Category Archives: Week 12


After reading Nat Turner I really feel that there are a variety of ways to teach graphic novels in the classroom. I feel the graphic novel could be used to teach a variety of different literary terms and ideas—metaphor, flow of a story, narrative tradition, muli-genre forms, and so many other ideas.
I think in my classroom I would really like to teach a graphic novel in conjunction with a more traditional work. Not that I could teach Nat Turner, but if I could I think it would be good to teach it with other slave narratives. I really think could enhance the students’ learning process to be able to read a typical text and then to see a similar experience through a graphic novel.
I suppose as a media teacher it would seem likely that I would promote the use of different forms of media/literature for the classroom. I think the greater variety of materials we present to our students the better they can interpret anything we throw at them. I also think it forces students to look more deeply into all the things around them. I think teaching graphic novels could expand the way students look at books and other literary materials. I believe who is to say what is literature? If material has something someone can learn from it why can’t it be taught?
I think graphic novels would be an interesting way to teach different forms of writing to students. They could play Ivanhoe by rewriting portions of the graphic novel in the same style.
I am very excited about all the possibilities that graphic novels open up in the classroom and I look forward to finding more to read that may connect with lesson plans through out the year.

Disturbing and Intriguing and, dare I say, Different?

As promised, I said I’d delay my thoughts on Nat Turner until this week. So, here they are, though I’m not sure they’re much different from the views I expressed in class last week.

As far as the actal reading (of words goes), itwas interesting, though the words, as the book tells us, come directly from The Confessions of Nat Turner, so they are not really Kyle Baker’s own words. This not only had an authenticating effect, but also made the mood of the story more eerie. The words, coupled with the pictures, had a rather chilling and horrifing effect on me. This might be due in part to my overactive imagination coupled with a visual learning style. I could see what was being said, both literally, as well as in my mind, and it brought it closer to my senses.

That being said, would I classify this as literature? I’m still going to have to go with the “no’s” on this. I strongly feel it is something else…not literature, and yet, something. I would still place it in the “art” category before the literature category, because I felt I was putting on my “art appreciation hat”as I “read” the images. I had to notice things, such as the circles, the way light was used in the hanging scene, the shaded and shadowy lines when the girl is creeping away at the end. Yes, these are analytical skills, but they are art analytical skills. As for the art telling a story, as per a novel, I have looked upside down and sideways for a painting series I studied as an undergrad, and I cannot for the life of me remember the painter (if I do, I will repost), but painting series also tell stories in a similar way. The particular series was a group of 6 paintings. They would use, what McCloud would call scene-to-scene transitions, where you have to “read” each scene to know the story before moving on to the next scene. The one I am thinking of started in a painting where some men were gathered around a table talking, while a young man and woman sat, awkwardly staring at each other on the side. You understood, from the position of the men, and the strange expressions on the couple’s face, as well as the luxurious trappings around them, that this was an arranged marraige for a young wealthy couple. There were other signs, as well, that “foreshadowed” the couple’s unhappy end. The next few paintings led you through a sad story, where the woman had an affair, the husband was killed trying to defend his honor, and the woman ended up with syphillis (as depicted by a black spot on her), and the family ended up ruined, all because of the unhappy marraige. But, as I read Nat Turner, I felt I was using similar skills to decipher the story there. Only, I had the aid of a few words now and again to help me. This painting series was from the 18th century. A precursor to comics or graphic narratives perhaps? Not sure I have enough expertise on the subject to make that call, but I do find it an interesting connection. In any case, Nat Turner was disturbing, but so are many other things I read. It doesn’t make it any less valuable. It was intriguing, and I had to use a lot of analytical muscle to “read” it, so overall, a new and exciting experience for me!

