Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels
by Becca James
A line has formed, populated with people holding signs and speaking inaudibly to those that pass by. Move in closer, and it’s evident that the line is composed of high school students. Although they should be in the classroom on this mid-March Friday, they’ve taken to the streets in protest of Chicago Public School’s decision that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis only be part of the junior and senior curriculum. In previous years, Satrapi’s depiction of growing up during the Iranian revolution was accepted curriculum for both middle and high school classes. Approximately 100 students stand in a cold drizzle of rain outside Chicago’s Lane Tech High School. Move in another step closer and their assertions are now audible.
“‘I don’t think it’s right,’ says Melissa Blaze. ‘Any book, for that matter, I don’t think it should be banned. I don’t think it should be taken off shelves’” (Horng).
Blaze is referencing an email from the principal of Lane Tech High School, which was later posted online, that instructs staff to confirm the book is not in the library and that is hasn’t been checked out.
This dichotomy mirrors another current controversy in the nation’s classrooms. One side deems comics at best as the pithy alternative to literature, essentially hoping to ban them from education, leaving them where they belong – with other after school hobbies, such as vampire books and video games. Opponents argue the graphic novel’s merit as a teaching tool, explaining the benefits they bestow on their readers. So, I attempt to address the question How can a teacher use graphic novels effectively in a high school classroom to promote literacy and critical thinking? by exploring the history of graphic novels made for educational purposes, in comparison to the use of more traditional, informational texts commonly used. I will also shed light on the opinions of both proponents and opponents of comics in the classroom, as well as share practice tips and my own personal connection to the issue.
Perhaps surprisingly, comic formatted media has a long-standing relationship with academics. In fact, former high school principal Max Gaines is credited with creating the first comic book when he bound a series of newspaper comic strips into a single book in 1933. Five years later, Gaines and a partner began publishing original material under the name All-American Publications, home to well known comic characters such as Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. Eventually, Gaines’s partner bought him out, but Gaines stayed in the comic business, this time combining it with his passion for education by using the sale’s proceeds to establish Educational Comics in 1944. He planned to market comics about science, history and the Bible to schools and churches. Just three years later, Gaines died, leaving his business in the hands of family, who took Educational Comics in a different direction, adding new titles featuring horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction and crime fiction—changing the company’s name to Entertaining Comics (Jones, 2006).
Other companies attempted to fill the void left by Educational Comics. The most successful was the company Classics Illustrated, which published comic book adaptations of literature’s great works such as Moby Dick and The Iliad. At its peak, Classics Illustrated boasted print runs of 262,000 copies per issue in the 169 issue series. The company was in business from 1941 to 1971 (Elder, 2012).
At the same time, in early 1941, noted artist Will Eisner was drafted into the United States Army. His assignment from the government, however, was a unique one. Eisner was ordered to create comics for training personnel in the publication Army Motors during his World War II military service. For this, he created a bumbling soldier named Joe Dope who helped depict numerous methods of preventive maintenance for military equipment and weapons. An efficiency study by the University of Chicago showed conclusively that Eisner’s comic-based manuals were superior teaching tools in every way to the traditional alternatives. In fact, the manuals were so successful that Eisner continued to develop them for the military as a civilian contractor and in 1984 formed American Visuals Corporation in order to continue producing instructional materials for the government, related agencies and businesses. According to testimonials from soldiers who used these manuals, it was Eisner’s work that kept them alive during combat, which adds to analysts’ argument that his work in education had the most impact on its intended audience. Eisner went on to create A Contract with God, widely considered to be the first graphic novel, and to lend his name to the Eisner Awards, the comic world equivalent of the Oscars (Elder, 2012).
