Lesson Plans: Maureen Bakis on The Graphic Novel Classroom
Teacher Maureen Bakis shows educators the valuable lessons she’s learned in her new book, The Graphic Novel Classroom.
What does your new book cover?
The Graphic Novel Classroom: POWerful Teaching and Learning with Images is a resource for teachers about teaching students graphic novels, visual literacy, and the various aspects of the comics medium in the secondary English Language Arts classroom. It contains resources, lessons, and features examples of student work both in the book and on its companion website.
What inspired you to do it?
I was frustrated with students' unwillingness to read in general and negative attitudes about reading school-assigned literature. Too many of my high school students were fudging their way through English for years, while reading and writing just to find "correct answers" or to obtain a grade. I gathered as much data as I could from students about why they avoided reading for school and reflected on my own practice to remedy the situation. At the same time, I just happened to be taking a graduate course about the graphic novel. I discovered that graphic novels are engaging stories and that the aesthetic, interactive nature of reading graphic narrative helped to produce a more participatory culture in the classroom, which helped steer my pedagogy toward being even more constructivist. I saw overwhelming positive results when I started teaching the graphic novel course to high school seniors, so I wanted to share my success and help other educators see that teaching graphic novels is a valid and valuable option for engaging students in authentic literacy practices both in a traditional literary sense and in a contemporary context where multimedia, critical, new, and digital literacies need to be addressed. I kept a blog while I collected resources for teaching comics and taught the graphic novel course when it occurred to me that someone else might benefit from what I was doing, so I shaped everything into a manuscript, networked, and contracted with Corwin to publish.
How can teachers use it effectively in the classroom?
I hope teachers can benefit from having a visual picture of a public high school ELA classroom where students are reading, discussing, and writing about graphic narratives and composing multiple forms of media, including telling stories in comics form. I hope teachers can see my role in the classroom, my philosophies, and some of the practices (though my practices are constantly adjusted) I implement with my students to help them think about their own practices or to innovate with their own students. I don't claim that my way of teaching comics and graphic novels is the only way, but teachers ask one another for ideas, so I share mine in book form. If I can't have face-to-face contact with teachers who are interested in using graphic novels with their students, I hope my book sort of acts as a stand-in, as a conversation between teachers, albeit it one-way. Perhaps teachers can use some of the student models I provide in their own classes, the study guides, discussion and writing prompts, online activities, or consult the number of resources I provide for planning their own units. The book is also useful as a rationale for teachers to convince their schools to invest in graphic novels. The references provide discovery for those interested in learning more and connecting with scholars, practitioners, and publishers in the field too.
What are the biggest misconceptions regarding using graphic novels in the classroom?
In my experience, the consistent misconception about reading graphic novels is that they are too simplistic or contain inappropriate content for use in a "serious" English course. Although graphic novels are popular in libraries and among all ages of readers and have gained legitimacy in higher education, I still have students entering my course each September telling me they signed up because they expected "easy reading." Parents also continue to be concerned about how the graphic novel course will be perceived on their child's transcripts as part of the college application process. The course takes care of eliminating preconceptions and parental concerns, as does The Graphic Novel Classroom. Like anything else, people fear what’s unfamiliar and simply need more information about graphic novels.
What is the resistance level now to using comics in the classroom? Have you found that it has noticeably improved in the past few years?
The resistance to teaching with comics appears to be lower than when I first began my foray into this area. Evidence to support my belief exists in the scholars’ and practitioners’ presence at NCTE, IRA, and other national educational conferences, and doctoral students who have contacted me about their work in this field. The fact that there was a course about teaching comics at Columbia University’s Teachers College may also hint that the desire to teach graphic novels in school is becoming more commonplace. The number of people who are networking online about teaching comics is also steadily expanding. I have almost 200 members at my site, Graphic Novels & High School English, and there are hundreds in the graphic novels group on Making Curriculum Pop and English Teacher Companion Ning. There’s certainly a healthy conversation about teaching comics online. I think the more stakeholders who see concrete evidence of student learning, the less resistance there will be. This is also part of the value of my book and others like it. Educators have to showmore than just tell that graphic novels do indeed promote learning in a number of ways.
What are the benefits to using graphic novels to teach? Have there been demonstrable studies that have shown productive developments in this regard?
Benefits include higher levels of engagement in reading, improved student attitudes toward reading in general and reading in school, more authentic literacy practices overall by students, improved critical media literacy skills, transferable knowledge acquisition especially about the relationship of form to content as this applies to many forms of media. Visual literacy learning is another benefit, and to me, the acquisition and practice of 21st-century skills, which includes a major shift in students’ disposition toward learning and how we learn and express ourselves today, is a big bonus. There are so many other benefits in the area of ELL and across the curriculum in terms of both skills acquisition and content knowledge. We have to continue to capture this data and publish it. The references listed in my book point to work done in the field already, but unfortunately I am not up-to-date on current scholarly studies other than the work of Cary Gillenwater, a doctoral candidate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is completing his dissertation on teaching and learning with graphic novels that involved collecting data from my classroom and NickSousanis’ comics dissertation about comics at Teachers College at Columbia University. I am sure other research is happening, but unfortunately, I have shifted my attention to education and emerging technologies, so I am reading and writing about mobile devices, English teacher identity, and altered definitions of literacy instead of comics! In a roundabout way, interactivity and participatory culture links what I have learned about comics with my current research topic. If I am lucky, I could measure the degree of learning that occurs when students read interactive graphic novels built as applications for the iPad like OperationAjax or Ulysses “Seen.”
What are the best types of graphic novels to use in the classroom?
Any genre of graphic narrative that can help you meet the learning objectives in any discipline is the "best" type to use. I find that students respond positively to a variety of genres, but I like using graphic novel memoirs for they most effectively help me meet my learning objectives and suit my particular student population; however, I also teach V for Vendetta, Eisner's A Contract with God, as well as short pieces from Chris Ware, all of which students enjoy. I encourage students to choose independent titles for projects as well, and many choose manga.
You recently gave a presentation to Columbia’s Teachers College about this topic. How did it go?
I was invited to talk about the ways I use graphic novels in my classroom by Nick Sousanis, a doctoral student who is composing his dissertation in comics form. (Yes, a dissertation in comics about comics!) He was asked to teach a comics-in-education course by students at Teachers College, and so I showed his students evidence of concrete learning through examples of my students' work, including our online discussions of graphic novels, and project videos of the history of comics stored on my course website. I was able to help answer concerns about assessment, meeting school and state standards, students' response to reading graphic novels, and generally share my perspective and experience teaching comics. People were also intrigued about the way I stumbled into teaching graphic novels and how I was able to convince my school to make space for a comics course. While visiting Columbia, I also got the opportunity to meet with Karen Green, who manages, I believe, the largest graphic novel collection at the university’s library. She took me through the stacks of graphic novels and told me about her experience as an Eisner judge at San Diego Comic Con—both very cool!