Tag Archives: Graphic Novels

Helping Students Read Between the Lines: Graphic Novels, Inferences, & Close Reading

Students have been reading three specific graphic novels this month that are historically based on people who dedicated their life work to speak out against injustice. The three titles are The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix, They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, and Run by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. Now students might be thinking, how cool, what an easy book to read, and there is so little words but really this is a deeper reading unit that others.

Graphic novels have depth of plot, character development, theme, and lots of literary elements found in a prose text. It also has the elements of film we study with students, allowing them to develop literacy in the interpretation of image for meaning. When students combine both aspects to investigate a text’s effect on readers, they develop varied insights into how meaning is communicated and interpreted. It makes for a very rich literature study.

What started as a mini lesson on inferring, because a rich discussion about the messages the authors and illustrators made balancing the words and images to help convey a particular message.

Looking closer at the page from Faithful Spy together the students were able to recognize the double-page spread symbolically represents Germany’s decline from the stability of the early 20th century through the disaster of the Great War, then into the postwar years when Germany tried to gain her feet and reassert herself on the world stage.  It gives the reader a literal picture of how an opportunist like Hitler was able to take advantage of his country’s instability to seize power. Both Germany and Hitler are represented by the wolf which is ripping off its collar to represent Germany would no longer be following the key provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. History.com cites Article 231, commonly called the war guilt clause, which required Germany to accept responsibility for causing “all the loss and damage” inflicted on the Allies in WWI.

Additionally, students pointed out how the wolf’s eyes are white providing a lifeless, vicious animal that is driven by aggression. It is eating its prey represents Hitler’s desire to eat up all surrounding countries to accumulate power and anyone getting in his way.

To encourage students to go back into their graphic novels and look closer at specific panels and sections, I created task cards to help direct them to specific parts of the book and begin developing theories about their reading. This was followed up with a lesson on symbolism and possible theme ideas in the text. You can grab a copy of these materials here.

*They Called Us Enemy Questions are not my own but were found on this website.
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Teaching with Graphic Novels

I love reading graphic novels. They are visually appealing, engaging, entertaining, and a rich teaching tools. They are a doorway for struggling and reluctant readersGraphic novels provide rich teaching experiences for critical thinking, inferring, visual literacy, and close reading. Here are five different ways utilize graphic novels with students.

  1. Graphic novels are Text. Teach these novels as a text for an all class read or in book clubs. You might consider having a genre study in graphic novels. Graphic novels come in all different genres and many are award winning texts. Here is a copy of a graphic novel reading unit I created for middle school students and a choice board with rubric for follow up activities.
  2. Close Reading of a Scene. Just like we chunk the text of a piece of literature, students can read closely a particular scene or chapter of the novel to analyze the key ideas and details, then focus on text structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas. Professor of English, Dr. Michelle Falter states, “The tasks and thinking skills required to read a multimodal text are actually higher level than if reading a print-based text alone. You have to see images and words work together, and when and why authors chose to put them together in a frame.” When I was teaching Shakespeare, I would pair a scene with the graphic novel scene for students to work in small groups to analyze and interpret how the scene and characters are portrayed, what is emphasized and what is left out. These close reads help students observe and analyze for a deeper meaning in the text.
  3. Build Visual Literacy Skills & Vocabulary. Graphic novels are visual texts and there is a vocabulary to talking about the structure and details of the text. Panel, frame, speech bubble, close up, long shot, wide shot, aerial shot are all terms used to discuss the visual elements of the text. Provide students with the vocabulary and they are able to talk about the structure and details of the visual text. Students can consider the impact of the artistry to covey meaning of the text. How does this close up image affect our understanding of the character? What did the author choose to say in this frame that the illustrator left out? What did the illustrator choose to showcase in this panel? What is not said and inferred “in the gutters” (the spaces between the panels)?
  4. Caption This. Graphic novels are both visual and print texts. Both stand alone and yet work seamlessly together. When we take away the words, what are our inferences and understanding? Matt Miller describes one of my favorite activities on his website Ditch That Textbook called “Caption This.” You can omit the dialogue and speech bubbles in the frame or panel and ask students to write their own. He describes four ways to utilize this activity with students on his blog.
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival has no words. Students can write the dialogue and story after closely reading the text.

5. Parallel Texts. So many graphic novels have been adapted from contemporary and classic literature, students can read both texts. Then, compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.5). How does reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver in print and graphic novel form impact the meaning and messages in the text?

Graphic novels are not just for English class and readings for pleasure, they can be utilized across the curriculum. My students reading of George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy was an entry point to introduce and discuss Japanese Internment during World War II. Additionally, I have amassed a collection of graphic novels to teach about the Holocaust beyond the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus I and Maus II.