Wow…I didn’t mean to drone on that long. It just happened. Then I remembered we’re supposed to say something about teaching a graphic novel. As far as teaching one is concerned, I have actually used them for my ESL students. Not of the Nat Turner variety, but they do make graphic narratives for students learning to speak English. It’s effective because the student can match the words to the picture. You ask vocabulary and comprehension questions at the end. So, if the story is about a woman talking on the phone (a simple example–the ones the kids read are much more interesting), then at the end, you might say : Who was talking on the phone? (The woman), thus they associate an older female with the word “woman.” Like I said, simple example, but you get the idea. That being said, I think they would be very effective to use with ESL classes to not only help them learn the language, but read the language, as well.

As a middle school teacher, I am not sure I would be able to teach Nat Turner or Maus to my students, though I might, if I taught older high school students or college age students. They seem an interesting medium to explore, and I would definitely have a discussion on whether they thought such works were works of literature or not. It seems a good way to introduce the idea of a literary scholarly debate! I would probably have them do a mock debate in the classroom and teach debating techniques along with it. I think that would be fun, but I always loved doing things like that in high school. It’s a nice, healthy, acceptable way to argue!

I feel like the kid who is absent the day people pick lab partners and is stuck with the weird kid

Basically, I am saying that most of the good options are already taken by other people.  Which is great.  I enjoyed reading all of your posts and feel that there are some really good ideas out there.  My post is basically a fragmented mess of semi-formed ideas, but that is often what my units look like before I actually start teaching them.  I’ve never been a plan every second of every minute of every class kind of teacher.  I have some general points I want to hit, but am usually open to any interesting side routes that present themselves along the roughly sketched path in my brain.

One thing that I would obviously want to discuss with Nat Turner, would be the gruesomeness of it.  But I want to go beyond just what makes it gruesome? or is this necessary? or is there any place for this sort of content in a serious literature class?  I would want to focus on how the graphic novel as a form achieves this revulsion in us compared to other media.  Does Nat Turner have a more visceral effect on a person, then a description of torture/murder in a novel?  How about a nonfiction account?  And finally, what about a medium where the viewer is more passive, like film or television?  How effective is each of these mediums in making us uncomfortable and what specific techniques does each employ in the process?  This would be tough in a high school classroom, as issues would obviously arise if you were to start long detailed passages of brutal acts  of violence or showing clips from violent movies.

As I mentioned last week, I think Nat Turner would be a great companion text for the novel Beloved. Many of the same themes are explored and Beloved is as much of a stomach punch text as Nat Turner in my opinion.  Nat Turner would also obviously work well with The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.  William Styron’s novel is interesting because it elicited a response from prominent black writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin** (called William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond appropriately enough).  The main issue was that the black writers took issue with the way that Styron (white, Southern) portrayed Turner.  Questions arise about whether a white writer has any “right” to tell a historical black man’s story, and broader issues about depictions of race, gender, sexuality, etc.  Do certain people or peoples “own” certain stories?  Is there such a thing as out of bounds in literature?  Does anyone have a problem that Kyle Baker is a white man telling this story, and telling it in this way?

Have students pull what some people are claiming Thomas Gray did and write a completely fabricated confession of a real historical (or even someone in the news today) figure.  All they would need would be some basic facts about a marginal person in a history textbook and could fill in the details themselves.   If you want to get crazy, you could have them turn it into a graphic novel.  Writing a poem helps you understand the mechanics of poetry in a way that just reading poetry cannot, it makes sense that the choices involved in creating your own graphic novel would lead to a deeper understanding of the form as well.

**Correction:  Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin actually defended Styron, I misread the information I was looking at.  My apologies.  However, there was quite a brouhaha over Styron’s novel, especially when it won the Pulitzer Prize. There is a section on Styron’s novel and the response to it in the reading on Blackboard.

Teaching Graphic Novels

I previewed “Maus” today for my ESL level five reading comprehension class as part of an exercise on figurative speech and inference. I hadn’t intended to, but one of those teachable moments presented itself, so I took 10 minutes or so out of class time to discuss weather or not they considered the book to be a form of literature. I parroted a few of the rhetorical questions Prof. Sample had asked us to get the discussion started.

The only student who knew anything about “Maus” was a young woman from Germany who said it was used in her public school system to teach the Holocaust. She had an interesting perspective: she found the depictions in the book to be much milder than looking at the photos found in many of the usual texts used in German schools. Maybe her reaction would have been different if Kyle Baker had done the illustrations.