Today, comics and graphic novels are often welcomed in education through the doors of English classes, yet, one is still hard pressed to find comic-format, non-fiction materials being used in other areas of study, such as science and mathematics. However, over the last decade there’s been an increase in this type of text, as well as a notable rise in the use of graphic novels as an aid to assist reluctant or slower readers, giving comics much more academic respect. In fact, a study entitled “Effects of Comic Strips on L2 Learners’ Reading Comprehension” by Jun Liu (2004) of the University of Arizona concluded that lower-level students working with higher-level text in comic strip form “… scored significantly higher than their counterparts receiving the high-level text only” (p. 11).
Further bolstering comic’s place in the classroom is the newly implemented Common Core Standards, which explicitly call for the use of alternative media, including comics, in the curriculum. Forty-five of the nation’s states have adopted these standards (corestandards.org). Specifically, the recently implemented Minnesota Academic Standards call for the use of new forms of media, which include graphic novels (education.state.mn.us). In “But This Book Has Pictures! The Case for Graphic Novels in an AP Classroom,” author Lisa Cohen explains the benefits of visual rhetoric requirements, writing that by incorporating them into the curriculum students can practice “higher learning, critical thinking, and analytical skills.” She goes on to point out that “the reading of both visuals and text together usually necessitates inference skills and a synthesis of a number of clues presented both on the page and as a pattern throughout the book…” allowing for a “new approach to diction imagery, syntax, structure, and language…” She observes in the same article that “often graphic novels exploit the dual expressions of text and visuals to create puns, irony, and paradox” (Cohen, 2013).
Brenda Pennella, author of “Graphic Novels: The POW!-er in the classroom!”, agrees that graphic novels inherently support the cornerstones of literature instruction, writing, “With graphic novels, the scaffolding necessary to build solid readers is in the architecture of the genre. The illustrations not only support the text, they are part of the text. Students are given context clues within the subtle and sometime not so subtle expressions, symbols and actions of the characters… vocabulary is also supported within the illustrations and text” (Pennella, 2004).
Laura Hudson (2008), senior editor at the Comic Foundry, a now defunct comic-focused magazine, comments on the shift supported by the likes of Cohen and Pennella, explaining that although comics have been “long ghettoized—even demonized—in North America as puerile and pulpy, both ‘comic books’ (traditional comics periodicals) and book-format graphic novels are now being used in both K-12 and higher education classrooms as everything from early developmental reading tools to serious literary texts” (p. 22). She attributes this shift to the mature nature of graphic novels, which are “claiming significant space on library shelves.” Citing titles such as American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as a great example—it won, among other awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, which annually recognizes the best book written for teens— Hudson points out that this public recognition is based entirely on a work’s literary merit, receiving accolades “normally reserved for prose novels” (p. 23). Additionally, Hudson sees this shift as a result of “an increasing number of educators-cum-comics fans working within their institutions as thoughtful advocates for the medium,” and an increased interest from publishers in the “multibillion-dollar educational publishing industry” (p.23). She supports the second claim via Milton Griepp, CEO of the pop culture news site ICv2.com, and Diamond Comics sales manager John Shableski, who report that “sales of graphic novels to libraries and schools increased from about $1 million in 2001 to more than $30 million in 2007” (p. 23). The trend has continued, as Griepp and Shableski have since reported a $5 million increase, stressing that a single copy of a graphic novel found in a library or classroom will reach the hands of many students, not just one per copy (Griepp, 2013), thus increasing a work’s actual dissemination.
Yet, there have always been and still are critics crusading against comics. As early as 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, challenging the existence of comic books and charging them with damaging children. Due to the reception of the book and the notoriety of Wertham, in April of that same year he appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. In an effort led by politician Estes Kefauver, Wertham argued for “national legislation based on the public health ideal that would prohibit the circulation and display of comic books to children under the age of 15” (Beaty, 2005). Wertham and company were unable to convince the committee that comics contributed to crime, and in 2010 when his original research materials for Seduction of the Innocent became available it was evident he had falsified data. Carol Tilley (2012), Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, found his conclusions largely baseless. In “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics,” Tilley says, “Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence of personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain” (p. 383).
