Overcoming Obstacles: Getting a Graphic Novel Approved & How to Use It
Tim Smyth

Since I started advocating for comics in the classroom, I’ve been met with two consistent questions from my fellow educators: how do I get started and how do I convince my administration that comics are valid literary and historical materials appropriate for the classroom? While there are many accounts of the positive impact graphic novels have on students, not much can be found on how a teacher got the text approved for the classroom.

Recently, I went through the lengthy process of getting the award-winning trilogy March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell approved as a literary text for teaching the Civil Rights Movement to my 11th grade students. Although the idea of getting a graphic novel approved for the classroom may seem daunting, seeing the amazing effects the format has had on my students throughout the years, and especially with March, has always made every effort worth it.


1. Choose a book you love

This may sound obvious, but the first, and perhaps most important step, is to choose a book you love.  Nothing is more impactful in a classroom than when a teacher brings something he/she is passionate about – it becomes infectious. I was completely taken in by March the first time I read it and immediately knew I had to get it into the hands of my students in a meaningful way. However, be careful when choosing a title as images can get a teacher into trouble faster than a traditional text. As with any text, know your district and your grade level expectations as this is the number one reason why teachers are put on the defensive with graphic novels. 

2. Why teach this graphic novel?

The next step is to ask yourself, why am I bringing in this graphic novel? It should never be simply because it is different or cool – but should foster specific educational benefits. Be able to answer: what skills will you be teaching through the book? How will this add to your classroom discussions and learning? These are the answers you’ll need when approaching administration, school board members, parents, and even students.

As the former social studies department chair for eight years with a MS Reading Specialist Degree – I felt more than prepared to present the necessary research as to the merits of this medium when making my case, but simply making note of how well they address the Common Core standards might be the true deciding factor in convincing your district that they should be included in the classroom.

3. Reach out

Social media, especially Twitter, is a fantastic tool where you will find educators, publishers, and authors who are willing to share their experiences and advice. You can find me: @historycomics, historycomics.net, and on Facebook in a collaborative educators’ group called – Comic Book Teachers. Top Shelf, the publisher of March, already has free teacher lesson plans available on their website – many publishers also have similar resources available.

These lesson plans may or may not be the perfect fit for you, but may give you inspiration and get you started. Another option is to attend a comic con in your area. These are great places to network and to find educators with experience, most who are more than willing to share their knowledge. Look into the panels being offered and schedule your day around those focused on education. You may even be lucky enough to meet up with an author or illustrator of your chosen graphic novel.

4. Do your research

Find studies about the efficacy of using comics in the classroom. Do your research – come prepared.  These studies are widely available through a simple Google search. Buy books on teaching with graphic novels – you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Luckily for educators, there is now a wealth of information and support available.

5. Talk to your administration

Now you can begin your conversation with administration. Be sure to wow them at the outset, be prepared - even encourage them to read the book. Share with them the SKILLS that will be taught and how these books are perfect for cross-curricular lesson planning. I teach in Pennsylvania and have used some of the following abbreviated Common Core standards to specifically explain how graphic novels can be integrated. Look through your own local standards and be sure to include them in your proposal.      

Elementary 

  • CC.1.2.1.G Use illustrations and details in a text to describe its key ideas
  • CC.1.3.5.G Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel).
  • CC.1.4.K.M Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose narratives

Secondary

  • CC.8.6.E use technology to produce and publish
  • CC.8.9.G gather information from multiple sources
  • CC.8.6.H draw evidence from information texts
  • CC.8.5.A cite textual evidence to support analysis
  • CC.8.5.E analyze how text uses structure

Additionally, graphic novels help students with 21st century skills. When reading online, text is often not linear and from left to right – it often molds around pictures and offers links – text is rarely presented alone. Our students are highly visual and are adept at making meaning through images. Some other topics to include in your conversation – breaks from the textbook, scaffolding for English Language Learners, pairing visuals with text, higher level skills – such as inference and predicting, plays to the strengths of individual learning styles.

Don’t focus solely on how graphic novels can help reluctant readers, although they are a great resource for this type of student. The strength of graphic novels is that they are easily adaptable to all levels of students, it all depends on the application and use. Gifted students can be asked for more text to text connections, to make predictions, and to use the graphic novel as a jumping off point to other texts. Also – be sure to state that graphic novels are never a replacement text, but one of many tools that we can use. Of course, we still expect students to read traditional texts, but these graphic novels can often be a beginning point to build confidence and to introduce higher level reading.