The other students, mainly Asian, African and Middle Eastern, knew little about the subject, but they immediately identified the mice and cat analogy and discussed how, without using a single word, the author had set up a paradigm that everybody could understand. We didn’t have time to go over the text, but a number of students said that because of the amount of text in the book, “Maus” was literature. According to their way of thinking, text is a defining characteristic of literature. I wish I had had the time to give them a preview of “Nat Turner”; it would have been interesting to see if their ideas would change.

If I were to teach graphic novels as part of a literature survey course I would begin with a similar discussion of literature and have them compile a list of defining characteristics before introducing whatever text I was going to teach. The fact that they realized that text can stand in place of text would be key to a teaching strategy.

The minimal amount of text in a graphic novel makes them much harder to “read” than what many of us have come to know as literature. We grow up with words and use them to determine meaning. We are comfortable with words and have become lazy and dependent on our literal interpretations. At the same time, we have also become dismissive of illustrations/graphics/photographs; we don’t give them a lot of thought because we are constantly bombarded by them. I think one of the greatest pitfalls a new student to graphic novels could make would be to dismiss what they see without really trying to understand what is being represented.

With a novel like “Nat Turner”, the next step would be to have them create their own text by writing a narrative to accompany the illustrations. I would ask them to explain what they think is transpiring on certain pages. Another approach would be to have them create their own text, either through captions or dialog. Having them put what they see into words would be a valuable experience; students would need to really study the illustrations and not give just a first impression. This could be done orally was well; a version of “popcorn” reading, where each student selects a sequence of illustrations and explains what they think is being represented.

Focusing on the concept of hero

In my last post I questioned whether this book could be categorized as literature or not, and after reading my classmates’ blog posts, listening to the discussion last week, sitting in on Professor Sample’s lecture, and revisiting my own questions; I want to completely disregard what I previously wrote.  I realize this probably makes me appear to be a tad wishy-washy, but in my defense I wrote my blog last week with the ulterior motive of what my boyfriend likes to term “poking the bear.”  I felt the need for some reason, possibly because I’m an organizational freak who likes everything to fit neatly into compartments, to place the graphic novel in a category.  Because I wasn’t exactly sure how I would categorize it, I looked to my classmates for input.  I knew that there would be many strong proponents in class of teaching graphic novels, so I poked the bear by challenging its place in the literature classroom hoping to get some strong reactions.  And I did. 

With all of that said, I’ve decided that the label isn’t really what is important here.  What is important is a text’s ability to evoke a strong reaction from the reader.  I think that this emotional response could be harnessed to develop a very meaningful lesson for students.

So, how would a teacher harness those deep emotional responses?

One issue seemed to be brought up several times in class last week – the issue of Nat Turner as a heroic figure.  I wonder if Kyle Baker included that phrasing in his preface to spark controversy, because that is exactly what it did.   Using this as a jumping off point for class discussion and activity could be very fruitful because it evokes such strong opposition from people.  Staging a debate among students could be one way to explore this idea, although it may be difficult to find students willing to argue for Turner being considered a hero.  Reading Nat Turner alongside other texts from that era (several people mentioned this, I think) would be a good idea.  The students could compare Turner to figures such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe and decide which is more heroic.  Perhaps I’m hung up on this idea of hero because one of my favorite undergraduate classes was called Heroes in Literature.  We read several different novels and explored the idea of hero throughout the entire semester.  I wonder what our reactions would have been if we were required to read Nat Turner?  I’m sure even the silent ones in class would’ve felt compelled to chime in on that discussion.

Nat and Hobbes?

Again, I feel like I have nothing too new to contribute to the blog discussion. Everyone has given really awesome suggestions! I think the pre-reading exercises are the key. It helped just to have someone say “slow down! look at all these triangles” to make me slow down and actually think about triangles. I think a discussion of visual literacy (admittedly a concept much broader and applicable to much more in life than just graphic mediums) needs to head off any work with graphic novels.

