has something to do with the subject matter of the books chosen for him. Were they only versions of the classics? If so, it could be that he just never got into the topics or settings of the books.

  13. I love the Graphic Novel for Anthem (originally by Ayn Rand). I’ve used it with grade 9 English students and found the parallel nature of the Graphic novel allowed students reading the graphic novel to be actively engaged in high level discussions, able to draw conclusions and question philosophies. They were in no way less participatory in Socratic Discussions and in many ways able to participate at a higher level! This was particularly true for students with specific reading disabilities not affecting comprehension.

    • I appreciate you adding this to our list, Michelle. I went through an Ayn Rand phase in the early 90’s and really liked her stuff, so I bet the graphic novel is fantastic. Thanks!

  14. I’m an Avid Graphic Novels reader. My favorite are by Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Stardust, Graveyard Book and spinoffs), Vertigo Comics Line, Fables ( and spinoffs) and Elfquest.
    I remember discovering Elfquest grade 7 as a reward from my teacher for being an avid reader. I thought it was fascinating and I wanted to learn more about the concept, art work, story boarding and continuity.
    Now I share my collection with my mom and other adults who have a hard time reading. She never finished grade school and English is her second language.
    It is great to see the intermediate readers get enraptured by this medium.

  15. Hi there,
    >
    > Liked and appreciated the post on graphic novels in the classroom. We are a Toronto-based educational publisher and have produced a range of interactive, digital resources for teachers and kids using graphic novels as the core asset. The graphic novels are available in three formats; hard copy, e-book and interactive. There are also comprehensive teacher resources (lesson plans, curriculum links, back grounders etc.) in the teacher admin section that facilitates classroom implementation. Our corporate site is http://teachmag.com and our project sites include: http://www.theshadowedroad.com , http://www.therupturedsky.com , http://www.80degreesnorth.com , http://www.theshatteredground.com (we are currently working on four more projects that will be released next fall). Or for an overview into all of the projects currently produced, please see http://teachmag.com/dystopia . The latter two are free for use and available in English and French. As an aside, I wrote my masters thesis on graphic novels in the classroom. So a big fan of graphic novels and their use by teachers and for students. Thanks again.

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