Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

Graphic Novels. Can anyone teach them?

July 7th, 2014 · 2 Comments

By now, most of us heading into the field of English have—to some extent—learned that incorporating graphic novels into our classrooms is no longer a cutting-edge thinking, but rather a curricular imperative. However, having yet to study a graphic novel in a classroom setting, I’m curious about my own education, or lack thereof. By taking this on as an act of current appeal, I can’t help but wonder if I’m adequately qualified to validate this experience for my students. What do I know of this modality past the obvious? Does this even matter?

My unstable position on this is not a reflection of a traditional attitude with a hidden bias to preserve what I’m instinctively more comfortable with. The graphic novel seems to have a growing appeal; I am fascinated by this form and it’s myriad forms, concepts, codes and styles. I imagine my appreciation would greatly enhanced with some expertise—as with film, or other graphic art forms. But sadly, I didn’t learn this form. And because I didn’t take to comic books as a child or beyond, I now have trouble interacting with it; I don’t know how to read it. Increasingly I observe people around me engaged in graphic novels, and I feel one thing more than any other: envy.

I observed  a high school English lesson concerning Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The lesson involved a class discussion on the holocaust and more or less mimicked a typical discussion one might observe in a typical grade eleven classroom anywhere in Vancouver. Some students actively participated, some listened quietly, some stared out the window or texted on the their phones under their desk. What occurred to me was how similar the instructor’s approach was—he might well have been teaching any other novel; there was no particular focus on the illustrations or talk of the physical presentation whatsoever. It was centred, as usual, on plot and theme. This is not a criticism either, but it raises some potential questions about graphic novels and instruction. Is this just the same as teaching anything else? Perhaps we’re perfectly qualified, provided we know what’s going on and can guide a willing group through the material. Somehow I’m not convinced though.

There is no denying the power of appeal. Any teacher—ELL or otherwise—who can engage a class or excite new students with the graphic novel is sure to keep this in their repertoire. I note, however, that as we find ourselves in an age of emerging literacies and multi-modal teaching practices, we run the risk of putting more weight on variety in the classroom rather than on substantive instruction. This is not to say that graphic novels lack substance. This is to say that they are a different form and should be recognized as more than just a clever tool to teach ELL students or kids who like comics.






Tags: graphic novels · Uncategorized

2 responses so far ↓

  • njessa // Jul 7th 2014 at 11:26 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your discussion on graphic novels. I too never grew up reading comics, and have never really had an interest in them. When I started teaching at my practicum school, my SA offered me advice to let ELL students use the graphic novel version of Romeo and Juliet so that students had visuals to follow along with the plot. However, I found that the students in my class used the graphic novels to JUST look at the visuals – they were not retaining any of the plot and this was demonstrated when it came to writing quizzes, which they then failed. To what extent are graphic novels useful? As Frey and Fisher discussed in the conclusion of their article after their study, they found that “the use of these forms of popular culture and media afforded us a space to provide students with instruction on the craft and mechanics of writing” (24). I really do not believe that using graphic novels is the only way to provide students with tools to improve mechanics of writing. I do believe that graphic novels and other emerging online literary forms are more engaging because students come across various forms of media in their daily lives, but is it appropriate to use all of these new literary forms in schools as well?
    I definitely agree with your point where you state that it seems as though teachers are pressured to use a variety of multi-modal teaching practices, and less emphasis is given on substantive instruction. How can we continue substantive teaching while incorporating all of these new online literary forms? This is a question I have not figured out and probably will not be able to for some time. In my future classrooms, I think I will be incorporating the usual forms of technology (for example, powerpoints, prezis, etc), but the use of graphic novels are something that I will not consider unless I see concrete evidence for myself that there are more benefits than drawbacks.


  • dfirby // Jul 19th 2014 at 9:47 am

    Using graphic novels in my classroom is an interesting dilemma. I suppose the question is should I really be teaching something that I really don’t know anything about, or should I go ahead with a novel or short story unit where I am in safe territory. To be honest there will be plenty of instances where I am learning the material a day or two before the students will, but at least I will usually be in a genre I know something about. When it comes down to graphic novels I fear that I will simply not be doing them justice.
    Having said that, when I read Maus I was captivated. The story is magnificent and touching to all ages. It brings history to the moment, to remember to not forget what has happened in the past. I would love the opportunity to bring the tale to my students. An integral part of the story is that it is a graphic novel- it wouldn’t be the same if it was simply a novel.
    So I suppose I am torn between remaining in safe territory where I know quite well what I am talking about, and venturing out into a new medium. As I have noticed with teaching, every time you teach a lesson you think back on how you would do it differently the next time. I don’t expect to have a perfect lesson with a graphic novel the first time, but I have to start somewhere.
    I like Johnnie’s point that substantive instruction needs to be of greater significance than variety, but I also think we need to try new things to find where we will be most successful in our individual classrooms.

    I still don’t know where I stand on gaming though.

You must log in to post a comment.