Again, I am confused on the purpose of my own blog. Am I trying to get students to slow down while reading Nat Turner or slow down while reading the diverse genre of graphic novels/narratives? The question seems a little nitty-gritty, but I think these differences are also key. Before Professor Sample pointed out the differences of Nat Turner and other influential graphic novels (I’m thinking of Maus) I didn’t even think of differences. I was too busy trying to situate myself to what I assumed to be the general graphic novel genre expectations. Now, comparing and contrasting Nat Turner from these expectations gives me a much deeper reading of Baker’s novel. I am really stuck on the question of why the English department choose Nat Turner as the special community book over the other more popular and, apparently, more influential graphic novels at play in the literary community. So, I would argue, for the slower, deeper reading of Nat Turner, which Professor Sample’s lecture provoked, students need to be familiar with other graphic novels.

As others have pointed out, McCloud’s comix theory does provide this genre background, but I would argue for more examples of departure. I want to talk about Calvin and Hobbes and how it always blew the other comics on the Sunday funnies out the water. Yet, when I look at a collection of just Calvin and Hobbes it doesn’t seem as groundbreaking because it is not situated in the context of the other standard form comics with Peanuts to the left and Blondie to the right. When I didn’t have a Maus comparison I didn’t know how groundbreaking Nat Turner really is.

I’m still stuck on why George Mason picked Nat Turner, but with so many of us have commenting on our discomfort with teaching and discussing the deadly issues Baker expertly brings to the front of his novel, I think I have my answer. We must slow down to really chew on these issues and I think our students will want to slow down to chew on these issues. As Susanna aptly pointed out: violence needs to be discussed and discussed now and Nat Turner allows us to talk about our culture’s comfort with violence and to also make violence uncomfortable again.

P.S. For those bitten by the “What is literature?” discussion and debate, I really recommend John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation. It’s a deep thinker.

“Do we have to analyze this?”—Adding graphic novels to the mix

                My students often try to tell me that they hate analyzing. When we start reading a new work, they’ll ask, “Do we have to analyze this one?” I try to point out, as we have discussed in class, that they are constantly analyzing everything around them!  In everyday interactions, they analyze text messages, status updates, facial expressions, and tone of voice, just to name a few. They also analyze movies, music, and, yes, literature. And most of this analysis comes as second nature. (Of course, we work to get them to really tease out their thoughts and go even deeper with their analysis.) Why not add graphic novels to the mix? It’s the perfect combination of text and visuals for “literary analysis.”

                In the past, particularly when teaching plays, I have had students create comic strips depicting the most important scenes in the drama. Now by no means am I having them create graphic novels, but I am having them consider how they would depict the scenes. They make choices as to which scenes to show and which to leave out. They have to consider how the characters look and interact. All of these choices are worthy of discussion when considering a graphic novel.

                While I would really like to have a graphic novel on my reading list, I have been stumped as to how exactly I would go about “teaching” such a work. Then I had the thought that if we are arguing that graphic novels are literature, then we could really do many of the same activities we would do with “regular” literary texts. They would need to be modified a bit, but things such as creating a scene left out of the original text, or telling the story from another point of view could work nicely with a graphic novel. Not only do such activities require them students to analyze the existing text, but they require further analysis, creativity, and justification for the choices made.

                Like Susanna, I would like to use excerpts from McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud says a lot about analysis in general, not just about comics (or, comix). I think his explanations, along with the format, would be helpful for students. (And they would have to analyze as they read about analysis!) Also, I’d like to use excerpts from a graphic novel or two in an activity that I use in the beginning of the year. Many of my IB students struggle with the concept of really examining the choices made in a literary work and the effect of those choices. During the first week or two of school I do an activity in which they look at the choices/techniques and their effects in art work, music, and film before we move on to our focus on literature. The point is that literary analysis is not completely unique and on its own island of thought somewhere. I think I’ll add graphic novel excerpts to the mix.

Blood in the gutters… guts, too?