What information can you learn from this image/text?

Why do you think the author included this image?

What are some possible themes in the text? What evidence led you to that?

How do the illustrations impact the meaning of the text?
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Graphic Novel Book List & Projects for Middle School Students

Each quarter my students choose an outside reading book based on a theme that I have chosen. The first quarter were teacher recommendations, the second quarter was Common Core exemplar texts, and this quarter I have selected graphic novels.  My students will have six weeks to read a text from the list below and then choose to complete one of the projects from a differentiated choice menu.

Thanks to many recommendations by other educators and perusing Amazon.com, here is a list of graphic novels for middle school students:

Journey into Mohawk Country adapted by George O’Connor is the diary of Dutch explorer Harman Van den Bogaert’s 1634 journey among the Mohawk people in what is now northern New York State and Ontario.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis is the exploration of the life and ideas of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell and his quest for absolute truth.

T- Minus by Jim Ottaviani is a narrative of the United States’ and Soviet Union’s race to the moon in which the engineers and mathematicians are as much the heros as and astronauts.

Clan Apis (Active Synapse) follows the life of a single bee. In doing so, the reader learns how ecosystems work, why life cycles are important and why the food chain is vital.

Dignifying Science by Jim Ottaviani spotlights several pioneering female scientists. Do you know who Marie Curie, Heddy Lammar, Rosalyn Franklyn are? Read this graphic novel to find out about the numerous women who have made a critical impact on science and our understanding of the world. 

Laika by Nick Abadzis spotlights the Soviet dog who was the first animal to orbit the earth and the female scientist who took care of him. Abadzis gives life to a pivotal moment in modern history, casting light on the hidden moments of deep humanity behind history.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang Chronicles the story of  two young men: Jin Wang and The Monkey King. Jin is the only Chinese-American student at his new school. Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he’s in love with an all-American girl. The Monkey King has lived for thousands of years and mastered the arts of kung fu and the heavenly disciplines. He’s ready to join the ranks of the immortal gods in heaven. But there’s no place in heaven for a monkey. Each of these characters cannot help himself alone, but how can they possibly help each other?

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow  by James Sturm Baseball Hall of Famer Leroy “Satchel” Paige (1905? – 1982) changed the face of the game in a career that spanned five decades.  Much has been written about this larger-than-life pitcher, but when it comes to Paige, fact does not easily separate from fiction.  He made a point of writing his own history…and then re-writing it.  A tall, lanky fireballer, he was arguably the Negro League’s hardest thrower, most entertaining storyteller and greatest gate attraction.

 To Dance, a Ballerina’s Graphic Novel by Siena Cherson Siegel Dancers are young when they first dream of dance. Siena was six — and her dreams kept skipping and leaping, circling and spinning, from airy runs along a beach near her home in Puerto Rico, to dance class in Boston, to her debut performance on stage with the New York City Ballet.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland.

Cardboard by Doug Tennapel Cam’s father gives him a cardboard box for his birthday and he knows it’s the worst present ever. So, to make the best of a bad situation, they bend the cardboard into a man and to their astonishment, it comes magically to life. But the neighborhood bully, Marcus, warps the powerful cardboard into his own evil creations that threaten to destroy them all!

Brain Camp by Susan Kim is an old fashion scare story about two kids who form a friendship at a camp where strange things are happening among them.

Epileptic by David B is his autobiography about growing up with an epileptic brother. In search of a cure, their parents dragged the family to acupuncturists and magnetic therapists, to mediums and macrobiotic communes. But every new cure ended in disappointment as Jean-Christophe, after brief periods of remission, would only get worse. An honest and horrifying portrait of the disease and of the pain and fear it sowed in the family.

 Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham Dennis Ouyang lives in the shadow of his parents’ high expectations. They want him to go to med school and become a doctor. Dennis just wants to play video games—and he might actually be good enough to do it professionally.

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge Paige Turner has just moved to New York with her family, and she’s having some trouble adjusting to the big city. In the pages of her sketchbook, she tries to make sense of her new life, including trying out her secret identity: artist. As she makes friends and starts to explore the city, she slowly brings her secret identity out into the open, a process that is equal parts terrifying and rewarding.

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri In 1994, in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, a 14-year-old girl named Shavon Dean was killed by a stray bullet during a gang shooting. Her killer, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, was 11 years old. Neri recounts Yummy’s three days on the run from police (and, eventually, his own gang) through the eyes of Roger, a fictional classmate of Yummy’s. Roger grapples with the unanswerable questions behind Yummy’s situation, with the whys and hows of a failed system, a crime-riddled neighborhood, and a neglected community. How could a smiling boy, who carried a teddy bear and got his nickname from his love of sweets, also be an arsonist, an extortionist, a murderer?

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