By Shveta Miller, published on Cult of Pedagogy, 2019
Graphic novels are wonderful for reading, but when students use this form for their own writing, incredible stories can emerge.
There is no shortage of ways we all can benefit from teaching graphic novels. They engage reluctant or struggling readers, they are gateway texts for more complex literature, they build necessary background knowledge, and they develop visual literacy skills.
But another important reason to teach students to read, analyze, and create a graphic novel is that the form invites them to express hard truths about themselves and their experiences in a way that is different from what they can do with pure prose.
And perhaps a more surprising reason is for the impact it can have on a teacher’s relationship with students. Teaching the graphic novel to my high school English students wasa way for me to see that there was pain in my classroom and the role I might be playing in students’ difficult experiences.
HOW THE GRAPHIC NOVEL FORM INSPIRES DEEPLY PERSONAL STORYTELLING
I taught my first unit on the graphic novel in my high school World Literature classes. We read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis, in which a young Marji describes her experience growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. For their culminating project, students created their own graphic memoirs about a significant experience in their lives, using Persepolis as their mentor text.
As I turned page after page of each student’s story, I discovered that this unit had accomplished a goal I never intended. I didn’t expect so many students to delve into deeply personal, often traumatic, experiences from their past. I had read engaging personal narratives from students before, but this was different. Some used the project to announce an aspect of their identity they had kept secret. Others revealed the reasons behind certain challenging behaviors they exhibited in class. They created stories that would be healing for them and, in some cases, for their relationships with me.
What is it about the graphic novel form that made this possible?