Go Visual With a Graphic Novel, Comic Book, or Zine!

Today’s blogger is Adam I. Attwood (Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee), whose article “Comic Books and Graphic Novels for the Differentiated Humanities Classroom” appears in the October 2020 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of December.

Incorporating comic books and graphic novels into collaborative English language arts and social studies education offers an additional strategy for bringing complex stories to students and for developing higher-level thinking skills. Teaching core literacy skills in middle and high school often draws on time-tested strategies such as rote memorization, sentence diagramming, or row-by-row read-aloud. Though these strategies can work as part of a balanced, scaffolded curriculum, Jill Gerber and I explain in our article in the Kappa Delta Pi Record that incorporating an increasingly good catalog of graphic literature offers additional opportunities for differentiated instruction using more interactive media to engage and encourage students.

Reading graphic novels or comic books requires students to do multiple literacy activities at once. It makes their brains work more.

For example, looking at integrated illustrations while reading a story takes sight words to another level of “sight ideas.” In middle school, this is a logical progression from elementary sight-word instruction.

Similarly, by integrating social studies and English language arts instruction based in graphic literature, teachers promote connections in contextual understanding of concepts. The stories in comic books and graphic novels create more immersive opportunities to design activities that encourage simultaneously interacting with history, literature, and art so that students make connections between past and present as both a personal dialogue and as a community conversation.

In an easily replicated example of this strategy, Gerber, who hosts a blog about graphic literature at Perceptive Gaze, intentionally applies this literacy strategy by having her students write and self-publish “zines.” Like miniature magazines, zines are small booklets that emphasize comic book–like structure. This activity creates a product-based assessment in which students are required to simultaneously demonstrate their learning across subject areas.

Gerber’s approach involves a multistep process for students to design and present their zines.

  1. Research, organization, and resources. Students research their topics of interest in their assigned subject and use a simple, six-statement template to organize their thoughts for approaching this project. The teacher offers resources for overcoming the challenges of pairing art with concepts and words.
  2. Storyboard and script. Students plan and outline their story on index cards, including how they want to illustrate the concepts.
  3. Production. The teacher can demonstrate how to lay out the students’ plans on paper, advise students on which paper size would best present their stories, and assist them with the “manufacturing” of their zine. Students ultimately do all the work of writing, drawing, folding, and cutting, including making decisions on how to letter the text so that it works with the art in the context of the story.
  4. Editing station. Students practice the complexity of editing in a step-by-step process. At first, the teacher models this process; but, with practice, students edit more and more of their own work and engage in peer editing to practice constructive feedback.
  5. Presentation. In this final step, students present and explain their work. Discussion can be organized in small groups or whole-group seminars.

With practice, students internalize these skills and grow their creative output. Technical artistic skills are less important than form and format. The teacher functions as a guide for students to help them get more comfortable with the concepts and mechanical aspects of the illustrated storyboard development process. Gerber summarizes one such project on her blog and offers some additional advice with examples.

That one sample project focuses on a single activity in a social studies classroom that can be adapted for a personal narrative in a language arts curriculum or extended for other subjects. The rewards from integrating graphic literature into your instructional strategies can be even more pronounced when the approach is used to combine complex concepts in social studies with language arts literary analysis.

This type of project may take extra coordination, but its benefits for a wide range of students can be substantial by increasing their motivation and interest across topics and skills.