A blog following teacher Aaron Jura as he plans engaging, yet relevant English Language Arts content for High School students in New Orleans, LA.
Comic books and graphic novels have evolved from a somewhat contrite art form and storytelling tool in their infancy to a narrative powerhouse that ignites the mind and engages the reader from page one. Graphic novels are beginning to become popular for use in the classroom setting. In Nancy Frey’s and Douglas Fischer’s book Teaching Visual Literacy on the topic they argue that using graphic novels and comic books increases engagement, strengthens multiple literacy competences, and boosts student critical thinking and analysis. So why, might you ask, are English classrooms not littered with graphic novels and comics? Well, that’s the issue right there. Many educators aren’t familiar with the joys of comic book and graphic novel reading. Many are even afraid to attempt to tackle the unfamiliar look of a comic book versus a novel. The purpose of this piece is to ignite the imagination by using this highly engaging and flexible storytelling device to drive student understanding of narrative structure and text to text and text to image relationships.
For me, some of the most difficult students to engage in the English classroom are the ones who play too many video games. I’m stereotyping a bit here, but frankly we all know the kids I am talking about. They are either into it or they are not and will zone out. They are typically the type of student that is intelligent, but if they don’t want to engage in something they are not going to. As an educator this tears me up, at times. I see the brilliance in these students when they fully engage, but they I see their regression when they are disengaged with a certain unit of study. I had tried and tried – choice projects, differentiation in instruction, project based learning and still I was catching disengagement from kids who were usually trying to slyly engage with a game on their personal device or school computer. Then I discovered graphic novels and the crowds went wild. The same student who I described above was instantly into the idea and their high interest, especially when juxtaposed against their typical disengaged personality, was intoxifying in the classroom and really helped to help shape the classroom culture positively.
So what does one do first when trying to tackle a completely new curriculum without any resources provided by the school or typical curriculum companies? Well, you make it … of course. I started with research using Frey’s and Fischer’s book on the pedagogical reasoning for using comic books and graphic novels and then I started research on the genre. Specifically, I used Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art as my guides. Both books provide a perspective into the entire process of storytelling in comics. I was particularly taken with the relationships between text and art as it relates to this unique art. I also took an amazing online course through the California College of the Arts called Comics: Art in Relationship. I only audited the course and so the course content was free for me to view and access. From all of these sources I came to the conclusion that the benefits to teaching using graphic novels and comics far outweigh the risks. And so, I jumped in head first.
Potential Unit Plans
It really depends on how you want to teach or use comics on how you would implement it into your classroom, but here I will share a couple ideas I had when I was brainstorming during lesson planning:
Every year I try to set myself a BIG goal. I am held accountable for the goal through our Professional Growth Plans and always want to see success. This year, my goal is to modernize the English I curriculum. You might be saying to yourself, "What does it mean to modernize the curriculum?" Believe me... I asked myself that same question about 1,000 ways and what I came up with was that the curriculum is not engaging because it is not relevant to students today.
I can't really say what modernizing IS, but I can tell you what it's NOT. Modernizing does not mean eliminating classics. In fact, to modernize doesn't require elimination at all -- it requires a better mastery over classroom time and tightening routines to make the needed adjustments to enrich the curriculum with engaging and relevant content.
For example, where the curriculum says we need to do Homer's Odyssey or Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet it does not say how this should be done. That's where the modernization comes in.
This entire past month I have been added a unit in -- prior to engaging in our reading of The Odyssey -- on Greek Mythology and myth in general. Students have been very engaged in the mythological stories and beginning next week we will work through a group presentation project -- Mythological Reality TV where students will "pitch" a reality TV concept based upon a researched myth (from a culture other than Greek/Roman.) These types of engaging extensions help to modernize the curriculum by encouraging students to get engaged in their readings.
If students are able to understand the Cyclops' mentality based upon Greek mythological representations won't they get to a deeper level of critical analysis when they encounter Polyphemus in the Odyssey?
As for Romeo and Juliet, why not read it through the use of graphic novels? Why not act out scenes in a tableau form? Why not modernize the language and have students write Shakespearean insults? These are all highly engaging activities for the modern student that still allow us English teachers to cover the content we want the students to know and engage with.
Finally, thanks to a generous grant from Jamba Juice we will be adding in a unit on graphic novels and comic books. I am going to use this moment to teach about transition -- and the use of art in relationship. I can't wait to get started. For anyone interested in using comics in class, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and also taking the FREE course at the California College of the Arts (online) called Comics: Art in Relationship. I am also going to start incessantly bothering author Ta Nehisi Coates to see about getting a SKYPE call to the classroom about his work on Marvel comic's Black Panther series. :-)
Just another day in the life of a high school teacher.
I thought this movie would make a great film study of character, Appalachian culture, in and out migration, and finally symbolism. Think about the piece of wood Gerdie is attempting to carve as her masterpiece. Why can't she get the face done? What is more important to her -- the face of Christ or the wood itself? Why? What about the argument Gerdie has with Clovis. How is this argument symbolic of Gerdie holding on to her upbringing and story as an Appalachian woman?
Mr. J is a high school teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. J believes in the power of educators to help children and families achieve. Follow his blog for tips and techniques to keep engagement high and student achievement at the forefront.