Voices from the Classroom: Melissa Burke-Marquart
Melissa Burke-Marquart, an 11th grade English teacher at St. Thomas More High School, a small Catholic high school in Champaign, Illinois, has been teaching graphic novels in the classroom on and off throughout her career. A lifelong comics fan and experienced educator, she says, "Years ago, I used superhero comics with my freshmen when I taught them the elements of fiction. I hear back from many of them—they're now grownups with families—that that was their all-time favorite lesson. We created a class superhero and then I grouped the students into creative teams; they wrote and created a comic and short story starring the class hero."
When asked about why using comics in a formal educational setting makes sense, Melissa replies, "Comics aid all students, not only those who are visual learners. Comics can help explain complicated processes in math and science. I have had many students tell me they came to appreciate the medium and even want to add some comics to their personal libraries. Comics deserve serious study, and not just from those in academia." Melissa also offers that one of the advantages of teaching comics in the English classroom is that "students look at the same elements of fiction we use to analyze a traditional text, but since we have the benefit of visual narrative as well, we look at the art style and how that influences the story and vice versa."
To help her studentsunderstandthat there is more than one way to tell a story, Melissa relies on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Making Comics, Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative and Comics and Sequential Art, and Jessica Abel & Matt Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. She is also in contact with comics writers and artists using them as resources.
Melissa's first intention was to use comics to get her students to read: "I had to rope in those reluctant readers by using superhero comics since they are high interest and the story lines are usually easy to follow." However, Melissa says, "While there's a soft spot in my heart for superhero comics, I tend to gravitate to underground comics. I love the wide variety of subject matter and 'alternative' comics tend to be more autobiographical in nature."
The autobiography project Melissa created for her students outlined below germinated from her personal love of autobiographical comics. "I wanted to show my kids that there's more to comics than just Superman or Batman," she says. Though she says she uses comics throughout the year, she developed a focused unit featuring personal narrative. She explains: “My students read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a traditional text. Next, we read an excerpt from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and short pieces from prominent authors including Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, Jean Shepherd, Chuck Palahniuk, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison. We analyze them, then they write their own personal narrative. After they’ve completed their essays, we move on to exploring comics beginning with excerpts from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s texts Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative and Comics and Sequential Art. After obtaining a working comics vocabulary, we then move on to reading autobiographical comics by Nate Powell, Craig Thompson, David Small, Laurie Sandell, Lynda Barry, and Nick Bertozzi. Using these personal narratives as a basis for their scripts, my students write a script for their comic. As a guide, we use Russell Lissau’s script for The 29). Progressing from their scripts, students then create their own comic. They use a variety of means to accomplish this: Some work on the computer using the Comic Life program, some hand draw everything, some use a mix of the two.”
The excerpt of the personal narrative comic below was created by one of Melissa's international students. According to Melissa, this student, a gifted artist, appreciated this assignment because it worked to her strengths, namely art. "She didn’t have to worry about translating from Korean to English, using all the grammar rules that apply" Melissa remarks. "I think she did a fabulous job without employing written speech."
Melissa's student’s work is an outstanding example of visual storytelling, and the result of effective integration of comics into a traditional high school English curriculum. Kudos, Melissa, and keep up the good work!
-- Maureen Bakis