Reforming Secondary Disciplinary Instruction with Graphic Novels

Article excerpt

Literacy reform at the secondary level has been shown to occur under a variety of conditions and through a range of broad school-level initiatives and specific dayto-day instructional practices (Brozo Sc Hargis, 2003; Sturtevant, Boyd, Brozo, Hinchman, Alvermann, &. Moore, 2006; Supovitz Oc Weinbaum, 2008). What is certain to raise the chances of success for reform activity, however, is if adolescents themselves are viewed as critical resources in the school improvement process (Brozo, 2006; Cook-Sather, 2002; Moje, 2002). Accounting for youth in a secondary school literacy reform community involves building bridges between their outside-of-school interests and literate practices and the learning expectations teachers have for them within academic settings (Alvermann oc Wilson, 2007; Hinchman, Alvermann, Boyd, Brozo, Sc Vacca, 2003-04).

In this article we draw on the literature related to adolescent struggling readers, literacy engagement, youth literacies, and disciplinary literacy. We bring together these overlapping strands of research in support of a set of practices we propose that integrate graphic novels into the content classroom. We argue that graphic novels are a versatile teaching resource that comes from the everyday lives of youth and when put in the hands of skillful teachers can heighten student engagement, build their knowledge of disciplinary topics, and expand students' literate capacities. To demonstrate the practical power of these assertions, we share the experiences and insights of science middle school teacher and co-author, Melissa, who describes how she created opportunities for her students to read and learn from graphic novels as complements to the exploration of science content.

Struggling Adolescent Readers

Any literacy reform initiative is only as good as its responsiveness to the needs of those students for whom the reform activity is undertaken in the first place - struggling readers. If all our students were exceptional and high achieving, there would be no need for reforms. Unfortunately, evidence abounds that large numbers of adolescents in the United States are not making adequate progress as readers and writers (NAEP, 2011; OECD, 2010) are having difficulty learning in disciplinary classrooms (Greenleaf, Schoenbach, Cziko, Sc Mueller, 2001), and are dropping out (Schott Foundation for Public Education, 2011).

Struggling readers represent the diversity of the adolescent population itself. This means youth from every socio-economic group, ethnicity, culture, and gender may be in need of further literacy development. We also know, however, that certain groups are privileged in academic settings because the discourse at home and at school are congruent; while others who bring different discourse traditions and patterns to secondary classrooms are more likely to encounter difficulties meeting literacy and learning expectations. The clash of school and home discourses and values seems to place a particularly heavy burden on youth who are recent immigrants and those who may be in poverty. For example, a disproportionate number of students from poor households and students who are African-American and Hispanic-American find themselves near the bottom on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2011) and global literacy assessments (OECD, 2010).

Even so, reconciling school reading with real-life reading can be challenging for any youth (Alvermann Sc Hagood, 2000; Schultz, 2002) and lead to problems with academic texts and tasks. Adolescents who participate extensively in out-of-school literate activities do so for personally meaningful, identity affirming, and socially functional purposes. They might read the sports page of the newspaper to find out more about a favorite player, find rap lyrics on a website as a guide for writing their own, or text with friends to plan a movie for the evening. Youths' competence with these real-life literacy practices may not be valued in or connected to academic settings, resulting in frustration, disengagement, and depressed performance (Alvermann Sc Wilson, 2007; Dredger, Woods, Beach, Sc Sagstetter, 2010; O'Brien, 2006; O'Brien, Beach, Sc Scharber, 2007). …