I detested math! Perhaps even hated would better fit how I viewed any math class. It was the summer before my senior year in high school. My friends were splashing around in the cool water at the city pool, baking in the summer sun, while I trudged off, books in hand, to Mrs. Parker’s, my tutor’s, home. I was a very studious individual. I never earned grades as far into the alphabet as in math. I would not say that I did not put effort into math classes; really, I lacked only one thing: confidence.
Graphic novels give my struggling readers the superpower confidence in reading in which they do not have. The images interest students with passions for art. They also provide a concrete visualization for a student that leads to comprehension of the text. Not only do the pictures draw in unlikely readers, but so does the text. It is broken up in a way that seems manageable to those who panic at the sight of entire pages filled with letters—symbols with little or no meaning to their kind: a reader who lacks the decoding skills necessary to attack the text with ease.
I can remember my first day of tutoring vividly. Mrs. Parker was not what I would have expected. I would have never guessed she’d be the hero I’d need (or wanted) to save me from the deep depths of frustration in math and distrust of teachers in general. Capeless, her stern voice spoke the words that would echo throughout the next 23 sessions that I had with her. “We will not use calculators in my home,” she bellowed as I quickly stuffed the “Superhero of Algebra” back into my book bag.
She drew me in somehow. Her craft was masked cleverly. Was the reason I continued to come back to her home, filled with a typical hoarder mess, the thing that created an environment I desired to observe? Was it the fact she believed in me and found things that were of interest to me? Slowly, I learned that she was a really wonderful teacher. Her warm smile provided encouragement and pushed me to successfully complete each session. She copied and gave me motivational cartoons. She calmed my nerves and settled my frustrated mind.
Just like a struggling math student, struggling readers are often frustrated, overwhelmed, and lack the basic skills needed to read in the first place. I have found that pairing full-text novels, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with an “illustrated” graphic text, such as Classics Illustrated Deluxe #4: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Classics Illustrated Deluxe Graphic Novels), or the Seekers and Warriors series (both in regular text and graphic novel versions) help to fuse teaching and learning relationships between readers above grade level, at grade level, and those who are at risk of failure. In my classroom, literature circles combining these related texts allow for all types and levels of learners to be instructed and learn at their own pace and in their own style without feeling they are not getting their individual learning needs met.
I have also used graphic novels to teach and encourage writing. Students can create or retell text by using technology available to them, such as making a simple PowerPoint presentation or creating more developed projects using applications like Scratch, in which they can animate. I have recently found a leveled reader series called Phonics Comics, which I am currently using to support phonics instruction and writing skills. Written by a reading specialist, they encompass a large array of standards and skills necessary for success such as basic sight words, spelling conventions, and sentence structure.
Graphic novels become weapons to fight the battles of “hating reading” and the “issues” that there is “nothing good to read” or that the book is “required.” As I teach online, there is limited digital graphica available. The more teachers, librarians, and other educational professionals add comics and graphic novels into their classrooms and libraries; I believe more resources will be available to use digitally. Currently, I am a frequent user of Marvel.com. I have also found a great digital version about Smokey the Bear that I have used in online instruction. The Hero Factory online takes you through a program in which you can create your very own superhero by choosing physical features, powers, costume, and names (see mine to the right). I love using this site for infusing writing into a lesson. Students are thrilled for the opportunity to create a story using their personal hero or villain.
My online library also extends to the programs that I use on a daily basis as a teacher. Within the last year, Study Island has launched The Timbertoes, an online program geared for older students who are below grade level in reading. Tumblebooks, digital books online accessed through local libraries, are frequently adding graphic novel titles to their virtual bookshelves. I have also found that children’s magazines like Lego, Jr. include a monthly comic in which I can quickly scan and read with my students.
I also am a huge fan of Dav Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series (Pilkey.com)! Readers are pulled in by getting the chance to hear me read or to get to read aloud words like wedgies, toilet, or underpants! Mr. Pilkey’s personal story of teachers and principals often being the villains in his school experience makes me question why teachers so often “shut their doors” to opportunities of reading the graphic novel genre and allowing for students to develop comprehension through mentally visualizing and physically drawing illustrations for what they read and author themselves.
One day, I was asked to complete a few problems for her. I happily and mentally computed each of them and waited patiently for her to review them. “I didn’t tell you, but this was a test” she spoke casually. I was horrified in thinking that maybe I rushed or maybe I did not do something right, or maybe… Instantly, she added, “You got a B.” “A B!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “I have not seen a grade like that since elementary school in math! I am dumb in math!” I thought to myself excitedly.
Graphic novels have brought my struggling middle schoolers who HATE reading and books in general to a world they have never known. Many—especially boys—read avidly now and can independently choose books for personal enjoyment. Last year, I witnessed two of my male students who both were reading below grade level gain 2+ grades by reading and creating graphic novels. It is amazing to allow a struggling reading student who is talented in art unleash new strengths—illustrating and writing!
What else do graphic novels bring to my classroom? They teach dialog. They teach sequential order. They teach vocabulary. The teach onomatopoeia. They teach retell and summarizing. They teach story elements. They teach students that it is OK to be good at art—that they can be illustrators. They teach those who hate reading to have confidence to do so—what may be the only chance to spark imagination in a child who is disinterested! In my classroom, graphic novels are the Sidekicks of the Love of Reading.
Mrs. Parker showed me how to have confidence. She helped confirm my long desire to become a teacher in her shadow. I want to influence a middle school–aged reader’s life in the same way she did mine, by teaching to the individual, accepting and acknowledging that nontraditional texts belong in the classroom—that reading graphic novels is really reading, by teaching each individual to be confident, life-long self-learners.
This one is for you Mrs. Parker!
About the Author
Frances Jagielski is a Title I middle school reading teacher at the Ohio Virtual Academy. She teaches via computer from her home office in Toledo, Ohio. She holds a B.S. in middle childhood education, grades 4-9, with a reading specialist certification from Bowling Green State University, along with a master’s of education in educational technology from Lourdes College. Thanks to her personal superhero, Buzz Lightyear, she has adopted and teaches to the motto “To infinity and beyond!”