Graphic Novels In The Classroom?

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.

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

Beth Gillis:
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.

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

Beth Gillis:
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.

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

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.

March Book 1 Beth Gillis Teacher Roundtable

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.

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

Beth Gillis:
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:

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

Beth Gillis:
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.



Student Wins 2nd at State Science Fair

Congratulations to Sixth Grade student Olivia Cevasco, who placed second at the California State Science Fair. She now qualifies for the national Broadcom MASTERS Competition.

Olivia was honored for her submission to the Microbiology (Medical) Junior Division, in which she determined that Staphylococcus bacteria is resistant to human tears. If you’d like to read more about Olivia’s project, “Healing Tears,” click here.

The Half Moon Bay Review also published an article about her experience:

A local sixth-grader’s science fair project will now move on to the national competition level after placing second in its category at the California State Science Fair last week.

Sea Crest School student Olivia Cevasco took home a medal in the medical microbiology category for “Healing Tears.” For her project, she tested how well tears could kill bacteria against several known antibacterial treatments. She found that Bactine was most successful at killing staphylococcus aureus. Cevasco also found that human tears didn’t work at all.

By winning second place at the state fair, held May 23-24 at the University of Southern California, Cevasco now qualifies for the national Broadcom MASTERS (math, applied science, technology and engineering for rising starts) Competition. In that contest, hundreds of top projects in the country are whittled down to 300, then to the top 30.

“Olivia is now looking forward to applying to this national fair, so she will be busy for sure!” mother Lilia Cevasco wrote in an email to the Review.

Cevasco was one of two Coastside students to go to the state fair. Cunha Intermediate School eighth-grader Sonya Cullen’s project “Ghost Fishing,” on alternatives to cotton twine for crab traps qualified but did not place among the winners.

Cullen wrote in an email that attending the state fair was “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

“I am very proud to have made it that far,” she wrote. “I met many teens like myself that enjoy science and want to pursue STEM-related careers.”

Introducing Our New Director of Middle School

As Sea Crest continues to grow, it is vital to have an administrator dedicated to leading our Middle School. Following an extensive national search, we were fortunate to invite three highly qualified finalists to campus for two days each to meet with faculty, staff, students, and a small group of parents. We are now pleased to announce the appointment of Jessica Patti, who will join us this fall as Sea Crest’s Director of Middle School.

Jessica received her Bachelor of Science from Tulane University with concentrations in Anthropology and English Literature. She earned her Master of Education degree from Harvard University with a focus on School Leadership. Most recently, Jessica held the position of Dean of Students at Sacred Heart Schools (Atherton, CA), where she was responsible for staff supervision, curriculum development, student leadership, experiential education, and teaching history. Prior to that, she was the Upper School Dean of Students at John Cooper School (Woodlands, TX), the Director of Student Life at Quest Academy (Palatine, IL), and Program Coordinator of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas.

An avid outdoorsperson, Jessica has coached at the Middle School and varsity levels in boys’ crew, cross country, and track and field. She has led students on backpacking trips, been an on-site Wilderness First Responder, revamped outdoor education programs, and constructed K-8 service learning programs. She has also created leadership workshops for students and trained teachers to support authentic student initiatives. She has presented at The California Association of Independent Schools’ conferences on topics such as Honor Code, Student Discipline, and Student Club Moderation.

Those who know Jessica emphasize her collaborative style, warmth, deep knowledge of Middle School development, and high standards of integrity. She lives in Moss Beach with her two dogs and can often be found enjoying the outdoors with them.

Launching Origami Rockets

Middle School students have been prototyping a standardized propulsion system for their origami rockets. Originally, students used lung power and plastic straws to launch the rockets, but they soon found there was too much variability in people’s lung capacity.

“We wanted to see if we could create a uniformly reliable way to propel the little rockets,” said Innovation Lab Manager Patrick Neary. “That way, the standardized propulsion would give us all a better idea about the aerodynamic properties of the individual origami techniques.”

To complete the project, students were given straws, recycled plastic bags, various sizes of plastic cups, masking tape, and (at a student’s suggestion) lemon juice and baking soda.

Origami Rockets

Sixth Grader Ryan Rose Grout measured and prepared baking soda and lemon juice to test a chemical propulsion for her origami rocket. “This was a great attempt to provide a more complex solution,” said Mr. Neary.

“At the outset, the students were pretty skeptical about how much they could actually accomplish with the basic materials that I provided,” said Mr. Neary. “However, just a few minutes into the class, all of the students were deeply engaged in figuring out how they could get their rockets to move. It was very gratifying to see that transformation, where the students became so completely focused on creating a solution to the challenge. Every student did successfully complete a prototype by the end of class, and some students actually created several variations following unsuccessful testing.”

Seventh Grader Cole Ramsey designed and prototyped a multi-chambered propulsion system. The chambers are intended to multiply the chemical reaction, producing a greater amount of gas than would a single, one-time mixture of baking soda and lemon juice.

Origami Rockets

Origami Rockets

Eighth Grader Jake Metz had multiple successful propulsion attempts using an inflatable plastic bag with multiple straws.

Origami Rockets

“The straws fed into a plastic cup, which concentrated the compressed air around the origami rocket contained within the cup itself,” said Mr. Neary. “A very unique and innovative solution!”

Exploring Art with No Wrong Answers

One of our Middle School Exploration courses, Abstract Painting, was featured in the Half Moon Bay Review. Read below!

For many children, middle school offers the first taste of academic freedom, as students can choose electives in addition to traditional core classes.

Sea Crest Middle School offers a variety of electives to encourage students to explore topics they might not have been exposed to previously.

In addition to computer programming and poetry, young scholars at Sea Crest can also create origami rockets or go myth-busting with a beloved science teacher.

Abstract Art is also one of these explorations. Students who didn’t consider themselves to be artistic are finding an affinity for art after taking this course.

“In the class, Abstract Art has helped me become more artistic, because, before, I wasn’t really into art,” said Kai Guevara. “Now I really like the class because it shows that I can be creative.”

Abstract art isn’t about the perfect placement of physical objects on canvas. It’s an exploration of relationships of forms as well as layers of color and texture.

“With abstract art, there’s no object and no person,” said Sea Crest seventh-grader Nataly Gijon. “It’s just random shapes in different orders as well as different colors combined together.”

Regardless of the techniques used, there are no wrong answers in this class. Students in the class experiment with pigments of color. Some try broad brush strokes across the canvas; others create circles of varying shades.

“You can draw whatever you want and it will end up being something,” said eighth-grader Rose Geller.

“Exploring Art with No Wrong Answers,” Half Moon Bay Review


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