Teaching Nat Turner

I’ve been thinking about how to teach graphic novels, and more specifically, about ways to get our students to slow down when they are reading Nat Turner. I know that I flew through the book the first time that I read it. I think that more inexperienced readers (like those in high school) may be particularly inclined to view Nat Turner as a “fun” book and to not take it as seriously as other books that they might read in class. These students will probably flip through the entire book very quickly, but they wouldn’t go back to reread it as a more advanced reader might.

Here are a few teaching strategies I’ve brainstormed:

  • Assign one section to read at a time at home. Sections could be the four books, or preferably broken up into little vignettes within the books.
  • Read the book entirely in class, as a class. This way, the teacher can control the reading pace.
  • Have our students make a close textual interpretation of only one panel or one page.
  • Read The Confessions of Nat Turner alongside Nat Turner.
  • Have students create and add their own panel into the story and write about how this enhanced or changed the original narrative.
  • I think it would be really helpful to teach sections of Understanding Comics alongside Nat Turner to legitimize graphic novels to students who are skeptical about them.

I was skeptical about graphic novels myself, until I studied a few for grad school. Now, I think that graphic novels are a great way to teach interpretation. I’m really drawn to McCloud’s concept of the “gutter”. The gutters are visual cues for interpretation and because of this, I think graphic novels could be a nice gateway into learning when and how to interpret all kinds of literature. It seems like we could first teach the gutter in a graphic novel, and then compare the gutter to stanzas or line breaks in poetry, and finally move into textual interpretation.