Today, the stigma continues, as critics continue to site depictions of violence, with added arguments that comics provide reading levels that are too low and content that is too frivolous. These critics call for more traditional textbooks in the classroom, linking them to academic rigor and a higher level of learning in comparison to the education comics can offer. Yet, the University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning refutes this notion with “Big Ideas in Beginning Reading: Vocabulary.” Published in 2013, the article provides information declaring that “comic books average 53.5 rare words per thousand,” surpassing the averages of children’s books (30.9), adult books (52.7), expert witness testimony averages (28.4), and the conversations of college graduates with friends (17.3) (University of Oregon, 2013). Furthermore, Stephen D. Krashen and Joanne Ujiie (1996), authors of “Comic Book Reading, Reading Enjoyment, and Pleasure reading Among Middle Class and Middle School Students,” attest that “…those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, like to read more, and tended to read more books” (p.5). The results of this study confirmed, “that comic book reading certainly does not inhibit other kinds of reading and is consistent with the hypothesis that comic book reading facilitates heavier reading” (p. 5).
Studies like the aforementioned may explain why an opposition to comics in the classroom surprises Jeremy Short, strategic management chair of University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business and author of Atlas Black books, a series of comic texts that teach management concepts to graduate students via a graphic novel narrative: “The pencil, the ball-point pen, chalkboard and computer were all innovations that educators scoffed at when they were first introduced,” Short says, likening these common classroom items to comics and hoping to add comics to the list of “educational tools that seem foolish to bemoan in hindsight” (MacDonald, 2013).
Statistics are on Short’s side, which is evident in the results of his study in which 80 percent of 140 graduate students in a strategic management class preferred a graphic novel treatment to its text-only counterpart, showing that students retain knowledge presented in graphic novel format. Furthermore, a short quiz showed that while both groups had absorbed the concepts of both the graphic novel Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure and the traditional textbook covering the same material equally, “students who had read the graphic novel excerpt had better verbatim recall of the material” (MacDonald, 2013). Short’s study is the first of its kind, though it is part of an emerging field of study on how verbal/visual blends affect learning and cognition. Still, few studies have directly looked at comics and cognizance.
Yet, other experts continue to attribute this success to an alignment with an increasingly image-oriented world. Peter Coogan, Director of the Institute for Comics Studies, says the visual component is critical in this day and age: “We’re a visual culture now, not a typographical culture. Comics teach visual literacy” (Hudson, 2006). Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, agrees adding that literacy today isn’t simply being able to understand the written word, but rather being able to extract meaning from a printed page. There’s a kind of visual literacy that is innate. There’s a lot that kids are able to understand and an enormous amount of complexity that can be used. It’s like poetry: deceptively simple, and levels and levels of meaning can be brought out” (Hudson, 2006).
These positive conclusions concerning comic-based instruction consistently articulate the benefit to using different forms of literature for learning. Studies confirm these ideas, as they concluded—much like earlier studies of Eisner’s instructional manuals—“people who learn from words and graphics produced between 55 percent to 121 percent more correct solutions to transfer problems than people who learned from words alone” (Mayer, 2011). English teacher Adam Martin (2009) agrees: “students live in a constantly changing media frenzy, and teachers need to use works that speak to students’ need for visual stimulation.” He sees comics as a viable option: “with proper instruction, using graphic novels is one solution to teaching classical literature, research skills, and making thematic connections in a way that students will both appreciate and understand” (p. 30).
As the research surrounding the implementation of comics in the classroom continues to grow, numerous experts weigh in on what proper instruction for using graphic novels should look like. From smaller-scale offerings, such as using graphic novels to teach transition words, to larger units, such as using graphic novels with ESL students to teach fluency, there are levels to this sort of instruction.