I will admit: I’ve been spending more time this week on my presentation than thinking about Nat Turner and graphic novels. However, in reading my classmates’ posts about teaching graphic novels, I’ve been inspired by their enthusiasm.

In answer to the specific question posed in class — How can we get students to slow down when reading graphic novels? — I have one answer that excites me most. I’m interested in McCloud’s concept of the gutter, as many of us are, and I think a great way to get students to move through what is basically a picture book at a slower pace is to ask them to fill in those gutters (in words). Choose a few scenes (/pages) and ask them to write the parts that are missing in between the frames. Then an interesting in-class activity might be to have some students share their “gutter text” — are they similar? are any wildly different? why might that be?

This would be a good way to show students that though graphic novels may seem too simple to some (and maybe less like literature), they actually leave themselves open to interpretation the same way a well-written story/novel/poem/play does. And isn’t this the crux of literature? An interpretable work of art that is specific, yet indirect; suggestive, yet subtle; and generally memorable? It seems to me that the guts of any literary work are often found in these “gutters.”

To bring things full circle, it might also be interesting to then show students some short stories, &c., with meaningful section breaks and talk about how we “fill in the gutters” in “regular” textual literature, too (as I think Susanna was saying). And I do not say this as though we should try to convince our students that graphic novels are Literature with a capital “L” — instead of fighting that battle, I think showing students the value in graphic novels, their intricacies and subtleties, would be far more more powerful and useful when introducing the genre.

Via the exercise I outlined above, students would also get real practice in quite literally rewriting a story, which we’ve learned this semester is a way of reading. Graphic novels seem to hold lots of teaching opportunities.

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.

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.

Graphic May Be The Way To Go

Deborah Kogon                                              

ENGL 610

Blog:  Nat Turner

March 31, 2010

            This is the first graphic novel I have read and I have to admit, I grouped this genre with comic books, or at least “No Fear Shakespeare.” Therefore, I approached this assignment with reluctance about the topic and immense curiosity about the format. Kyle Baker delivers the message in a powerful visual representation I could not have imagined.

            I had attempted to read the Confessions of Nat Turner for a Southern History course while I was at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but passed it up because the violence in the text was so graphic. In addition to the gruesome content, it was incomprehensible to me that a slave would have had access to the education, vocabulary, and tone Thomas R, Gray attributes to Turner. I did not care for William Styron’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, as it seemed racially biased.

            I do not know why this approach worked for me except that I am extremely visual and the story, while horrifying and almost unbelievable, seemed to become hard-wired directly to my brain. There was no time to turn away; I just kept turning the page. 

           The most striking aspect of Baker’s Nat Turner is the way the novel set the piece in context. The brutal capture was more stunningly laid out in the visual format than any eloquently, terrifying syntax could. The reader empathizes with the African woman who desperately protects her child, then thinks death must be better than what life was to become. When I saw that noose thrown over the side of the cliff to catch her foot as she was falling, I was genuinely horrified and surprised. Baker does the same thing with the baby thrown to the sharks, with amputations, and with the final skinning of Turner’s body. I could not have read those passages, but seeing them was even worse. I will not be able to forget them.

Teaching Nat Turner

I think Nat Turner definitely deserves re-reading, and that re-reading would be a great tool for students to fully comprehend the text. There are plenty of ways I think this graphic narrative or novel could be taught:

1) Present a difficulty-paper assignment that has students recognize why they have a difficult time reading the text (i.e. because of the genre, because of the historical context).

2) On a more creative note, have students write one to two sentences of text for what is going on in the parts like “Home” that rely only on images. Or conversely, have students draw their own images for what is going on for a portion of the text of Nat Turner’s confessions.

3) Similarly, you could have students attempt to create their own (shortened version) of a graphic narrative. To relate it to the text, you could have students create one regarding some injustice they felt they have experienced.

I first came across the graphic novel in reading Maus I and Maus II in my undergraduate Holocaust literature course. At the end of the course we had to do a project or research paper, and I decided to create a mini-graphic “novel” on the anti-Semitism I witnessed growing up in a predominantly Jewish town. This helped me better understand the benefits of telling a story through this medium.

