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June 4, 2009

OP-ED: Leigh Brodsky on Teaching Comics in Her High School Classroom

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Teacher, Watchung Hills Regional High School, Warren, New Jersey
 
During my first year teaching at Watchung Hills Regional High School, I was approached by my supervisor with a very interesting question. “If you could teach any topic as an elective, what would it be?” At first I was very surprised by the question. This was only my second year of teaching, and I was not sure how much impact a 23-year-old novice teacher would have on the curriculum.
 
After a few moments of considering all of the possibilities, I selected the one topic that I knew I would enjoy teaching and sharing with students as well as a course that would fulfill departmental and state requirements. “I would love to teach comic books…well, graphic novels, more specifically.” From that conversation, work began on crafting a unique elective that not only changed how I taught texts in my general education classes, but also opened our department up to teaching graphic novels as texts within our general English curriculum. This fall, each grade level will have a graphic novel option added to their curriculum outside of the graphic novel elective.

Once I decided that graphic novels should be taught, I had to answer the hard question: What can these texts offer students that traditional texts cannot? The beauty of graphic novels in the high-school classroom is that they truly offer a multilevel reading experience for all readers. Students not only have to read the words for the plot but the images for the plot, too. By having students read on the two levels of text and image, they are not only improving their basic reading ability, but also their analytical skills—by evaluating how the images work with the text. The evidence for growth is clear within my own English classroom.
 
When I introduce Maus to my freshmen, they have just arrived from eighth grade having read Night. While Night is a very moving, powerful text, the students feel that they have seen all there is to see of the Holocaust. Needless to say, when I tell them that we are reading a book about the Holocaust, they aren’t too excited. After I give them a brief introduction to the graphic novel style (with much help from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud), my students begin to see Maus with a different perspective. Beyond the text, they analyze how Art Spiegelman’s images create a story that is both literal and figurative. The images of swastikas as well as of Spiegelman drawing himself as a character and wearing a mask, shows the students more about identity than just reading the words. Asking my students to “Look at the mask Spiegelman is wearing. How does that enhance the significance of what Art is saying?” allows students to see that this is a story beyond just the words.

For the graphic novel elective that I teach, I take what I do in my regular classes and really focus on how the medium of the graphic novel changes how we read stories. The students also analyze how the traditional themes that are present in their English class novels manifest within the graphic novel texts. The course is separated into several units where students look at a variety of comics and graphic novels; both superhero and non-superhero. With topics such as “What makes a hero?” and “How are comics a reflection of society?” my students get involved in looking at the graphic element of these texts that pair the pictorial with the linguistic. They also share analysis and build arcs between the text and the image. My class uses a blog site to review and comment on outside choice readings and students use the site toonlet.com to create their own comics that reflect their own stories. Of course, some students do come into the class with a prior knowledge of comics, graphic novels, and their history; therefore, I try to make sure all of what I teach reaches every interest level.

The greatest challenge of creating this course was choosing the material. Ultimately, I chose Understanding Comics, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and V for Vendetta. McCloud’s seminal text allows students to learn not only how to read a comic but how to understand and interpret the nuances of the genre. To me, this is an essential key to the course because my students learn to see graphic novels as something much more sophisticated than comic books. For selecting Batman and V, the choice was not as easy. I wanted books that were groundbreaking but also texts that had substance to them, and of course books that students could read without a lot of prior knowledge. Both texts really highlight the need for a connection between text and image as well as support the themes and relationships that we study within the class.

V for Vendetta was the toughest book to choose. I was debating between that text and Watchmen. After a summer-long debate, I decided on V for Vendetta. The character of V intrigued me, and I felt that the anarchist argument he puts forth tied into the other curriculums nicely. I was also afraid too many students would enter the course having read Watchmen and would leave those that had not read the text out of the conversation. My instincts were correct, and the students really seem to enjoy the texts in class. For next year, I hope to add Fables to show how traditional fairy tales can be reimagined as well as use materials from Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures to build on the idea of sequential art as a storytelling device.

I have always been in love with stories and how we, as the human race, share stories with each other. For me, it is the reason I do what I do and I feel quite proud to see graphic novels being taught as a challenge to the traditional notion of literature. These texts, while traditionally considered low art, have all of the qualities of high art and allow students to be better readers of the visual world we live in. I am now finishing my third year of teaching at Watchung Hills Regional High School and the response to adding graphic novels to the curriculum, both as an elective and as curricular options, has been wonderful. My colleagues have embraced the texts and students always stop by my room with a new recommendation or question. Meanwhile, I just love that there are students excited to read a good story.