First, starting with the straightforward basics, it is important that before instructing with graphic novels one make the appropriate text choice. As Joseph Witek, professor of Comics and Popular Culture at Stetson University suggests, teachers shouldn’t censor the text, but instead should start by “choosing material that is wholly appropriate” (Witek, 2009). When making this choice teachers aren’t discouraged by the number of options. Due to the numerous choices available—the number of comics and graphic novels is enormous, much like the canon of English literature. The big difference though, is that the number of comics and graphic novels continues to grow rapidly every day, unlike the slower growth in what scholars deem acceptable literature; teachers must do their best to refrain from worrying about what they aren’t teaching, which will ensure too much isn’t packed into a single unit. As Witek puts it, when he structures his comic-based courses he considers “fewer texts and a more concise set of formal and critical concepts,” which allows students to “retain the ideas and work with the remaining texts more precisely.”
Next, it is imperative that students are aware of how to navigate these texts. Associate professor at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, Bill Boerman-Cornell writes that, “Before students read a graphic novel, their teacher needs to introduce some of the basic conventions of such novels. These conventions might include the usual arrangement of panels from left to right and top to bottom, as well as ways of navigating alternative panel arrangements; the conventions of speech and thought bubble borders (smooth equals normal speech, jagged indicates an excited voice, square or boxy indicates a mechanical sort of speech, and so on); and the shading of text boxes to indicate which character is narrating the story” (Boerman-Cornell, 2013). Witek agrees, advising that teachers should never “make assumptions about what students know or don’t now” (Witek, 2009). This is important in any subject, but especially when teaching with a lesser-used medium, which is why Witek suggests conversing about each individual’s knowledge of the topic beforehand: “the only way such varied groups can hope to cohere as a class is to get them talking to one another” (Witek 2009). He further suggests having students complete an initial ungraded assignment requiring them to “reflect on and then articulate their previous experience with comics” (Witek, 2009). He cautions though that teachers don’t get bogged down in definitions in this stage, as he’s found focusing on “specific techniques and conventions of comics, the critical concepts required to analyze them, and the historical range of textual practice in comics form is more than enough” (Witek, 2009) Additionally, because comics scholarship is a growing field, and its critical vocabulary is in constant flux, Witek writes, “If the intellectual work on comics were to wait until the definitions are set, the work would never get done, and a set of terms used consistently right now in the classroom accomplishes more than lexical perfection might do in the distant future” (Witek, 2009).
Once the appropriate material has been chosen and students are able to read it in a logical manner, award-winning librarian Deborah B. Ford suggests some quick tips for using graphic work with students in conjunction with curriculum. Among them, she advises using a document camera to direct students to points of interest in graphic novels, because “the pictures are just as important as the text, so everyone needs to see both well” (Ford, 2011). She also believes in hands-on practices, such as photocopying a page of comic panels and either having students match cut out, scrambled panels and text in order, or allow them to create their own text or visuals for provided panels that are missing one or the other (Ford, 2011) )This speaks to the necessity of hands-on creation, which is imperative in a comics-based curriculum). Co-authors of Connecting Comics to Curriculum: Strategies for Grades 6-12 Karen Gavigan and Mindy Tomasevich assert “once your students develop an appreciation for the combination of the text and visuals in comics, you can begin harnessing the power of graphic novels by using them within the K-12 curriculum. You will soon see how quickly graphic novels engage readers of varying abilities and developmental stages. By capitalizing on the popularity of this wide-reaching format, you can actively involve readers across all grade levels and subject areas” (Gavigan, 2012).