4) Ask the students questions relating to the text that may require them to go back and re-read: who fed the baby to the shark? Why is the first image of someone reading in the dark? When the white man wants to kill one of the captured Africans on page 35, and there is a bubble indicating “$!,” what does that mean?

5) Do a pre-writing or post-writing exercise about a “motive” for Nat Turner. In his confessions, he explains a lot about what happens (and as we learned in Prof Sample’s lectures, this may be exaggerated based on Thomas R. Gray’s own motive for financial gain) but not a lot about why.

6) Have students research the historical period or pre-write about what they know about slavery. I think having the background knowledge of Nat Turner’s confessions is relevant.

7) Introduce or discuss other texts that might be related, such as “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall or “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, etc.

Back to Basics?

Thinking about how we can get students to slow down while reading Nat Turner, I tried returning to the same methods we’ve reviewed this semester for use with traditional literature. Why not?

How about asking students to pick a “most important frame?” in the tradition of Blau’s “most important line” exercise? This would not only push students to carefully review the panels, but also encourage them to try to distill the point of the story (and what is that point, by the way?) down to one pivotal moment. This might be even more important for a graphic novel, since it tends to feel like the part you’ve read is done with and the part you haven’t read is about to happen. Using this lesson would help the class to focus on the novel as a whole.

Or who says that graphic novels have to be restricted to graphic exercises? Why not have the students “write” a chapter or section of the book, using words they feel convey the story in a style that fits the illustrations? It could be really interesting to see what moods and genres they’d tap into. This exercise would also drive home the idea that a graphic novel is not so different from traditional novels they’ve read.

Lastly, how about having a character from the novel write his or her version of a section of the book – from another point of view? Or write a letter to Nat Turner about what he or she thinks about his rebellion? The challenge here would be finding a character who didn’t fall massively on one side of the rebellion or the other (black or white) as the lines of loyalty would certainly be drawn pretty distinctly. Or here’s an idea – how about a letter from a modern civil rights leader (such as Rosa Parks) to Nat Turner? That might generate some interesting discussion.

Once you open up activities to the rich array of opportunities we use for the written word, the possibilities become nearly endless!

Rereading without the words.

After listening to the class discussion and considering my own impression of Nat Turner, it struck me that the most important thing to focus on when teaching graphic novels would be rereading. This has proven true for a variety of literature so far and I can see a clear necessity for using this skill with graphic novels as well— as many in class expressed, it can be too easy to flip through a graphic novel without lingering on the images.

What seems the most obvious technique would be to have students add text to silent panels, then have students compare what they “heard” in the silent panels. Students could also compare them to the original and reflect in writing which they prefer, a student version or the original. This would generate rereading opportunities as well as open a window for discussing what the advantages and limitations are of illustrations as text.

Another way of generating rereading would be to have students select a series of 10 panels from throughout a novel that they feel best summarizes the story. This activity would also give me as the instructor a gauge for how well my students are understanding the content. Students could also be asked to rearrange the panels or select based on a chosen theme, character, or plot line, then reflect on the new impression this gave them either aloud or in writing.

Class discussions on some of the “grammar” of graphic novels would also be useful. My sense is that most students would intuitively understand how to read them, but I think it would be interesting to discuss what impression the longer vs. shorter panels or certain lines/backgrounds gave to certain scenes. Having the students engage in this grammar by drawing a panel with changes could also be a way to engage students in rereading and examining how pictures can function as a text.

After I finished writing the above I realized I was considering how the average student would learn to read and comprehend a graphic novel— I wasn’t considering what my English language learners or students with disabilities would need. For English language learners I think that graphic novels could be an advantage because of the illustrations, but they could also be more difficult if students are from a culture that does not share the same visual grammar. For students who have difficulty reading body language or focusing/tracking, the visual aspect of a graphic novel may also present challenges. I think both groups of students would be best assisted if they had a reading partner or the instructor described the illustrations to them and work with the student to interpret them.

