Teaching Graphic Novels as Literature
Allen Porter is an English teacher in Michigan who recently implemented a graphic-novel curriculum. This is the story of how he accomplished his goal.
Before I begin, I have to say that I was the classic kid who loved comic books growing up. My brothers and I practically competed to see who had the most comics in the most pristine of conditions. We had it all: X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, New Mutants (my favorite then). You name it, we probably had it. Then one day it all just disappeared. I don't know what happened exactly when it came to that funny disappearance nonsense. It was a combination of football, girls, and an "Oh, comics are for kids!" mentality. I guess I had "grown" too old for comics. And so mysteriously vanished one of my first passions.
Fast forward 20 years.
Now I'm a teacher and coach. Last school year was the first for Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I ventured to teach a brand new course called Graphic Novels as Literature. This is a course that is probably the only one taught in this innovative district. It's in the course description of classes that COULD be taught, but as far as I know, there was never a class taught on the subject. Nor was there a developed curriculum, at least not in our building. Personally, I had been teaching for nine years (social studies and English) and when presented with this opportunity, I jumped at the chance. Being that there was no defined curriculum or books ordered for this new school, the sky was the limit, as they say.
Also, in developing this course and curriculum, we always kept in mind the state standards as our guide. However, it's more important to note that I had found my passion once again and this time it was academically acceptable AND viable. My hope was to pass this on to my students. I cannot tell you the excitement that I felt going forward with this adventure. It had my head spinning…and thus I went to work. In this article, I will attempt to share SOME of the activities we did to make the class different, engaging, and academically stimulating. If you need more classroom activities, feel free to contact me.
The Books and Curriculum
A colleague of mine and I both embarked on this journey by preparing a course revolved around books that we had recently read. These were books that we felt would grab the attention of our students and had some academic punch, if you will. The ones we chose were Persepolis, Understanding Comics, Maus I and II, and V for Vendetta. A book like Watchmen (which I read afterward) would be more age-appropriate for juniors and seniors, so we decided to wait on this. This is a book that I look very forward to bringing onboard for a science-fiction/mystery/post-apocolyptic read, a la John C. Weaver' s class. It has to be said that all of these books changed my view of what comics actually could be, and I tried to pass that viewpoint on to my students as well. I am now less of a superhero-genre guy, sad as that is to say (sorry, New Mutants). Rather, I enjoy more the wonderful memoirs and such that are now available to us as comics lovers. It can't be lost that many of my students enjoyed them as well. However, the comics genre has expanded its reach and scope when these types of graphic novels were written. We had wonderful discussions about the events, life-changing circumstances, and humanity that enveloped the main characters of each story.
I chose Understanding Comics as our class textbook. I cannot recommend a more important book for this type of course. It gave my class an opportunity for great and meaningful discussions. Because of the complex nature of how Scott McCloud explores certain ideas and concepts, I felt we had to take the time to read this in class. This was a ninth-grade class and although very intelligent they may have found it hard to understand the concepts on their own. Of course, if you choose to do so, you can read it in class or not. It just worked better for me. As a side note, I really thought this book may have had the biggest influence on me as I advocated for exploring teaching opportunities using graphic novels as legitimate academic texts.
One of our favorite types of assignments was to use an avatar as an avenue to answer questions about each book. The students made their own comic avatar of themselves and answered questions that I designed at the end of each book to enhance their learning. Instead of doing a book review or test, this was the culminating assignment. It was interesting to read each and see how students viewed themselves. Not being an artist myself, I did not grade on their artistic ability. However, some comics avatars were very creative and extremely well drawn. I feel it made them more thoughtful in their responses as well. If you are working within a comics framework, you have little space and time to work with. It was very limited due to what we had to get done. Still, I have to say (selfishly) that it made reading the answers much more enjoyable for me as well.
Before we read Persepolis I had the students read the prologue. The prologue was key in understanding Marjanne's view of things as well as giving my young readers key historical background information. From this point, we discussed these events as mentioned, but we then put down the book to do three days of solid research and report writing on a topic centered around the Islamic Revolution in Iran. We were able to get the entire project from Read.Write.Think. This proved to be a very valuable resource and the students seemed to enjoy reading their reports and giving the rest of the class essential background information. From there, we began reading the book in and out of class, depending on the day. Our discussions were very passionate and there were several students who talked about how the book touched them personally. I cannot recommend this book enough either. I made sure to also take time to discuss Marjane Satrapi's art. I think her style really resonates with younger readers and may at times turn off older readers as too "childish." I don't think this is the case with me, but I understand that it can sometimes get in the way for some readers. However, it is very evident to see the emotion of the moment in her art and I think it generates a certain sense of authentcity. It's important to also discuss the use of black and white versus color. There may be some hidden reason(s) that are not outwardly evident. Students come up with great answers to that topic. We culminated with an avatar comic project and viewed the film as well. Please note that you should discuss that there are artistic differences between the film and graphic novel. It's suttle but there are things that are noticeably different.
With Maus, I had to discuss the Holocaust right off the bat, obviously. Being fresh out of middle school, my students all were aware of the Holocaust and some of the major historical events that engulfed the world at that time. I had to find out what they knew before we began reading. Perhaps the activity that resonated the most with the class during the reading was one where I had them find a favorite page and create a panel-by-panel blank page that looked just like the one they found. It was to stay blank at first. Next, they used their avatar panel by panel to explain their observations and what was important about each panel in their eyes. It pushed them to examine what moved them about the book and what THEY thought was important to notice and why. Their observations are unique, as you may find out, and they examine all of the relationships and events between Art and his family in much more detail with this kind of activity. I can't tell you how many times they touched on ideas that I never even considered. As a fun activity, you may want to have the class create a list on all the animal characters in the book. With this list, you might want them to record why they think Art Spiegelman used certain animals for certain people and countries. Its not obvious as to why this is so. However, it's easier to most understand his notivation for the cats and mice. The answers of the students may surprise you.
V for Vendetta
This book examined several disturbing themes rather intelligently. The most obvious is vigilantism. Much as with Moore's Watchmen, the reader has to ask themselves if the acts of V are justified. Many of the students tended to think so considering all that V had been forced to deal with in his torturous time within the confines of his captors. However, also much like Watchmen, it is a book that is inspired by the writer's own personal convictions and historical events. We get a sense of this in the very beginning with Moore's own words. V is a "terrorist," labeled so by the Parliament. However, is he really a terrorist? This is a an intriguing question that we talked incessantly about in our class. Activities that we did were similar in scope to some of the ones above. With this book you also have to make a disclaimer to the students that it might be hard to read due to the content (violence, etc.). However, as mentioned earlier, the violence is not overdone and is used to convey a complicated message. Some of the greatest literature in schools today has violence in it and this is no different. The only difference is one can see the violence rather than imagine it. Overall it is very well done and tame in my opinion. If you can discuss and read the holocause explored in Maus, than V works well too.
Last was the culminating activity. In this, I told the students that they had to design a 3–5 page comic on their own. This was given to them at the beginning of the trimester and it is necessary to do this so they have time to work on it. You may want to devote one or two days throughout your semester or trimester in order to do this. Many students excelled at this project and enjoyed it.
However an alternate activity I had them work on was to do a movie trailer of a graphic novel that they read on thier own. A great example can be seen here. There are many ways to do this, perhaps. Having a Mac program, we were able to use imovie to make this happen more easily. However, it is possible, I am sure, to do using other computers and programs.
Hopefully, this helps to bring you ideas and you can take the time to explore furthur the ways in which graphic novels and/or comics can change or strenthen your curriculum. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions at all. Good luck and happy adventures!