Going back to Persepolis, my own experience with graphic novels in the classroom didn’t come until much later than the protesting high school students, during my two years teaching high school English language arts at a charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota. The school, which caters to East African immigrants, divides it’s English offerings into two tracks, an A track and a B track. I taught the B track, which contained many mainstreamed English Language Learners (ELL) and a lot of generally low-performing students. Although it is was never explicitly stated, I was tasked with increasing literacy among these students and, most importantly to the school’s administration, ensuring that the sophomore class would pass the Minnesota Comprehension Assessments (MCA). The MCA is a series of tests across the subjects that students must pass in order to graduate. The sophomores are slated to face the reading focused exam, which tests students on a number of reading comprehension skills, such as the ability to paraphrase, summarize and make inferences. Within the first week of school, I administered a practice test to my students as a diagnostic. It was clear that the text they encountered on that test was considerably difficult for most of them to comprehend. The state awards four different levels to students once they have taken the test. A score of 85 percent or higher is an “exceed” and a score of 68 percent to 84 percent is a “meets.” Earning an “exceed” or “meet” means the student passed the test. On the other end of the spectrum, 49 percent to 67 percent is a “partial” and anything below that is “did not meet,” both of which are failing scores. That September, only two of my students passed the diagnostic with scores in the “meet” range. The rest of the students received scores in the “partial” or “did not meet” range. It was evident that my students had a long way to go before the MCA in April.
At the time, I had no real curriculum to speak of and not a single set of textbooks in my classroom. It was becoming more and more clear to me why my students were so behind with their reading skills. I set out to help my students overcome the lack of resources provided throughout their education by locating an eighth-grade textbook and I then began to make copies for them each day. Although meeting them at a lower text level helped them gain confidence in their ability to comprehend the assignments and complete the necessary tasks, I heard many complaints about the content. Most often, the students felt that the stories were boring and childish. I wondered if they really felt this way, or if they were voicing concerns because they knew we were using text meant for younger students. Either way, I couldn’t argue with them, as I found the selections in this particular textbooklackluster.
I moved forward by finding other materials, but I was still making copies for the students. As a lover of books, this was disheartening. I felt that my students needed to engage with reading on all levels. Not only did they need an exciting text that focused on age appropriate topics, they needed to feel an entire book in their hands, one that was just theirs to page through and to be responsible for. After much consideration I decided that the first class set of books to enter my room would be Persepolis. I chose this graphic novel, because I was extremely familiar with it, having read it in college, and even owned a signed copy, since I had previously attended a lecture and signing by the author, Marjane Satrapi. I believed that the subject matter, which revolved around the author’s life as a young girl during the Islamic revolution would resonate with my students, all of whom were Muslim immigrants. I knew that, although I had already read the book, my students would be able to approach it with more first-hand knowledge of the geographical and religious topics within. My only concern was that my administration and the students’ parents might not welcome the addition of a graphic novel into the curriculum I was creating.
It was with my intuition and the above information, that I brought Persepolis into the classroom thanks to monetary donations from family and friends. The book was met with much excitement, for the wrong reasons—“We don’t have to actually read!”—while others were excited for the right reasons—“Oh, my gosh this is neat. Look, the main character is wearing a Hijab!” But by the time my introductory lessons were complete, my class and I were on the same page; this was a serious novel, about serious topics, and we were going to approach it as serious students who understood the value of the fun in the form.
Over the next few weeks, they worked through the novel panel by panel, strengthening their reading comprehension skills and growing as discussion participants, sharing their opinions in an appropriate manner and responding to others’ ideas in the same way. Each student made a mini graphic novel depicting an important event in our life. With pride, we placed them gallery style in the hallway for everyone to see. They had clearly enjoyed themselves, but I needed to see if they had improved as readers. After administering a practice test, the results were amazing. Of my 15 students, 10 passed the practice test, with two exceeding expectations. Of the remaining five, three were in the “partial” range and two were in the “did not meet” range. They went on to read larger, more text based novels, but it was clear that the time we had spent with Persepolis was well worth it.
In a way, we had redefined literacy, and the following year, my now junior students requested to read another graphic novel, choosing another challenging and rewarding text in V for Vendetta. We read this book as part of our revolution unit, which also included the classic Animal Farm by George Orwell. I was proud of my students’ ability to not only to maneuver throughout the visual format of V for Vendetta, which is dense with both art and text, but also to keep track of the various time changes that occur throughout. Furthermore, tackling the rigorous themes of not only revolution, but also politics and identity was a great way to increase critical thinking skills, as many assignments required discussion and debate. As a gift at the end of the year, I gave each student their own copy of V for Vendetta, to cherish, keeping it safe on a shelf at home, or perhaps to someday gift it, affording a younger sibling the same benefits it had brought them.