I think graphic novels could be a real advantage in the English classroom—they make for quick and enticing reads, leaving more time to invest in writing about and discussing the literature.

Teaching a Graphic Novel

In thinking about how I could teach a graphic novel, the first thing I realized is that the content of the text is an important factor in how I would present it to my class. Not all lesson ideas or approaches would be appropriate for all comics. (For example, considering the controversial content of Nat Turner, I wouldn’t introduce it in a lighthearted lesson, nor would I choose it as the first graphic novel I show my students.)

As I said in my blog post last week, I noticed a big difference in my own thinking about the content of Nat Turner vs. the way in which it is presented. I don’t think high school students would naturally separate those two aspects of the text, so it’s important that the teacher does so for them (as necessary) or (preferably) develops lessons that encourage students to do so on their own. To do this, the teacher needs to know his purpose in presenting the text (that sacred concept of backward planning). He has to consider his ultimate goal: Am I teaching graphic novel X because I want to teach a/any graphic novel or because I want to discuss the issue of X? (My initial opinion of Nat Turner is that it would be better used as a starting point in discussing the actual issue of the slave rebellion. I don’t think it would be as productive, with a high school audience, to discuss the physical presentation of the story—at least until after the genre had been introduced and dealt with using less controversial examples. Then, yes, full steam ahead with NT.) So the only real conclusion I’ve reached so far is that you need to know WHY you’re teaching the text in the first place. (I know–good teaching 101, right?).

Maybe I’ve over-thought Prof. Sample’s question by hashing out all this goal stuff, but I couldn’t start brainstorming until I’d set some parameters for my hypothetical lessons. But now, finally some ideas . . . If I were to teach a graphic novel, I think I’d want to find one that it is middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty (i.e. not Nat Turner, but also not an Archie comic—no offense to Archie). I would want students to be able to differentiate between content and presentation, but also be able to examine both together (as in, why do you think the author chose to convey this message in this manner as opposed to in a more traditional form? It strikes me that Maus would be a great example to use when discussing both form and content together).

Bottom line, I think there’s a lot a teacher could do with any given graphic novel that would inspire students to think critically about certain aspects of the work (images, text, purpose, message, voice, plot, etc.). Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Remove all text from the images (thought bubbles, captions, onomatopoeia) and then ask students to fill in their own captions. Students would have to support/defend their captions with textual evidence (in this case, image-based evidence). I’ve done a similar activity as a review of Macbeth, but the version I’ve done doesn’t really require critical thinking, only summarizing skills. The activity could vary depending on whether you’ve shown the students the original text beforehand—I can see it being worthwhile both ways.
  • Cut up a shorter graphic novel (graphic short story?) into pieces and have students reassemble based on their knowledge of story conventions (exposition, climax, falling action, etc.). This lesson would work well with a traditional short story unit because it would show students that the mechanics of stories are similar even when the final products look different. (You could then discuss why authors choose particular methods of conveying a story. How a short story is better/worse/different from a graphic novel, movie, song, etc.)
  • Slow down the reading of a longer graphic novel by giving students only short sections at a time. Study the sections one at a time, asking students to write about what they see, how this excerpt connects to previous sections, and how the story might play out after this point. After seeing all the sections, students could review their notes and evaluate how their understanding of the story changed, improved, or declined as they read more passages. (Now I’m thinking of reading log audits. I’m sure there’s a lot you could do with something like this.)
  • Ask students to translate a graphic novel into a written short story (or vice versa). Discuss the pros and cons of each genre, difficulties the students encountered, possible combinations of the two presentation styles, and so on.
  • Visually experiment with multiples storylines or narrative perspectives. One novel I teach uses a fragmented narration style that really confuses my regular 10th graders. I could ask students to represent different story threads by cutting and pasting panes from a graphic novel in different patterns or combinations. This activity would help visual learners in particular.

These are only “rough draft ideas,” so I’m really more interested to see what everyone else comes up with. I love hearing different perspectives and ideas because I always find something useful to bring back to my students. I hope we can compile a more comprehensive list of ideas and flesh them out as a class.