Graphic Novels: Composing with Sequential Art in High School English and History

Article excerpt

Think of the French Revolution and it's not likely that innovation immediately leaps to mind. In all likelihood, a rummage through the box labeled "World History" in your metaphorical attic of memories might yield some stuff about guillotines and uprisings. Dig a bit deeper and perhaps you'll recall something about Napoleon's eventual rise to power. Yet this unlikely topic was the focus of an assignment to create a graphic novel in Ms. Sullivan's tenth grade World History class. Isaac and Madalyn, two students in her class, paired up to create an imaginative recount of the events in the decade between 1789 and 1799. The result was an inventive amalgamation of 21st century sensibilities and 18th century calamities. Using the literary device of the omniscient narrator, readers were introduced to Zack, a teenager, and Brobie, a robot from outer space. Brobie escorted Zack through the pages of history, explaining the unfolding events. Our favorite device? Brobie's blog posted in the corner of each page to provide the reader content details (see Figure 1).

An analysis of the content and composition of their ten-page graphic novel reveals an understanding of the topic and a sophisticated command of the elements that bring writing to life: action, dialogue, plot, and what Francine Prose calls the "narrative authority [that] comes from our sense that the writer is in control" (2003, p. 252).

Graphic novels in the classroom

Literacy researchers, librarians, and astute classroom teachers have been in on the secret for quite awhile now - graphic novels are not a lesser form of literature, nor are they representative of a lowered standard of expectations for students who can't be bothered to pay attention to the complexities of prose text (Frey 6c Fisher, 2004; Graham, 2008; O'English, Matthews & Lindsay, 2006). We'll save the ink normally devoted to justifying the existence of these works to others. Instead, this article is about how the act of composition using sequential art can reveal student understanding. As usual, it is our students at our high school that seem to lead us, rather than the other way around. They continue to surprise us in the ways that they make meaning of their world.

As with all composition, it is necessary to understand the vocabulary of the genre in order to teach students how to use the tools needed in sequential art. A list of the vocabulary of sequential art necessary for composition with this genre are listed in Figure 2. We make sure that students know and use this technical language in their discussion of the writing process.

We will begin with a discussion of how words and images work together to represent ideas. The next major section addresses the role of precision in writing with words and images. The final portion of the article examines content knowledge and sequential art as a tool for writing research papers. Each section will be followed by descriptions of lessons designed to foster composition using sequential art.

Teaching about images and words

Humans have used images and symbols to convey meaning since the dawn of civilization. The Chauvet Cave paintings in southern France are believed to be the oldest, created about 32,000 years ago. Scientists believe that they were not composed for the purpose of decoration, but rather to transmit information about hunting and religious ceremonies. Human figures are rare, save for the stencils created by spitting pigment over an outstretched hand (Chauvet, Deschamps, & Hillaire, 1996). Despite a vast span of time, these handprints resonate across the millennia as a symbol of the brevity of life.

Until the emergence of alphabetic systems about 3,000 years ago, humans in what is now known as Europe, Africa, and India relied on symbols in the form of cuneiform and hieroglyphics. Even in our own alphabet, we can see the remnants of its pictographic past. The letter "a" comes from the Semitic word aleph, symbolizing an ox (see the horns? …