Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

“Using Graphic Novels […] in the Urban High School” Response and Prompts

July 6th, 2014 · No Comments


Frey and Douglas do a succinct job of explaining how graphic novels are useful educational tools in the classroom. It was also interesting to see the themes and ideas within the texts being transferred into the students’ own written works. Though it is not explicitly stated, the authors seem to imply two main ideas: that graphic novels (and popular culture in general) are only resonant in the urban/diverse classroom in cities like San Diego, and that students must find some sort of personal connection or parallel to the text in order to enjoy and make use of the literary-visual materials they are given as classroom texts. With increasingly “wired” classrooms, distances between urban, suburban, and rural classrooms are decreasing.

While they do not explicitly deny the universality of graphic novels within popular culture, they do not include this idea in their discussion. It is also important to acknowledge that there is a boundary between what was/is taught and what specific media students take personal cultural ownership of. As educators we should certainly respect what students claim as their own and what would not be fruitful to teach.

With the risk of stating the obvious, graphic novels and other media (film, television, art, etc.) are not only enjoyed and read worldwide but these stories –  those outside the reader’s frame of reference – can leave a lasting impression. An experience or narrative that does not fall within ones own purview can often teach us the most. Art Spiegelman’s MAUS (being an easy example) shows us the experiences of those persecuted and those who witnessed genocide first hand in World War II. This is a text that is often taught in classrooms, and not only within urban and inner-city contexts. Students may have trouble taking perspective and connecting to seemingly distant experiences but it is our job to bridge this gap. Once this division is diminished, what can be gained becomes all that more expansive to the reader.

Question(s) to ponder:

1. Can there not be an intersection between what is “teachable” and appropriate and what students already have a pre-existing interest in reading/viewing? How do we tread through material that students may want kept out of classroom analysis and dissection? What sort of consultation should we doing with our classes?

2. Where is there more value in literature (graphic or otherwise)? Do we take more from a recognizable narrative or from one completely outside of our own knowledge? Do we take different ideas and meanings from both, to the point where we are comparing “apples to oranges?”


Graphic Novel as Prompt

During my B.A. at SFU, I was exposed to a few different graphic novels. The one that stuck out for me the most was Ann Marie Fleming’s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. Fleming uses the – very open – format of the graphic novel to explore and display her own personal and familial history. The narrative is centred around the author’s relatively mysterious/unknown great-grandfather Long Tack Sam, a world famous vaudevillian in the early 20th century. The text is also accompanied by a film where a lot of the images have been taken and adapted from and put in the novel (and vice versa). What is most fascinating about the text is its intersectionality and how it transcends genre. Within about 160 pages we see: memoir, autobiography, biography, geographic exploration, history (Canadian and international), cultural interaction and exchange, etc. All of these themes and ideas are doubled (or squared, we might say) in the format of the film.

This overt openness of the graphic novel genre and format leads back into the idea of the graphic novel as prompt. Again, there is a value and importance in students taking an assigned text and turning into something of their own. Not only does this move us away from the passive mode of simply reading and accepting a text but it also encourages students to continue the narrative in a direction that they find meaningful. The students can also have endless choice in how they want to present their resulting creative texts.  Some may wish to work alone, other collaboratively. Some may wish to follow the children’s book format (e.g. Sendak’s The Miami Giant), others in an audio visual format (E.g. Long Tack Sam). Students can have constraints on what topics they are considering/presenting, and how much time they get, without being limited by how it is presented. With increased accessibility through the internet, such assignments/projects can more easily be created and shared worldwide.

Possible assignments/prompts:

  1. Create a children’s book based off of a Shakespearean play, such as Julius Caesar.
  2. Create one page of a comic book/graphic novel translated from a canonical text, e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird.
  3. Adapt a frequently studied graphic novel/comic/picture book into a one/two/three act play, e.g. Death of a Salesman as a generic guideline.
  4. One group creates a video/theatrical representation of a graphic novel, the other a text-based representation.
  • What does this transfer do to the story? What is lost or gained in this translation? Which genre/format does what for the reader/viewer? -> How can students be meta-cognitive of the process of creation/publication?

Discussion prompts:

1. Fleming ends up doing a lot of self discovery in addition to revealing more about her family’s past. Is it feasible to get our own students to do similar kinds of research and the self-reflection and -realization that comes out of this searching? There is undeniable value in bringing everything back to the self. How or should we ask this of our students?

2. What graphic novels or visual narratives do we connect with? Are these the same kinds of texts we would want to adapt into our own perspectives and narratives?

3. How might a graphic novel prompt be used when classroom resources and technology are limited? Seeing as how the genre is open, how can we as educators work around these sorts of limitations while still giving students to opportunity to, as Ezra Pound said , “[m]ake it new”?

-George Frankson

Works Cited

Fleming, Ann Marie. The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

Frey, Nancy, and Douglas Fisher. “Using Graphic Novels, Anime, and the Internet in an Urban High School.” English Journal 93.3 (2004): 19.

Some suggested texts to use as prompts (which will be brought into class for our perusal and consideration):

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie | | Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown | The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming | The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé | The Last Musketeer by Jason| Watchmen by Alan Moore | The Miami Giant by Arthur Yorinks & Maurice Sendak

Tags: adaptations · graphic novels · Seminar Prompts

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