Ghost of a Chance: How One Teacher Explores Comics in the Classroom
Ralph Lagana is a sixth-grade reading specialist at Gideon Welles School in Glastonbury, Connecticut. As Ralph describes it, “It’s a single-grade building with a student population of around 525.” It’s also a school with an open-minded approach to teaching comics in the classroom. Ralph has had some incredible success recently incorporating Doug TenNapel’s Ghostopolis into his coursework, and we were so impressed that we wanted to share his insights with our readers.
First off, tell us a little bit about your classroom.
Although I work primarily with students functioning below grade level expectations, I do have opportunities every school year to work with students who are not having reading difficulties. In this instance, I host several small-group offerings that are genre-based and voluntary to participants. Last year, I had my colleagues in Language Arts send interested groups of 5 to 6 to my room to learn and enjoy works from the genres of horror, science fiction, humor, or graphic novels. (Yes, I try to convey to students that graphic novels are a genre form.) I also occasionally visit classrooms to share books.
What was your lesson plan and/or methodology when you taught Ghostopolis?
Ghostopolis caught me by surprise—something hard to do, as I've been a lifelong reader of comic books and graphic novels. Initially, I sort of breezed through TenNapel's book and chuckled along the way; but then I reread it with a more discerning eye and discovered there was a lot more to it. One big question I've always asked of what I read is: What's the point of this work? Why did someone take the time to create this? What's the author's message? These are the same questions I pose to students, and it is this type of perspective that changes a reader from passive reader to an engaged thinker.
With Ghostopolis, I had a rough beginning plan. I knew I wanted to discuss the story message, themes, play on words, symbolism, and questions the book presents to individual readers. I also knew I wanted to practice forming predictions and making inferences with the students as we read together. This plan became better defined as I progressed with each group. One thing you learn as a teacher is that you can only point out so much. If you talk about every little panel and word bubble, you're going to lose their interest, because all you're doing is pursuing your own interests. Students need to help disassemble the work too; and, sometimes this means glossing over parts I may find clever or significant. That said, there were some nonnegotiables:
1. I insisted the students learn what I feel is the difference between comics and graphic novels. My definition is entirely made up, but I think it can go a long way to bridging resistance some may have for the genre. I define graphic novels as novels that happen to have a lot of pictures accompanying them. This means the story will most likely have a beginning, middle and end, the same as any other novel they're asked to read in school. This differs from comics, which are generally written with no end in mind. Think Superman or Spider-Man. (I have also on occasion pointed out that pictures and words can be a very practical tool, as many movie companies storyboard their work to better see and understand it before filming. I do this because it sticks a little more with the students.)
2. We discussed symbolism. I referred to the American flag and red roses prior to reading to give this concept a reference point. The American flag has many meanings, some hard even to pinpoint or agree on. Red roses, however, were less ambiguous. I let them know that in Ghostopolis they'd be confronted with the same range of meaning from things meant to be symbolic. For example, planes and characters in pilot uniforms show up frequently in the book and students generally get that these are symbolic of people you can either trust (pilots) or characters (Grandpa) undergoing more than just a physical journey. On the other end of the spectrum, there's the character of Joe, who could be, and was, interpreted in many ways: a god, a force in the world, a man with magical powers, and so on.
3. I imposed what I think of as universally applicable questions for readers. I've noted several already, but other favorites asked were: Why does the story begin this way? Opening scenes are critical to any work and are never accidental. Characterization occurs, hints at coming events (foreshadowing), setting development (important with a fantasy story as readers have to learn the "rules" of the world), and the problems the characters will need to overcome.
4. Playing with words is always important. I am a fan of puns and clever uses for words, and apparently so is TenNapel. The skeleton horse that the protagonist rides is called a Nightmare. Another character, who seems able to see how things can be, is named Claire Voyant. Kids not only enjoy this kind of wordplay but need to know about it. It helps when reading any creative work because names often carry significance in stories, which deepens understanding, which increases enjoyment. It's the opposite of a vicious cycle. Let's call it a delicious cycle.