I can use my own children as an example as they have read Udon Entertainment’s wonderful Manga Classics – the Scarlett Letter, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Les Miserables. My daughter is in 5th grade and on a much higher reading level, and she found these books both challenging and immersive. My wife and I have had wonderful conversations with her about these books and now she wants to read the original texts.

My youngest daughter, 1st grade, doesn’t always get the deeper meaning of these books, but the images have helped her to engage in our conversations and to get the big idea. Neither child is a reluctant reader, but the type of student to whom a graphic novel can be an engaging way to broaden their knowledge.

My son, however, was a reluctant reader and unable to find confidence in his reading abilities. Through years of struggles, we were eventually able to use comic books as a gateway to increasing his skills and interests. The next step was to involve him in reading graphic novels – this immediately gained him the needed confidence as he knew that he was reading full books and now loves to read everything he can get his hands upon.

6. Plan out your lessons

Once approved, lesson planning begins. It is important to find success out of the gate as many will be watching – especially if this is the first time your school has integrated this type of literature.

Begin with the basics. The first time I gave comic books to my students to read – we were using comics from several decades as windows into society – I was surprised at how many students had never read a comic. I found that I had to teach students how to read a comic book – how the pages flow, the meaning of different types of dialogue bubbles, the importance of gutters, etc. I found success with putting together a PowerPoint with many different types of pages, including Manga. The last thing I wanted was for the format to get in the way of the story.

Use images without words (as from Nat Turner by Kyle Baker) and have students use close reading skills to explain what is going on in the images. It is important for you not to tell them, let the students reason through and find the evidence to defend their opinion. This visual literacy is exactly the same skill we expect of students when reading prose and forces them to focus on the meaning of the page or image. Additionally, it helps the students to be more independent thinkers as we are all free to come up with our individual meanings, as long as the evidence can be found and explained. 

7. How will your class read this book?

Decide on the process of reading the book. Will you have students read and participate in a debate?  Will they have a literature circle/book talk? Will you have them fill out a guided reading packet as they read? Share this with your administration as you work through the process.

I stumbled somewhat in my lesson planning as I gave my students an, admittedly, huge guided reading packet, small research projects, and drawing assignments as they read. I now know that this interrupted their reading and ability to be emotionally involved in the events of the book. Next time, I will front load the lessons with some background research before beginning to read March.

8. What is the end goal?

Next – think – what is the end result? I decided to ask my students what they wanted to do as a culminating activity after reading March. We were lucky enough to have paired with a school in Norway that was also reading March (again – the amazing social media world gives us so many possibilities) and had introduced ourselves to each other. Collectively (my class and the students in Norway) decided to create original comic books based on current civil rights issues. My students worked in groups of 3-4 students, chose an issue, and began to outline their comic. 

I left it open to the students if they wanted to hand draw it, use an online tool like Pixton, or a combination of the two. We added an interesting twist – my students would begin the comic and leave it at a cliff-hanger, the students in Norway would then complete the comic and we would discuss the outcome. I was floored at the high level of engagement from my students as they researched current events and passionately wrote about these issues.

The comic format really made them focus on individual expressions, body language, symbols, etc. – this was the power of March as well – it made John Lewis’ incredible story personal and emotional.  This is always the stand-out comment from my students – that graphic novels allow them to connect on a much deeper and personal level to the characters.

9. Get student feedback

When you are all done – be sure to ask for student feedback. I gave my students a survey before we began and similar questions when we finished. Not only is this good for you as a teacher, it also gives you invaluable data to present to administration. As I write this, I am compiling all my data to send to my supportive and helpful administration so that we can widen the graphic novel potential for not only my classroom, but for others in the district.

10. Share, share, share!

Finally, don’t forget to share – blog about your experiences, contact the author, contact the illustrator, and the publisher. Share with your colleagues. 

One last bit of advice, and maybe I should have led with this – have a classroom library. You don’t need a class set of one book to get started. Have students borrow one and write a review for extra credit.  When beginning a unit, put out graphic novels on that topic. Black History Month. Women’s History Month. WWI. So many titles that will have your students staying after and asking to borrow. Talk to your librarian about creating a special place in the library for graphic novels and tell your students about it.  Just get started – your students will thank you.


Tim Smyth has been a high school social studies teacher since 2002, and currently teachers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has a BA in History and received his Masters as a Reading Specialist. Smyth is a firm believer in cross-curricular writing and close reading analysis and has used graphic novels and comics to engage students while maintaining those beliefs.

Smyth takes his knowledge of teaching and the use of graphic novels in the classroom on the road by presenting panels at various conventions such as WizardWorld, San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con. More information about Smyth's beliefs and adventures can be found on his website here.

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