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Graphic Novels Belong in Your English Class. Here's How to Use Them

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When I think about certain books, I am transported back to milestones in my life the way other people are brought back by smell or song.

I turned 11 along with Harry Potter as I read The Sorcerer’s Stone. I found The Perks of Being a Wallflower at exactly the right time—in the midst of the new frustrations and freedoms of high school. The Book Thief sang to me during my first year of teaching. I bought A Prayer for Owen Meany during the weekend of my sister’s wedding.

When I think of the books that shaped me, I’m struck by nostalgia and appreciation. But now, as a library media specialist, I’ve also come to a realization: Not a single one of these texts was a graphic novel.

Where were they? Graphic novels certainly existed when I was in school. But looking back, I don’t remember picking up any books with pictures after hitting middle school. Perhaps I thought of them as books for a younger audience, something to start with before you ascended to “real” books. This is a sentiment I occasionally hear echoed by educators. Perhaps I thought they only dealt with superheroes. I definitely did not foresee the graphic novels of my future.

My Awakening to the Genre

I first became aware of graphic novels while teaching high school English in Redding, Conn. A colleague and friend of mine introduced a graphic novel into her journaling course: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, an account of the author’s childhood in Iran. Our department also purchased a few copies of The Odyssey, a graphic novel by Gareth Hinds, which depicts Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

But still, I was very surprised when I made the transition to middle school media specialist last year and witnessed the storm of interest in graphic novels. Our 6th through 8th grade students, regardless of reading level, flocked to the graphic novel section, the only area separated by genre in our fiction section. I was intrigued and began flipping through them as well.

These books were by no means intended for surface readers. While short on text, many were rich in complexity. My teacher mind immediately switched into overdrive. How can we use graphic novels as tools to benefit our curriculum and provide our students with new ways to access text? How can teaching graphic novels elevate the rigor of our classrooms?

Introducing graphic novels into the classroom provides a unique opportunity to teach a different type of literacy: visual literacy. Students can be taught to “read” and analyze not only text, but color, shape, texture, layout, and more. This skill (also noted in the Common Core State Standards) is going to become increasingly important in their world of digital media. It can also be transferred to text-based novels.

After observing colleagues implement successful lessons working with visual literacy, I started using a process that worked well. Here it is:

A Process for Teaching Graphic Novels

Begin by presenting students with a spread of graphic novel pages and asking them what they notice about the figures included or emphasized, the colors used, the arrangement of text and images on the page. Students can work in pairs or as a whole class to gather observations.

For example, in Paige by Page by Laura Lee Gulledge, a story about a girl facing anxiety after moving to a new home, one image features the main character, Paige, with a new sketchbook she has bought. One panel shows a close-up of her clutching the sketchbook; in the next, she holds both the sketchbook and a tin can to her ear. Students will notice that Paige is alone: The tin can is connected to a string, but no one is on the other line. In the next panel, the background suddenly appears blank, and Paige wonders to herself, “So I bought a sketchbook … maybe it can help.”

Once students gather observations, the class is then ready for analysis, to draw meaning from what they noticed. How are we meant to feel while looking at this image? Overwhelmed? Sad? What do you think the author/illustrator’s message is? What evidence do you have? In the example from Paige by Page, students will ultimately recognize the loneliness of the main character, and her hope that art can help her to create meaningful bonds.

This same observation-analysis process can be applied to a quotation, poem, or passage.

Teachers can also juxtapose graphic novels and their text-based counterparts. For example, Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault interweaves the story of ostracized, modern-day student Helene with scenes from Jane Eyre.

Ask students: Why would the author/illustrator select this particular scene from Jane Eyre and include it at this moment (over others)? Does this visual representation of the original novel differ from the way you envisioned it? Do you think this author/illustrator effectively preserved characterization? The tone and mood of the scene? The author’s message?

Students should be pushed to defend their responses using evidence from both texts. Students could also be challenged to create and defend their own graphic panel of a particular scene from a text-based work, which would challenge them to make important decisions regarding selection of images, text inclusion, color, and shading. This lesson promotes skills like developing a claim and supporting a claim with evidence, while also encouraging creativity.

Finally, graphic novels are an excellent resource for struggling readers and English-language learners. By providing students with the graphic novel version of a scene or chapter from a text-based novel prior to reading, students will have a general understanding of plot beforehand, and can focus on details. Alternatively, providing the graphic chapter after reading the text-based novel also supports comprehension. Students can reflect on their own learning: What had they missed or misunderstood before that became clear? What important plot points or ideas from the text have been reinforced in the graphic novel?

As an educator, I wish I could return to my child-self and whisper, “Hey, there’s a whole other world of reading out there!” My hope is that we start to view graphic novels not as poor substitutions for text-based novels, but as opportunities to engage and challenge our students.

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