5. Finally, I expected students to perform a little writing along the way. Writing is a tough endeavor for anyone and it's important for students to stretch their thinking. Writing does this. I picked a few spots as we read to have students pause to write. In one instance, it was to respond to anything they wished to respond to at that point in the story. In another, it was to examine a series of pages and explain what they learned about the characters and what questions they may have going forward.
A lot more came up as we read the book—things I could not and did not want to anticipate. Some students wanted to know why there were intermittent panels drawn only in black and white when almost all were color. Was this symbolic of something? At first, it seems this way. We thought it might be done to emphasize a dramatic moment. Later panels didn't work that way. I suggested that maybe it was a shortcut to drawing and coloring. The great thing was we got to discuss this at their discretion, not mine. They were engaged enough to ask and I could demonstrate that even I—a long time reader—do not have answers for everything. We even concluded that maybe the author is just a wacky kind of guy. (This came after we looked up some of his other work and found he helped create Earthworm Jim.)
Obviously, symbolism is an important part of what you’re teaching. How else do you use comics to teach symbolism in your class?
I begin with some examples we all know and then point out what I feel are symbolic items in the graphic novels we read. My part is often to play dumb (not a challenge!). I'll interrupt a reader and then think aloud, "Huh, I wonder why this guy is dressed as a pilot when everyone else isn't." Or I'll ask the group, "OK, so there's a crack in the wall that goes someplace we can't see? Where might it go and is that symbolic of something?" This is done tirelessly at first; then I back off and see what the students find or ask about. In time, I can ease off. As noted, sometimes the students "discover" more symbolism than there might actually be, and that's just fine. I'd rather they over-thought than under-thought.
When you first started teaching comics in your class, did you encounter any resistance from students, parents, or other teachers?
I'm in a fortuitous position. I work in a community that values reading for the sake of reading. I have not, as yet, had parents voice concerns to me. The same for colleagues, though it's possible some may view graphic novels as something less teachable or worthy of classroom instruction. I can write that I've always had the support of my administration in how I go about assisting students to learn to read and enjoy reading. This past school year, I invited my school vice-principal to observe me teaching Ghostopolis and she seemed pleased with the higher-level thinking that went on.
Then there are the students. Yes, I do have an occasional student that doesn't like the graphic novel genre. I let them know that's it okay. I'm not a fan of poetry and do preposterous cartwheels, pirouettes, and backflips to avoid reading poetry when I can. I point out that as much as I don't like a certain form of language, I can understand the need to know about it. It also helps to point out to the reluctant student that, unlike a traditional novel, graphic novels tend to be quick reads. But really, there aren't many who walk away disliking this genre form. If anything, I get requests to put more in their hands.
It’s definitely true that comics are a great way to reach certain students. But are there some students who find it more difficult to learn things like theme and symbolism with comics, or who simply can’t relate to the format?
I've had a handful of students mention that they can't follow a graphic novel, as in they don't know which panel to begin with and where to go after that. This goes beyond unfamiliarity too, because the common rule of thumb I give them is to read it the same way they would a book: left to right, top to bottom. Even then, a very few students continue to remark that it's confusing to them; and, like anything one is confused by, they do not enjoy it. For these students, it's a case of how their brains perceive the art and floating word bubbles. They can't seem to easily organize it—even with the longtime practice of reading regular books. But that's a small, small number of students and I'm always there to clarify confusions.
As for struggling to understand the higher-level aspects of a graphic novel like symbolism and theme, I find that it's very much the opposite. Graphic novels are the perfect bridge to helping students who struggle to understand, or whom you'd simply like to challenge, grasp novels at a more profound level.
This is because graphic novels remove the additional task of having to visualize. Brain power is not spent on trying to take author descriptions and convert them into a location, scene, person, or event. That's all drawn and done for them. A graphic novel, as a result, frees the student-reader to examine and form deeper connections, insights, and opinions. Here's an off-the-cuff example. Say an author has written the following: Benjamin Grimm was such a melancholy boy that his face hung lower than his arms. It's a bit of hyperbole that can be taken literally by a sixth-grader, or at least strike a 12-year-old as weird and nonsensical. Many 12-year-olds, if left to ask what that line means, are highly likely to skip the confusing text and keep reading, possibly missing a very important piece about Benjamin and why he acts as he does in the story. But, when this is drawn on a page (possibly as a caricature for effect or simply a sad face with the description near it), then there's no confusion. Now the young mind can focus in on the other, more prized by teachers stuff, like wondering why the boy is so sad, if he will change, and do they recognize others like him in their lives.
