Teaching Nat (& any graphic novel)

One of the things that first struck me about our class discussion is the way graphic novels offer students a chance to really consider what constitutes literature.  In any class, I think it can be beneficial to discuss what literature is and also why we like it.  Nat Turner, or any graphic novel for that matter, offers a great introduction to that kind of higher-level thinking.  I loved the exercise Prof. Sample showed us with converting a Craigslist ad into a “poem,” and though most might scoff at the notion of that kind of art, isn’t that what much of modern art does?  I keep going back to what creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson spoke about in the film clip we watched in class, and I have to think that education is changing and so is the nature of literature, the form, the content, even the way we process literature.  That said, in order to keep up with the changes, teaching students to really consider what literature is might be just the ticket to teaching them to open up their mind and explore the literature that matters to them.  For some of them, this might be the writing of video games, screenwriting of popular movies, or for others, graphic novels.  I have a feeling that only so many of us really appreciate the literary classics, and that is okay.  Besides, “classic” is not a fixed definition, and neither is “literature.”

Besides opening students up to the idea of what literature constitutes, graphic novels present a new way to dissect a narrative, as well as a new way to create a narrative.  I often have students re-tell chapters they have read for homework in the form of comics– but why not begin to call these “graphic re-tellings”?  I actually am really interested in teaching students excerpts from McCloud’s book, especially in the extra time following the AP exam, as a way to analyze both literature and art, and this combination thereof.  That said, negotiating what we already do to incorporate the genre of graphic novels is another way to teach stories like Nat Turner.

Lastly, evocative stories like this one certainly allow students to consider what is age-appropriate and what isn’t.  Often, students feel sheltered by the topics in literature and when we teachers draw attention to the violence, the sex, the scandal that they might otherwise not catch, they certainly seem to perk up.  With texts like Nat Turner,  or at least excerpts of Nat Turner, we might be able to ask students what they think about the evolution of violence in pop culture and in literature in particular.  Students really benefit from any kind of higher-level discussion and one which interests them, particularly given the relevance of this particular topic (since violent is inherent in so many video games, TV shows, and movies that our students watch), that this kind of book would certainly feed into an interesting conversation on the purpose of violence in stories.  Likewise, by comparing this story to the textbook explantaions of Nat Turner’s rebellion, or even to war poems (like those Nikki is teaching this week!), we might push students to really consider when violence is acceptable and when it is over the top, and why they feel like that.

Lastly, I really like Susan’s idea about having students create their own mini-graphic novels.  What I envision my AP seniors doing after the AP exam (along with a research paper I’ve put off until then, so we’ll see if we get to this more fun stuff!) is reading excerpts from McCloud and creating their own fun and original graphic narratives.  I did something similar with my sophomores this year with folklore, both fairy tales and oral family stories, and the students really enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and get back to something they really enjoyed as children: storytelling.  The same could be true with what they might have once viewed as “comics” and would now hopefully come to see as a separate and perhaps more literary genre: graphic narratives.

I do have one question.  If it’s not a long story, do we call it a “graphic short story”?  Or a “graphic tale”?  Or the ghastly “graphic narrative”?  Is this where “comix” comes in handy?  I can see that it might put an end to this line of questioning.