Why I Teach Graphic Novels In My Classroom

I grew up during a time where reading the Sunday comics was considered a quick pass time, but most definitely not considered reading. My family raised me on the belief that reading was sitting with a book and absorbing multiple chapters, not a quick read through something with PICTURES. Pictures were for elementary students and didn’t give me the same benefits that reading something substantially larger would provide.

Well, after nearly 30 years on this Earth, I’m here to respectfully disagree. Here’s why:

Graphic Novels Require More Thought and Creativity Than a Traditional Novel 

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Before I can introduce a graphic novel to a student, even my most advanced student, I always find myself having to teach them the technique of reading this type of medium. We teachers spend so much time showing students how to read paragraphs, articles and traditional novels yet the structure of a graphic novel is a foreign country to their brains.

Students must be taught about frames, panels and how something like the color scheme affects the tone. Dialogue and narrative are represented in different ways, and students must learn how to pick each one out. In between each panel is something called the “gutter”, or the gap between two panels where action occurs that the student’s imagination has to create without words or images to aid them. In traditional novels, these small moments are often detailed to them. Reading graphic novels is actually working more parts of their creative brain – and it offers a slightly different experience to each child since humans experience every day reading based on their OWN previous experiences.

Students will also need to recognize how the artist dresses each character in some familiar clothing, or continues to keep the same hair, facial features, significant detail to represent one character! This is the only way, unless the dialogue addresses the character in EVERY panel, that the student will know which character is present. There is a LOT of imagination and creativity that goes into reading a graphic novel, that students do not experience in such fullness from a traditional novel.

Graphic Novels Make Harder Concepts Available to Struggling Readers

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Kids that do not enjoy reading because they struggle to sound out words, comprehend what they read or have attention issues will suddenly have an avenue into more difficult concepts. Graphic novels offer these students an image-dense, text-light approach to understanding concepts such as theme, tone, characterization, etc that they may be missing due to their reluctance to engage with traditional texts. Graphic novels are a GREAT building block to catch struggling readers up to their grade-level peers while you continue to work with them on traditional reading strategies.

Let’s be honest – we do not care HOW they get to that Aha Moment… we just want them all to enjoy reading and learning. We want them to know that they are capable of this material, and are intelligent, just like their peers, DESPITE their struggles.

Graphic Novels Are Engaging So Kids Want to Finish Them

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This ties back in with your struggling readers. You know the kid, you may even have one or ten in your classes. The student who seemed to fall more and more behind each year until they finally felt like such a failure that they started to give up on trying to keep up with their peers. It was easier to just shrug and act like they didn’t WANT to finish the assigned reading rather than continue to struggle and fail. Yikes.

Graphic novels are illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the world. Some are black and white, some brilliantly colored in every hue imaginable. Some graphic novels feature characters bursting out of their frames, others have one page with over 40 different panels all with a different image and piece to the puzzle. Bottom line – they’re stinking INTERESTING! They aren’t just letters on a white page, but letters mixed with cool images that get the kids imagining their own stories. They’re easier to absorb because they don’t feel like work, but rather like something they are reading just for fun.

Graphic Novels Often Make Kids Think Harder Than a Traditional Novel

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One co-worker of mine scoffed at lunch one day when I mentioned that I would be teaching MAUS Part I to my 8th grade class. “See how well these students do on the state exams by learning about reading COMICS”, they further commented. I smiled at our district librarian, who winked at me. Later that day, I brought the graphic novel to my co-worker and asked that they take the time tonight to skim through Chapter One. The next day, my co-worker handed me back the book and said, “Do they have one of these for the Civil War Era?” Success!

Graphic novels are NOT easier to read than a traditional novel… if you are teaching students how to read them properly. Sure, a student could skim the images quickly and say they are finished but upon a quick test we would find that they did not pick up much information. A student who soaks up the information from each panel and knits them together in their brain is actually working harder than a student reading the same text written traditionally. Simply because, the student reading the graphic novel has to pick up on subtle cues from color, structure, dialogue, narrative, panel placement, and more in order to make sense of the story.

Scott McCloud has the BEST book for teaching YOU how to read a graphic novel called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which you can then use to teach your kids how to read one! He breaks all aspects of a graphic novel down into bite-size amounts, so even if you’ve never even looked at the Funnies in the Sunday Paper, you’ll feel comfortable with teaching them to a room full of excited kids.

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This is my own copy – as you can tell, it is WELL loved and ear-marked because it is a goldmine of information.

Graphic Novels Offer a New Perspective on A Character, Without It Being a Movie 

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I tell my students one thing when they first meet me – if we read a book in this class, and there is a good movie interpretation of it, we will watch that movie. They get so happy, as if I am giving them a gift when really, I am exposing them to the important themes in a more absorbable way (no text comprehension required), and letting them experience how a film director interpreted the plot compared to how they did. So often, kids watch the film version of a book and I hear, “But that’s not how I pictured THAT character, at all!” and it always makes me smile. Bingo! Made ya think.

Graphic novels can be much the same. Some years I will have a student fly through a novel we are reading together in class. They are lightyears ahead of their peers, comprehension comes easily, and they simply are tortured to drag along at the pace of the class. When I am able, a student who admits to reading ahead (even though I often discourage this to try to keep us all together), I will give them the graphic novel version to read. Their brain lights up as they watch scenes unfold in ways that they did not imagine, or they notice details they missed during their first read. Essentially, they are doing a second read of the information (shhh, don’t tell them) that is allowing their brain to focus less on content and more on technique! WHY did the author make this character act in this way? Ohhh… now that I’ve read the whole novel, this all makes sense. Graphic novels aren’t just for struggling readers – they can be an extension activity for your advanced students as well.

Now, I’m not saying the ONLY texts you should teach in your classroom are graphic novels…but I hope this article gives you some encouragement and courage to maybe, in the future, give it a try.

I teach MAUS Part I to my 8th graders (disclaimer: you will need to provide background information on World War II and the Holocaust because most of this age group has VERY little knowledge on these topics) and it is SO much fun. I know… very odd to describe teaching about the Holocaust as “fun”.

Art Spiegelman, author of MAUS, illustrates his characters as animals in a purposeful way of creating metaphor! The Jewish characters are rats, since the Jews were treated as vermin, the Nazis are drawn as cats since cats are the natural predators of rats, etc. This allows a serious topic (the Holocaust) to become accessible to students while teaching them about metaphor. Win-win for the English Teacher. I offer a creative and thought-provoking study guide for Part I of MAUS on my TpT store for the educator who wants to leap in with both feet and get started with using this graphic novel.

 

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