Sunday, February 23, 2014

Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Too many assumptions exist about graphic texts and comics; chief amongst them is the belief that the texts are low-level vocabulary and content which are best for reluctant readers. Many of today's graphic novels test that belief as they are rich, sophisticated texts which challenge readers intellectually, emotionally, and as readers.

J.B. Carter writes to clarify misconceptions around using graphic novels in the classroom - mainly that they are intended for younger audiences or only reluctant readers. Instead, Carter points out that they are complex, rich texts which need careful consideration for use in the classroom. And while yes, some reluctant readers and some boys might be more likely to read these texts (as suggested in the Ontario Ministry of Education's Me Read? And How!), graphic novels are an "art form" which have appeal to a multitude of readers. Likewise, Teri Lesesne suggests that the graphic element is especially appealing to teens, as evidenced by the fact that there is a wealth of titles in Young Adult literature (65). Both point out that graphic texts - like all texts - need to be seamlessly integrated into classrooms in appropriate contexts.

Carter cites the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the "need for authentic reading and writing experiences, textual investigations that help bridge the gap between the school world and the lived world, between narrow notions of what it means to be literate and broad notions of what it means to actually succeed as an intelligent adult in contemporary society." Graphic texts may do this for some audiences. But, as with any text, appropriate selection and instruction must occur. Many students - especially reluctant readers - have little experience with the complex conventions and themes of many graphic novels. Lesesne argues that the "visual scaffolds are the hook they need to enjoy the reading experince" (67),  acting as an entry point to explicit instruction in visual and/or media literacy. Schwartz is cited by Lesesne:
"Graphic novels offer value, variety, and a new medium for literacy that acknowledges the impact of visuals. These novels appearl to young people, are useful across the curriculum, and offer diverse alternatives to traditional texts as well as other media." (67)
Teachers must choose texts based on their students' readiness, appropriateness of content for the curriculum and the school community. I particularly like using graphic novels in Literature Circles, especially in other subject areas such as Native Studies (especially the senior courses). After students are introduced to the conventions of the text and the format of Lit Circles, they are free to read the text in order to understand the deeper meaning of the text. In Native Studies, this is especially useful for exploring sensitive topics which better deserve an emotional or personalized approach, such as residential schooling. Students respond to the graphics as well as the stories on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, which is an important component of the issues around residential schools.

Graphic Novels to explore Native Studies (click on the links for video book trailers):

Brown, C. (2003). Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. Drawn and Quarterly.

Dembicki, M., Editor. (2010). Trickster: Native American Tales. Fulcrum Publishing.

Hill, G. (2010). The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Robertson, D. A. & S.B. Henderson. (2012). 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga, Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Robertson, D. A. & S.B. Henderson. (2012). Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story. Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Robertson, D. A. The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel. Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Wright-McLeod, B. (2011). Red Power. Fifth House Publishers.

Photo of excerpt from 7 Generations courtesy Portage & Main Press


Carter, J.B. (March 2009). “Going Graphic.” Educational Leadership. Vol. 66. No. 6. pp. 68-73.

Lesesne, T.S. (2007). “Of Times, Teens, and Books.” Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. K. Beers, R.E. Probst, L. Rief, Eds.  pp. 61-79.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2009). Me Read? And How! Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys’ literacy skills. Queen's Printer for Ontario. 

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