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May 18, 2011

Feature Story: Voices from the Classroom, 5/18/11


Voices from the Classroom features interviews with teachers across America about ways graphic novels are used to promote literacy and learning. Teacher insight and authentic classroom experience offered here provide rationales for integrating graphic novels into all grade levels and functions as an archive of lesson ideas for other educators.

For this debut Voices from the Classroom feature, I spoke with Christine DePetrillo, a 12-year veteran teacher at Old County Road School in Smithfield, Rhode Island, about teaching graphic novels in her fifth-grade classroom. In her current position, Christine teaches mathematics and writing to 43 students, and spelling and social studies to 21 of those. Christine works in an inclusion classroom where her student population is mainly Caucasian.
Christine decided to use graphic novels to promote learning after she attended the New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference in March. She told me that she went into the conference hoping to gain some kernel of information that would help her reach a few students who appeared to be interested in absolutely nothing. “I’ve explored several avenues with these students,” she reflected, “but with no lasting results. I thought perhaps graphic novels might lure them into thinking that learning was actually…fun,” so she decided to give graphic novels a try in her writing classes.
One resource Christine uses to inform her comics instruction is the School Library Journal’s Good Comics for Kids blog. “I have to be careful with what comics I use because I teach elementary-level students. Many graphic novels deal with topics not appropriate for 11-year-olds, so my selection process involved careful scrutiny of any titles I was going to purchase for my classroom,” she said.
In terms of her instruction with comics, Christine bought a selection of comics and allowed students time to read them and check out their features, including panels, text, facial expressions, and use of color. Her class then had a discussion about these features and how the graphic novel format compared to other texts they were familiar with. She told me that she and her students “specifically zoomed in on voice in comics since that is her school district’s fourth quarter writing trait. Students then filled in story maps to plan their own comics. Some students were taking fairy tales and telling them from an alternate point of view or a new voice, while others decided to write something completely unique.” She provided students a choice to differentiate instruction for all ability levels.
Christine raved that this new comics assignment was the first writing assignment she had given all year where not one student complained that they had nothing to write about. “When I handed out the blank story maps,” she said, “every pencil hit every paper, and the sweet music of inspiration filled my classroom!”
When asked about how graphic novels promote learning, Christine reported, “A project like this really challenges all students. My excellent writers are challenged by letting some of the pictures tell what they’d normally write in words. My struggling writers are relieved that they can use pictures to tell what they might not be able to say in words. There’s something for everyone in the graphic novel format.”
According to Christine, there are distinct differences in teaching with comics as opposed to print-only texts. Her experience taught her that “teaching voice with comics as opposed to print-only texts really drove home the message that voice is what makes the character who he or she is. By giving students text in the form of speech balloons directly linked to a visual image of a character in a panel, students made the connection much faster than when I’ve used words alone. They realized that voice has to do with the way a character says something as well as what they say. This is more apparent in a comic due to a graphic novelist’s ability to play with text size, font, and color along with the facial expressions on the character’s image.”
Having tried a new lesson using graphic novels, Christine now believes that “teachers are missing out on an opportunity to reach all students” if they exclude graphic novels from their curriculum. “In a world where educators have to compete with Facebook and YouTube for students’ attention,” she said, “we have to actively hunt down ways to motivate, engage, and inspire young people. With poignant text and captivating art, graphic novels are inherently stimulating and offer an abundance of learning possibilities.”
Graphic novels are certainly great tools to add to the teaching toolbox, and as Christine DePetrillo has shown, using them to teach voice in writing has been effective practice in her fifth-grade classroom.