The Power of Words and Pictures: Graphic Novels in Education: Use Students' Visual Vocabulary as a Learning Tool

Article excerpt

Perhaps we're past the point of having to explain that graphic novels, with their knack for attracting reluctant readers and hitting developmental sweet spots, have a legitimate place on library shelves. Perhaps.

But what about the idea that graphic novels encompass such a wide range of themes and create such layered experiences through word and art that they actually belong in classrooms? Because contemporary students have a much wider visual vocabulary than we did growing up, I contend that the format offers great opportunities to teach as well as to entertain.

My own experiences as a teacher and a librarian bear out the medium's potential. It will come as little surprise to anyone who works with children and young adults that graphic novels disappear from library shelves faster than anything else (except, maybe, vampire novels) and are the topic of eager discussion whenever they find their way into classrooms. This interest isn't solely among kids looking for a fun, colorful story. Equally interested are the graduate students in my class at Pratt Institute, as well as many educators at LREI, the independent school in Manhattan where I work. Fascination with the history and language of the form as a vehicle for education is clear.

Funny books and American culture

Comic books have long had a reputation for being disconnected from legitimate educational concerns. They were supposedly fluffy things, good for a laugh at best, agents of desensitization and proponents of violence at worst. Thanks to the graphic novel, educators and librarians are gradually finding that not to be the case. Professionals I have spoken with are astonished and delighted to discover that the history of the comic book is the history of American culture (and not just popular culture); that the medium's development reflects our own cultural growing pains over the last century; and that it defines certain aspects of the American psyche more trenchantly than any other art form around.

The superhero, comicdom's most famous (and infamous) invention, is a prime example of a potent cultural symbol long overlooked for what it has to say about the evolution of America's view of itself. Created as we came out of the Great Depression and World War II was on the horizon, the superhero character so potently reflected the American can - do spirit and penchant towards confidence and arrogance (then and now) that entire curricula could be developed around it.

Many colleges and universities already recognize the production end of the medium as a valid form to pursue in education and as a livelihood. The Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta offers one of the top education programs in graphic novels in the country, but far from the only one. The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, New Jersey, has been devoted exclusively to the study of the form since 1976.

The point of all this is that sequential art (the form of expression that fills graphic novels) is a form with something to teach us. The graphic novel is no longer just a format suitable to learn about. It is also starting to be used as a tool to educate. Beyond simply learning about the production and history of the format, the content and the way it is conveyed are becoming part of curricular infrastructure. Art Spiegelman's MAUS and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis are frequently drafted as supplements to history and social studies curricula. They are great books, to be sure, but the format is teeming with other, wholly unexplored possibilities. Let's have a look at a newer, very different kind of graphic novel and how it can be used in a library or classroom discussion.

A sample lesson: The Arrival

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007), tells the archetypal story of a man who travels to a strange land. Using wordless narrative to exemplify the isolation of his protagonist and visual metaphor to lend universal power to the journeys of other immigrants in the story, Tan gives the tale a deeply emotional tone. …

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