My experience has been that graphic novels make for a nice teaching scaffold on the way to higher-level thinking.
What are some of the graphic novels you’ve used in teaching?
I've used a variety of these over the years, so it's difficult to fully recall. Last school year, I used Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel, Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, and Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean by Sarah Stewart Taylor, James Sturm, and Ben Towles. (I see that this last one was reviewed and highly recommended by your website. I concur.) Each one is valued by me for different reasons.
Houdini and Amelia Earhart provide a nice glimpse of two important historical figures as well as how times have changed. With Houdini, the students notice how everyone wears a hat or dresses the same. I ask why they think that is and they can generally figure out that fashion sense pervades a time and place, and some figure out that there just weren't a lot of options to choose from or that they could afford. There are also opportunities to infer the prejudices of the time period as Houdini, through wit at times and gumption at others, refuses to shy away from his Jewish heritage.
With Amelia, there is another form of preconceived bias laid before—but not at all spelled out—the readers, and that was the chauvinistic attitudes some men held for women. I also use that book to talk to students about the parallel writing the author used as the young girl who reports on Amelia's historic take off from Halifax is trying to follow her dreams against the naysayers. I find it's also nice to pair two historical graphic novels together because students, having read one, now have an understanding of what to expect and churn out even more insights. Finally, what most would list as the primary reason to read books like these, there's the incredible wealth of historical information that's learned. I'm referring to things we think we know but really don't. I had no idea, for example, that Amelia was literally racing to beat another woman across the Atlantic. Nor did I know that Amelia tried for weeks to fly out of one torrid bay before succeeding. As another bonus, I use these graphic novels to show the students the incredible level of research that went into them by reviewing the bibliography and the copious author tidbits added to the index. (This is a relatively new trend, which is awesome. Authors add in the background to many of the panels and scenes, bringing a new level of understanding to them and showing the fidelity of their work.)
Which ones were your favorites to use and why?
I'm going to be a little snarky with this answer, but my favorite graphic novels to use are any single one of them that a student comes to like and learn from. I have personal tastes as a reader of the genre, but, as a teacher, I try to withhold my opinions on favorites. I just want the students to like what they read.
In your use of comics in the classroom, do you have any particular favorite lessons or “A-ha!” moments that stand out in your mind as examples of students really getting the comics-learning connection?
Oh, these happen all the time, and I wouldn't say they're limited to graphic novels. Most teachers look like geniuses when it comes to classroom books and texts mainly because they've read them a dozen times. So, I love it when a student discovers something I missed. I also find satisfaction in sitting back and watching as several students discuss among themselves how they interpret some aspect of the reading. This is what we want, independent thinkers. I also like when students come back to class carrying a graphic novel they checked out of the library, or beg for more. Many of the best lessons and moments really are unscripted or planned for. I'm happy, if there's time, to do a quick search on the Internet for answers to their questions as they relate to the reading. My students wanted to know how Houdini died after reading the graphic novel. It wasn't made particularly clear. We did a search together and found a nice six-minute video on YouTube that covered many of the salient parts of his life and death. That's what kids do—go to the net for answers. What happened then was some warnings from me. Yes, the Internet is a great tool and yes, the video seemed trustworthy, but there are better, vetted sites to use.
What’s the next comic you’d like to incorporate into your classroom?
We employ a Readers' & Writers' method of instruction and are lucky to have many books available to us, but we do not have unlimited funds, and graphic novels are expensive. I work with what is available to me from our Language Arts library.
However, if there are any publishing houses or graphic novel creators that want to send me some copies, I'm certainly game, provided they're middle-school-appropriate.