Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

What Adolescents Are Reading and What Their Teachers Are Not: Between the Deformed Discourse and Disdain of the Graphic Novel

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

What Adolescents Are Reading and What Their Teachers Are Not: Between the Deformed Discourse and Disdain of the Graphic Novel

Article excerpt

A first foray: An introduction to one form of high school reading and readers

It was only at the beginning of this year that I realised that I had spent all of my teaching and research life talking with children under the age of twelve years, and even within this group it was mostly with children under six. While I had come to understand a great deal about literacy acquisition (Geekie, Cambourne and Fitzsimmons 1999) and elementary school reading development (Harris, Turbill, Fitzsimmons and McKenzie 2001), as my own teenage daughter constantly reminded me, all I knew was 'ankle-biter speak'. Determined to change this, I began working with a group of students in a local high school investigating what they were reading and how they were reading, an area that would appear be relatively ambiguous (Signorini 2002) and ill-defined (Manzo 2004). The voices of these high school students have been inserted in this paper as part of an interrogative frame in an attempt to undertake an 'imaginative exploration of possibilities other than those currently available to the child adolescent reader' (Mallan 2001, p. 58)

In my very first interview a 'brave new word' opened up, which I initially thought was in direct contrast to Huxley's Brave New World that was being studied in class by some of these students. It was at this time I was genuinely introduced to the graphic novel for the first time, a text type that I had previously thought was nothing more than a glorified comic on steroids. As this initial group of students opened their bags and showed me what they were reading I also recognised that I was now also entering some form of inter-generational reading void. In these texts there was a minimal use of written language, and what was there was a colloquial form that I would not allow in my classrooms or my own children to use. While there was an obvious storyline, the accompanying graphics continually jolted me with their sharp angles, seemingly disjointed images and at times apparently disconnected forms.

   The same stuff is in there, and even more than the books we study
   in class. You have to look harder. There's more than one way to
   look at the story, and it's different each time I read them. No
   that's wrong, its not different, just more involved. (Erin, aged
   16)

It was also at this point I realised I had to put my generational censure mindset on hold. With this group of adolescents acting as 'intratextual' guides, I found that the language use, including the forms I did not personally approve of, was in fact mostly piquant and served to make me think more carefully about what was also being portrayed in the often confrontational visuals.

Towards the end of this initial session while I sat and poured over Miller's graphic novel Sin City I realised the nature of the reading environment I had now entered when one of these students commented:

   I'm seeing the same stuff like in Huxley's book. That guy was
   thinking like me, but I can't use what I'm reading now in class. I
   showed my teacher but all she said was I shouldn't be reading
   comics. (Amy, aged 17)

For the most part their teachers told me that these students weren't reading and were only cursorily engaged with the texts they studied in English classes. To a large extent I found this to be true. That is, these students weren't reading in the traditional sense and they weren't reading what their teachers would consider to be quality text. Their literature was from another time, focused on another space and at times spoke of another 'other'.

Where we have been and where perhaps we should go

I had always believed that children's literature in the traditional sense has tremendous innate power. 'It reaches children's hearts and minds and helps them understand themselves and the world in which they live' (Feeney and Moravcik 2005, p. 21). As I saw it, the vast array of reading material available to students of any age nowadays provides them with so much more than simple entertainment. …

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