Student Engagement

Using Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom

Every picture tells many possible stories

January 11, 2012

Many teachers use graphic novels and comics in the classroom. There are amazing books on the subject that include useful tools on how to effectively implement these resources for learning.

The main thing teachers need to consider is purpose. I know, we love books and tools, but as with technology, sometimes we get wrapped up in the tool instead of first thinking about the purpose. Here are some specific strategies to ponder as you select a graphic novel or comic to read, or as you consider how students might create their own. Thinking about them will help you focus your purpose in your instruction. All of them are useful, as long as the purpose is clear to the teacher and the learner.

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1) A Tool to Differentiate Instruction

Graphic novels and comics can be a great way to differentiate instruction for learners in terms of reading and also in terms of assessment. Perhaps you want to offer your students a graphic novel to support their reading of a chapter in a rigorous text. If the text is a classic, there are many graphic novel adaptations of classics out there. Maybe you’re doing a project-based learning (PBL) project where you want to provide voice and choice for the student assessment. Students might be choosing between a letter, comic, or podcast to answer a driving question such as: How can we debunk myths and stereotypes about world religions?

2) Build Critical Reading Skills

Reading standards around higher order thinking skills can be built through complex analysis and evaluation of graphic novels and comics. Have students look at how the authors and illustrators use colors, textures, words, text boxes, frames, and camera angles; then make connections between these elements and evaluated their effectiveness.

3) Assess Student Learning

PBL calls for the creation of authentic products that are useful and credible to the group. You can have students create comics or graphic novels, or components of them, as a useful formative assessment to check for understanding of important content. If used as a summative assessment, the comic could be made to combat bullying, as Suzie Boss has suggested. Make the graphic novel or comic a product that students create to meet a need. Don’t just make it a regurgitation of knowledge—give it an authentic purpose.

4) Study the Genre Itself

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud asserts the legitimacy and complexity of comics and graphic novels as a genre. Pairing selections from his work with a graphic novel or comic can provide interesting discussion and inquiry into the elements of the genre itself. Genre study is an easy way to utilize literature circle groups and instructional lessons, where students get to pick from a variety of options.

5) Examine Literary Elements

In addition to traditional literary elements like symbol, character and plot, graphic novels take these elements and modify them, where characters become heroes and villains, where symbols are actually drawn and created. Consider this clip from the movie Unbreakable, where the “normal” archvillain and hero confront each other, not in a fantasy but in real life.

There are many other purposes for graphic novels in the classroom, from looking at different cultures and backgrounds to utilizing technology in authentic ways. Just make sure you select the graphic novel or comic with a clear purpose in mind. Perhaps you have multiple purposes, as there are many instructionally sound purposes out there.

I’ll leave you with some favorite graphic novels and comics that I’ve used in my classroom.

  • Persepolis, a memoir of a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, was recently made into a motion picture.
  • Maus, a top favorite for many, explores themes of the Holocaust through a memoir populated by mice and cats.
  • American Born Chinese is the tale of three characters: Jin Wang, the only Chinese-American in the neighborhood; Chin-Kee, the ultimate Chinese stereotype; and the Monkey King, an ancient fable character.
  • Uncanny X-Men Volume 3 In this issue, the X-Men travel into Dante’s Inferno.