For more information on comic curriculum, see Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, or Comics as Literature? by Hillary Chute.
Books To Use
Brosgol, Vera. Anya’s Ghost. First Second, 2011. [Supernatural story of Russian immigrant’s struggle to fit in and make friends at school.]
Long, Mark, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell. The Silence of Our Friends. First Second, 2012. [Told from the Long’s perspective, this is the story of civil rights incidents covered by his father, a television reporter in Houston, Texas, in 1968, following the Texas Southern University student boycott after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was banned from campus.]
Moore, Alan, and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. Vertigo, 2008. [The tale of a mysterious masked figure working to destroy the totalitarian government of a dystopian United Kingdom circa 1980 to 1990.]
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Pantheon, 2004. [A young girl’s story of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.]
Telgmeier, Raina. Smile. Graphix, 2010. [In this autobiographical coming-of-age graphic novel memoir, Raina Telgemeier ruminates with humor and honesty on the tumultuous challenges and perils of her teen years.]
Yang, Gene Luen.American Born Chinese. Square Fish, 2008. [Three seemingly independent stories of Chinese folklore, a teenager’s need to fit in, and adolescents’ balancing of their Chinese American heritage.]
Beaty, B. (2005). Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Boerman-Cornell, B. (2013). More Than Comic Books. Educational Leadership, 70(6), 73-77.
Cohen, L. (2013). But This Book Has Pictures! The Case for Graphic Novels in an AP Classroom. College Board.
Core Standards. Retrieved July 12 from http://www.corestandards.org/in-the-states
Elder, Josh. (2012). The Secret History of Comic Books In The Classroom. Booxboxdaily.
Ford, D. B. (2011). REDEFINING READING: COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM. Library Media Connection, 30(3), 36-37.
Gavigan, K., & Tomasevich, M. (2012). Connecting Comics to Curriculum. Library Media Connection, 31(2), 39.
Griepp, M., & Shableski, J. (personal communication December 10, 2013).
Hudson, L. (2008). Comics in the Classroom. Publishers Weekly, 255(51), 22-23.
Jones, G. (2006). Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York, NY: Arrow Books.
Krashen, S. & Ujiie, J. (1996). Comic Book Reading, Reading Enjoyment, and Pleasure Reading Among Middle Class and Chapter I Middle School Students. Reading Improvement, 31 (1), 36-37.
Liu, J. (2004). Effects of Comic Strips on L2 Learners’ Reading Comprehension. TESOL Quarterly.
MacDonald, H. (2013, February 12). How Comics Help Students Retain Knowledge is a Growing Field of Study. Publishers Weekly.
Martin, A. (2009). Graphic Novels in the Classroom. Library Media Connection, 28(2), 30-31.
Mayer, R. & Clark, R. (2011) e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. Pfeiffer.
Minnesota Department of Education. Retrieved November 17 from http://education.state.mn.us/mde/index.html
Pennella, B. (2008, September 8). Graphic Novels: The POW!-er in the classroom!
Sawyer, M. (1987). Albert Lewis Kanter and the Classics: The Man Behind the Gilberton Company. The Journal of Popular Culture, 20 (Spring), 1-18.
Tilley, C. (2012). Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics. Information & Culture 47 (4), 383–413.
University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning. Retrieved October 15 from http://reading.uoregon.edu/big_ideas/voc/voc_what.php
Witek, J. (2009). Seven Ways I Don’t Teach Comics. In Stephen E. Tabachnick (Ed.), Teaching the Graphic Novel (pp. 217-222). New York, NY: The Modern Language Association of America.