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Using Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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I know 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 just like 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.

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 this 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 (HOTS) can be built through the 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 tool to check for understanding of important content. If used as a summative assessment, the comic could be made to combat bullying, such as the suggestion Suzie Boss made in an earlier post. Make the graphic novel or comic a product that students create to meet a need. Don't just make it a regurgitation of knowledge. Instead, give it an authentic purpose.

4) Study the Genre Itself

Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, 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" arch villain 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 will leave you with some favorite graphic novels and comics that I've used in my classroom! Trust me, I have read plenty more than this list!

  • 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 characterized 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, ancient fable character.
  • X-Men Annual #4 - Uncanny X-Men Volume #3 In this issue, the X-men travel into Dante's Inferno.
What are your favorites and what are you favorite purposes?

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Tammy King WIDA blogger's picture
Tammy King WIDA blogger
ESL/bilingual education specialist and blogger for the WIDA Consortium

You make some excellent points about the benefits of using comics in the classroom. One of the most arduous tasks for secondary ELL teachers is finding materials that cover the same topics (prejudice, personification, etc) but at a level that our ELLs can understand in English. I could see how comics could fill a need in certain units of instruction. Thanks!

volker's picture
Student Services officer at Swinburne University, Melbourne (12/1/12)

I live in the multicultural society of Australia. We have a large number of international students here. In my opinion comics or graphic novells would be a great way to attract international students to actually learn better English. The beauty about comics and graphic novells is, that the text supports the pictures. So even if you don't understand the text within a frame, you may get the idea from the graphic behind the text bubbles as part of the entire story. Of course, not every comic would be suitable for every age group, but there are lots of adult comics (I mean sophisticated story lines rather than porn here) like the Blacksad series, classics like Ray Banana and also the TinTin series with a continuing story line from start to end.

Tanya Noble's picture

I just want to draw attention to the Manga series. I use it in my high school math classroom where I believe it helps to bring Math into a world that many of my students are able to relate to. Here is the link I most recently used the Manga Guide to Statistics but there are many others including calculus, linear algebra, biochemistry, physics...

leaton01's picture

I've used GNs and comics in my courses for years (from literature, history, and cultural studies courses). They're great. But a big mistake most new people do when first using a comic book is that they don't explain and discuss how to read a comic. Failure to do this often loses a lot of students. Borrowing from McCloud or developing your on approach, it's essential to explain not only how to read a page, but to understand things like closure and the interrelation of word and image.

my 2 cents
Coordinator of Instructional Design, North Shore Community College

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