The Necessity (& Trials) of Teaching Cultural Texts in a Small Town

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I wouldn’t trade teaching in a rural, small-town district for all the money in the world.

I’ve taught in several districts during my teaching career and there is nothing that quite matches the compassion of students who grow up in a small town. Their hearts are big, even if their parents’ pocketbooks may not be.

The majority of my students live in absolute poverty and the story behind most of their lives brings me to tears each time I hear them. I couldn’t single-handedly fix the brokenness of their lives, but rather than dwell on that kind of hopeless thought, I decided to give these kids something that their small town couldn’t. World culture.

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I can promise you, the first time I introduced a cultural novel to my English 12 class, I was met with an onslaught of insensitive and culturally crude remarks from a few of my more rowdy pupils. These students had NEVER been asked to read a novel set somewhere like the Middle East. They had grown up hearing negative remarks about anyone from the Middle East, stemming from the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Yes, I know that was a while ago, but mindsets are very set in a small town where ideas tend to lay stagnant with very few opportunities to change them. Yet I knew that culturally-aware kids became culturally-tolerant adults, so I continued pushing forward.

Everyday, I addressed any sort of comments that came up and flipped them in to teachable moments. I would correct the child’s remark and launch into a conversation about where such ideas stem from and how they are SO incorrect. At first, my students grumbled because the very ideology they had grown up with was being challenged.

I remained persistent in course-correcting them, and I noticed the remarks and slights ceased entirely. I exposed the students to a wide variety of non-fiction texts, video clips from YouTube, and gave them a basic but profound foundation on the culture found in these countries that we were about to read about in our class novels. Slowly, their comments turned into questions and I knew they were ready to begin.

I taught novels such as The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. They soaked up the narratives, explored the character’s inner trials and tribulations and often would come into my room before class to exclaim over what had happened to a favorite character of theirs. On the surface, I was teaching novels set in a different location but what I was REALLY teaching was compassion, empathy and a deep-set understanding for those who are not exactly like them.

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It was not always easy to gain support from the parents of my students either. I was once confronted by a parent who requested that I teach something more to the interest of their child, something they could use once they had graduated. When I asked what the parent would suggest, they mentioned reading articles on dirt bikes or mechanics since that was what their child was mostly interested in. The crazy thing is, I UNDERSTOOD where the parent was coming from. I understood that their child was more interested in motors and going fast, and that was definitely what they would do after high school. But these novels weren’t just assigned reading-they weren’t meant to just be “interesting”. They were skill building. They were explorations into cultures that these students may never get the opportunity to explore on their own or in person. If no one opened their eyes to the beauty of cultures in other countries, would these students spend the rest of their lives in fear of cultures other than their own?

I had to justify using these texts in my classroom several times to my administration, and in the end IT WAS WORTH IT. It was worth every single meeting explaining the purpose behind the novels, every single eye-roll from a student when I would announce a foreign author’s name, every single angry parent-email demanding to know why their child was reading non-fiction that taught them the founding principles of a different religion prevalent in a culture.

Why? Because my students were transformed. They weren’t making those same insensitive comments they did when they first were introduced to new cultures. I had given them one small opening to a new perspective on life in different parts of the world, and so many of my students flourished after that.

As the years have flown by, I have gained the trust and admiration of the community and I don’t receive those angry phone calls, upset emails or demands for meetings with the administration. The changed thinking of many small town students speaks for itself – all through choosing to teach them even ONE cultural novel that widens their understanding of what it means to be human.

Here’s to making the world a little bit more tolerant of each other, one cohort of small-town minds at a time.

The Genius Educator TeacherPayTeachers Resources for Cultural Units

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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.