Jewish Education Going Graphic: Classroom Strategies for Using Graphic Novels
Since the 1950s, American educators have largely ignored graphic novels. Most considered them lowbrow, with little educational value. Dr. Frederic Wertham denounced comics as “important contributing factors to present-day juvenile delinquency,” which led to their decades-long censorship. Educators and researchers, however, have begun to challenge these views. Carol Tilley has recently shown that wertham’s research was manipulated and falsified. Today Horn Books, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and The New York Times review comics and graphic novels, a testament to their increased quality. Graphic novels such as El Deafo by Cece Bell and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson have received Newbery and Caldecott Honors, and have been National Book Award Finalists. That the Library of Congress chose Gene Yang, a former educator, comics creator and graphic novelist, as its 2016 Ambassador for Children’s Literature reveals just how much this medium has gained acceptance as a powerful classroom tool.
As graphic novels continue to grow in sophistication and quality, research is beginning to demonstrate how graphic novels can be used as potent educational tools. However, educators are having great difficulty finding graphic novels that are appropriate for their classroom environments. Furthermore, educators do not have the knowledge or training to teach graphic novels as a unique medium and ultimately miss critical details in classroom conversations. This article shares some significant findings in research articulating how graphic novels benefit classroom lessons, suggests resources for finding appropriate graphic novels, and recommends strategies for teaching these texts, addressing both visual and traditional literacies.
REASONS FOR USING GRAPHIC NOVELS
Graphic novels can provide outstanding teaching tools, motivating and engaging students in the power of critical thinking, the use of language and the growth of content knowledge. Here are the main findings of educational researchers.
Graphic novels support reading comprehension, stimulating creativity and analysis. Graphic novels use 20% more complex vocabulary than traditional chapter books and contain literary devices such as metaphor, onomatopoeia and idioms. This clearly exposes misconceptions that graphic novels use simple vocabulary with little educational content. On the contrary, these works provide sophisticated tools for teaching reading, language use and language development.
Graphic novels are also powerful tools for learning a foreign language. When both reading and writing graphic novels and comics, students show greater vocabulary acquisition, understanding of symbolism and language pragmatics, and motivation. Research is starting to uncover that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the pairing of image with text make graphic novels wonderful resources for nonnative speakers. Danielle Elsner, for example, notes that reading comprehension in a foreign language can be hindered by the students’ need to convert a word, concept or sentence into a mental image, which is then converted back to their native language. By scaffolding this process, more students understand the content in graphic novels even if the vocabulary level remains unchanged. The boom in Hebrew graphic novels written for youth over the past decade can provide rich material for Hebrew classes.
Graphic novels are highly motivating. One of the most widely noted benefits graphic novels provide to education is that they motivate students to read. In both public libraries and school libraries, comics and graphic novels are high circulators. Researchers Ujiie and Krashen, surveying the reading patterns of students from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds and reading levels, found that “those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked to read more, and tended to read more books” (“Comic Book Reading, Reading Enjoyment, and Pleasure Reading among Middle Class and Chapter I Middle School Students”). As a result, librarians are particularly strong advocates for using graphic novels to reach youth. In another, fifth grade students reported that they found comics more enjoyable and understandable than either prose texts or illustrated chapter books (Jennings, Rule, and Zanden, “Fifth Graders’ Enjoyment, Interest, and Comprehension of Graphic Novels Compared to Heavily-Illustrated and Traditional Novels”).
By integrating images and text in innovative ways, graphic novels can help students develop sophisticated forms of literacy. Graphic novels teach verbal literacy, visual literacy and multimodal literacies (a special type of literacy where multiple methods of communicating overlap and complement each other) simultaneously. In the age of Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and IKEA furniture assembly diagrams, verbal, visual and multimodal literacies are vital tools and means of communication. Research has shown that using graphic novels to teach visual perspectives as well as the physical aspects of text and image design improve middle school students’ abilities to make sense of their world. Moreover, research is beginning to illustrate how the dynamic pairing of image and text practically shape, and at times improve, students’ comprehension and creativity skills more so than prose novels, animations or even heavily illustrated novels.
Due to this multimodal nature, students’ analyses of graphic novels are more creative than their analyses of traditional chapter books or even of illustrated chapter books, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jennings, Rule and Zanden, “How Graphic Novels Support Reading Comprehension Strategy Development in Children”). In one study, writing using a comics format led students to create narratives that were more sophisticated and creative than when they were writing prose (Brown, “A Blended Approach to Reading and Writing Graphic Stories”).
