Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

A Case for Interruption in the Virtual English Classroom with the Graphic Novel American Born Chinese

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

A Case for Interruption in the Virtual English Classroom with the Graphic Novel American Born Chinese

Article excerpt

Within the field of literacy education, educators and researchers are calling for a shift toward multimodal transformations (Enciso, Katz, Kiefer, Price-Dennis & Wilson, 2006). Siegel (2006) equates multimodal transformations as a signal toward change in the 'literacy landscape that puts images, gestures, music, movement, animation and other representational modes on equal footing with language' (p. 65). Graphic novels, defined as 'book length narratives told using a combination of words and sequential art often presented in comic book style' (Fletcher-Spear, Jenson-Benjamin & Copeland, 2005, p. 37), represent one such multimodal transformation. Teaching and learning with graphic novels requires equal attention to print and images that portray characters' actions, time sequences and other 'representational modes' essential for meaning making with this narrative form.

Relatively short in length, colourful and lauded as powerful displays of emotion and dialogue (Schwartz, 2004), graphic novels have experienced a general trend toward acceptance of literary merit in their own right (Hatfield, 2005). This acceptance is due in large part to Art Spiegelman's special Pulitzer prize winning work Maus I and II (1986), a memoir chronicling his father's life during the Jewish Holocaust, and other narratives bound within their political, social and cultural dynamics (e.g. Persepolis I and II by Marjane Satrapi; The Pride of Baghdad, by Brian Vaughan). This trend coincides with a popular culture movement among children and adolescents that have grown up in a digital era of television, video games (Evans, 2005) and increasing reliance on electronic forms of communication such as instant messaging (Lewis & Fabos, 2005). Simply put, multimodal texts are an indivisible part of youth culture and affect the processes by which children and adolescents interact and make meaning with their social worlds (Dyson, 2003; Brice Heath, 2000; Myers & Beach, 2004).

Research on literacy and learning through graphic novels as part of the multimodal landscape is scant, at best; literacy research focused on the use of graphic novels in education offers descriptions of graphic novels with recommendations for their use across the curriculum (Schwartz, 2004) and as paired texts for teaching the English canon (Carter, 2007). Graphic novels have been positioned as a format that may engage struggling and/or reluctant readers (Crawford, 2004), as a tool for fostering language and literacy development with English Language Learners (Carey, 2004; Chun, 2009) and as a format that offers a differentiated reading experience for Deaf students (Smetana, Odelson, Burns & Grisham, 2009). Picture books and graphic novels have been explored with regard to text/image relations and as sites that offer multiple cues for reading (Hassett & Schieble, 2007). Schwartz and Rubinstein-Avila (2006) examined the popularity of Japanese manga, defined as Japanese-style 'printed comics found in graphic novel format' (p. 41). Manga's popularity among youth is evident in growing sales in the United States (p. 41) and increased interest in public and school libraries for manga bound materials. One high school librarian in Florida found that even though graphic novels make up only one percent of the school library collection, these texts 'account for more than 25-30% of circulation' (McPherson, 2006, p. 67).

Despite sustained and growing interest among youth, graphic novels continue to take a marginalised position, both in the classroom and in literacy research. Few empirical studies have documented the use of graphic novels with adolescents in teaching and learning contexts. Frey and Fisher (2004) note their success in teaching Will Eisner's Hydrant, a 'wordless story that tells the tale of a woman living in a tenement without running water' (p. 20), to develop students' writing skills through analysis of the semiotics of visual design. Although Frey and Fisher document valuable successes in adolescents' use of dialogue and word choice as a result of reading and discussing these visual texts, the focus of the instruction under study was not 'as a practice of critical pedagogy' (Schwartz & Rubenstein-Avila, 2006). …

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