Our Sixth Grade Humanities Teacher, Beth Gillis, participated in a Teacher Roundtable and discussed graphic novels with other educators nationwide. For the full conversation, moderated by Jennifer Gonzalez, visit the site Cult of Pedagogy.
Why are graphic novels and comics valuable learning tools?
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 (…) 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.
What misconceptions do people have about graphic novels and comics?
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.
Share one of your favorite graphic novels or comics to teach, and talk about the lesson/unit you used it in.
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.
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.
What other books have you and your students loved?
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:
- All things Reina Telgemeier (Smile, Sisters, Drama, Ghosts)
- Princeless: Save Yourself
- Human Body Theater
- El Deafo
- Sunny Side Up
- Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack
- Anything Doug TenNapel (Cardboard, Ghostopolis, Bad Island)
- Anya’s Ghost
- Roller Girl
- The Odyssey
What does a teacher need to do to be successful with graphic novels? Are there any Do’s and Don’ts?
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.