In order to integrate graphic novels into the classroom curriculum, teachers must develop skills for reading graphic novels: how to integrate and analyze the language use, text formatting, page design, and illustration choices. All verbal and graphic design elements reflect the author’s choices and are instrumental to the storytelling. The best reference for this task is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.
FINDING GRAPHIC NOVELS FOR CLASSROOM USE
The first challenge in using graphic novels in the classroom is to find appropriate ones. For English and Language Arts courses, Kirkus Review, American Library Association, Horn Books and others provide useful lists of graphic novels. The reviews note each book’s age-appropriateness and describe the story in a paragraph or two. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) posts a column “Using Graphic Novels in Education,” which highlights specific graphic novels, providing a summary, lesson and discussion suggestions, and related links and resources.
Librarians who know graphic novels can confirm the appropriateness of particular books’ language, images and themes. Graphic novel publishers such as First Second, Fantagraphics, Amulet (an Abrams imprint) and Scholastic are represented at major educational conferences such as the National Conference of English Teachers (NCTE) as well as comic conventions. Their sales and marketing representatives are knowledgeable of the products they offer, can give guidance as to whether their books are classroom-appropriate, and increasingly provide teacher support and suggested lessons. Of course, nothing can replace a teacher’s own decision about which works are appropriate and meet class goals.
For subjects other than English, such as social studies, despite the existence of many great graphic novels that can enrich and enhance lessons, there are fewer resources to guide teachers towards appropriate texts. This is particularly true in Jewish studies. There is a wide variety of well-crafted graphic novels that can be applied to Jewish classrooms, from adaptations of Tanakh, to the history of Yiddish culture in America, the Holocaust, and many other subjects. However, there are as yet no resources to help teachers find these texts, much less offer guidance for age and educational value.
HOW TO USE GRAPHIC NOVELS IN THE CLASSROOM
Once graphic novels are selected for classroom use, educators need to know how best to teach their content. As noted above, graphic novels present content through a complex interplay of text, images and design. Therefore, teaching methods for these works cannot be the same as teaching a prose chapter book. Below are several points that I have found particularly useful for my own teaching of comics.
Familiarize yourself with terms that describe how a graphic novel is formatted. Just as it’s important to know the definitions for paragraph, protagonist, and plot in order to have a conversation about a text, it’s important to know the vocabulary about how a graphic novel is set up. Teachers should be comfortable using terms such as panel, gutter and dialogue bubble.
Discuss the images and their contribution to the content of the text. In illustrated texts, the illustrations generally summarize the text; in graphic novels, by contrast, illustrations and text tell different, equally important aspects of a story. Classroom analysis must include discussion about the facial expressions of characters, the page and panel designs, and the images’ perspective. While characters need not say anything in a panel, artists must show the emotional response. Does the character, despite being silent, look sad? Angry? Guilty? Jealous? Indifferent? Ambivalent? Each of these emotions will look subtly different and can add another layer to understanding the events. Furthermore, are particular expressions and/or body language emphasized? These aspects also help readers understand intent of the characters and the author.
Discuss the images and texts that aren’t shown and their contribution to the content of the text. Graphic novels aren’t films; instead of seeing thousands of images that seamlessly blend together to show movement, the reader jumps from panel to panel and must infer what happens in between. This is a process that Scott McCloud calls closure, and is a higher-order
cognition skill. Consider: what isn’t shown, why isn’t it shown, and how do we know it’s missing? How do excluded images and dialogue add or detract from our understanding and enjoyment of the story?
Discuss color use and texture. Different colors, shades and textures make us feel different emotions. Sepia tones, for example, give an image an antique feel, while red is a color that is mostly closely associated with passion (an obvious example), and appetite (a less obvious example). The publisher sometimes chooses the colors used; sometimes the writer or artist chooses them. While there is no way to determine who made this choice and why (besides asking the writer and artist), such choices change and influence the way we understand and emotionally respond to these texts.
These four suggestions represent some of the ways that teachers can be sensitive to the medium of graphic novels and enrich their classroom use. Whether the work is produced by professional artists or by students themselves, graphic novels provide a powerful tool for enhancing student motivation, cultivating visual literacy, imparting design skills, and diversifying teaching modes—all important goals in strengthening student learning.