Illustrating Self: Middle Schoolers Finding Identity in Graphic Novels

This year I asked my 7th grade students to read Gene Luen Yang’s wonderful graphic novel American Born Chinese, but I also asked them to finish the unit by writing their own graphic story. I’ve struggled in the past with implementing project-based learning curricula in my classroom, so I was excited to give it another shot this year. For many of my students, this was the first graphic novel they’d ever read “for school,” as they often say of books they read. Many of them already read graphic novels for pleasure; it’s one of the reasons, I think, our library is so stocked with graphic novels—students love them. But it was surprising to me that so many of them had not yet been introduced in an English class to the literary and academic value of the books they already seemed to enjoy. I wanted to fill that space, but I also love graphic novels.

Kids are visual learners (adults too!). It’s rooted in our development. Even at the earliest stages of learning how to read, students learn with pictures. Alphabets with pictures—E is for Elephant, D is for Dog. We all remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, or A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh illustrations. And for those of us lucky enough, we’ve shared in the particular childhood joy of Tarō Gomi’s Everyone Poops. Not to mention that, by middle school, many of our students are plugged in to the visual maze of the internet in some way (e.g., YouTube, Snapcat, TikTok, and Instagram). So it made sense, to me at least, that teaching them the moves that authors make through graphic novels spoke a language they’re all familiar with, while still introducing them to the essential devices and concepts I wanted them to understand as scholars of literature. Which is why, this year, I made the decision to teach a graphic novel that would culminate in an assessment requiring each student to make their own graphic text—a scaffolded project—building into a personal narrative essay they would later compose, their first major writing assignment of the year.

As we read Yang’s novel, I taught the kids the various techniques of graphic form, alongside the staples of literature like point of view and plot structures. I also asked, almost daily, that students consider how each of these techniques worked visually within the novel to help us understand what Yang teaches through his characters. By the time we were ready to embark on our project, students were quite familiar with the terms and ideas I would be asking them to use creatively in our project. 

Most importantly, each student had to tell a story, visually, in at least twenty panels—of various sizes and shapes—that was important to them and their life experiences. This was key. They had to tell a story that mattered to them, not just any old anecdote of silly story they wanted to tell. Specifically, I told them they needed to tell a story that taught them a lesson about themselves or helped them arrive at some new understanding about something. That’s not an easy task, but it’s a skill we’re constantly asking of students e.g. college essays, letters of intent, personal narratives. And because I knew they’d be writing personal narratives after this project, I told them that they could use the same story for this project they might also tell in their personal narratives. This was intentional. I wanted them to be able to start developing and revising and thinking about that story, with the hope that this would make for better final drafts of their personal narratives. It was optional, but many students took this route—and I’ve read some exceptional personal narratives! Sure, there were a few kids still told rather funny stories, but they were funny stories that had an impact on them in some way.

The project also required them to use all the terms and literary elements that we’d discussed in the unit. They needed panels, frames, gutters, bleeds, etc.—in addition to their story having a clear beginning, climax, and resolution. There was a lot they needed to juggle beyond simply telling a story with pictures! But the students and I also had to account for the fact that not everyone is an exceptional artist. I’m always doodling, so they were quick to remind me that not everyone likes to draw like I do. I allowed them to use some online tools like Storyboard That and My Comic Life, and I emphasized to those students who didn’t think they could do their best work with their own, hand-drawn artistry, that they should try out these online tools if they felt this way.

I think the results of the project speak for themselves. I met one of my goals this year: teaching with more project-based assessments. But also, the students had fun doing it!

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