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Classroom Success with Graphic Novels

by Kim Shields

I first became aware of Reading with Pictures at the 2011 Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2).  I had attended the first C2E2 in 2010, and discovered the “Pro Day” on Friday included some panels for teachers.  So, as a comic book fan of over 20 years, I had to attend!

I heard Josh Elder speak, followed by Dr. Meryl Jaffee.  After processing the information from both panels, I was hooked.  I had to try this in my classroom!  Luckily, at that time, I was also in a graduate class covering “content area reading”.  We had to present on techniques to use in our subject areas that would help our students understand, and I took this opportunity and ran with it!.  I used the information that I had gained from the panels, and incorporated it into graphic novels that were  based on literary works (specifically, Marvel’s version of Pride and Prejudice), and then proceeded to demonstrate just how much easier a text like that would be to comprehend if you were able to cut out some of the description and, instead, replace it with a visual.  Suddenly, three pages of text can be condensed to one page, and even struggling readers would be able to comprehend the story without losing any of its value.

I did further work later in that semester, utilizing a grant program between my district and Northern Illinois University to purchase graphic novel versions of works by Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain.  I then used the graphic novels to demonstrate to students (and co-workers) how easy it is to determine vocabulary words in context when they are able to actually SEE what is going on in the story.  Students were able to determine what a sextant was, for example, because they saw a character using it.

71PLaeZlrXLEmboldened by my success, I spent the summer of 2012 planning even more implementation of graphic novels. I added some of my personal collection to my classroom library, and then watched students actually get mad when they couldn’t get the comic they wanted.   (These are students who would rather text than read an assignment for class, and they were fighting over the comics every day!)    I utilized the same grant money to buy even more graphic novels for my classes, including Beowulf, The Scarlet Letter, Macbeth, and V for Vendetta.  While the first two were simple switches (traditional text for graphic novels), I had grand plans for the latter two.   I was going to try to allow students to do a comparative literary study using graphic novels.  It was supposed to be part of my second action research project, but I couldn’t get the students to follow through with the preliminary work.  They did, however, fall in love with both Macbeth, and, after some initial hesitation, V for Vendetta, which we used as a way to view Macbeth from Macduff’s point of view.  Since many of my students read far below grade level, this is especially telling of the importance of including visual literacy in the classroom.

I haven’t just heard how important the Reading with Pictures program is—I’ve lived it.  And not only that, I believe in it.  If any teachers, librarians, or parents want to get their children reading, turn them on to comic books.  You will never regret it!