Stephen Nothum and Dawan Coombs, English Department
I set out on this project to evaluate how the emerging genre of graphic novels could be used in the junior high English classroom to help struggling students develop the skills they need to not only enjoy reading but engage with literature in a meaningful way. By getting into classrooms and watching struggling students engage with comics and graphic novels, I have come to the conclusion that this genre is perfectly suited for helping students develop reading and analysis skills.
While completing this project I was student teaching at Diamond Fork Junior High (where I was later hired and currently am employed). In January I created a unit plan surrounding Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese. I created lesson plans, activities, and an overall scope for my approach to teaching the graphic novel as a classroom text. I also created a final assessment that evaluated how student’s reading and analysis skills developed as a result of applying these skills to Yang’s graphic novel. Furthermore, I created a questionnaire asking students about their reading experience with the graphic novel. After all lesson plans, tests, and questionnaires were completed, I compared the type of reading and analysis the students did with the novel against how they read and analyzed prior classroom texts. Besides formal assessments of growth and overall experience, I also took many notes after having informal conference with students as I interacted with them in the classroom.
Results and Discussion
While they read simpler texts in earlier grades as a class, many students do not expect or are not prepared to engage in the sorts of literary discussions that we hold in the secondary ELA classroom. Graphic novels can provide a training ground where students can experience a text rich in themes whose actual narrative is just as long as a traditional novel while not having to be preoccupied with simply “finishing” the book. Such a zone of proximal development will challenge them in their skills of analyzing theme, using textual evidence, and engaging in a literary discourse while leaving them feeling constantly successful about their ability to complete and comprehend the expected reading.
Many of the struggling students in my classroom had never had a successful experienced reading a classroom novel. Rather, they would get more added onto their list of skills to master without having the essential experience of feeling successful in their base-level reading of an anchor text. For these students especially, the graphic novel was especially helpful in allowing them to feel success as a literary critic, a member of a literary discourse community, and simply as a reader.
The benefits of the classroom graphic novel reached not only the struggling readers, but the more adept students as well. Nearly all of the reading response essays written by the stronger students were ripe with concrete textual evidence to support their claims, something that had been less common in their previous reading responses. Also, the vast majority of the more successful students exhibited constant engagement during each classroom discussion, whereas they had gotten worn out of talking about traditional classroom texts after about a week.
I do not mean to propose that we throw out all our traditional classroom novels. Students need the challenging experience of approaching a challenging text while having to track and analyze the development of its theme. Rather, I propose that we gradually release our students into the wilderness of literary works by placing them in the zone of proximal development that graphic novels provide. Graphic novels can be a stepping-stone into more formal types of literary analysis. They can also be a text that, while less challenging to comprehend, lends itself to a more in-depth focus on key discussion and analysis skills. They can allow teachers to make students’ first encounters with classroom novels focused on those essential skills of critical reading, analysis, and citing textual evidence instead of what they usually are focused on— simply finishing the book.