An Easy Lesson for Kickstarting Graphic Novel Conversations

I love teaching graphic novels, especially to middle school readers. My goal with any graphic novel unit is to get readers to think about their books differently and start reading them as closely and seriously as they do their traditional novels. You can see a collection of my past work with graphic novels here.

This week, I needed a quick way to get my fifth graders’ minds working around their favorite books. With only a short section of their class for direct instruction, I wanted to create a plan that was fast, easy, and interesting enough to stick with them when they left the room, so that we could pick the conversation up again on their next visit. I wanted to share that class’ plan and the result, in case you’re looking for something similar to use with your readers.

The plan:

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 1.37.34 PM1. Start library class with a true-or-false question: Graphic novels are more work to read than traditional books. Allow time for debate.
2. Find a popular book that is available in both graphic novel and traditional format. We used The Serpent’s Shadow, a book from Rick Riordan’s series, The Kane Chronicles, which is a big hit in our library in both traditional and graphic novel format.
3. Pre-print enough copies of pages 1 and 2 of the graphic novel for everyone to share. Look closely at the graphic novel version and brainstorm everything you can find about the setting, characters, and plot. We learned a lot: the book opens in Dallas, Texas; the protagonists are named Sadie and Carter, and they’re brother and sister; an important man named JD Grissom is in danger, and Sadie and Carter are hoping to save him.
4. Put your pages aside, grab the traditional novel, and read the first two pages aloud to the group.
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 1.37.41 PM5. Ask the class: Did you learn anything new from the traditional novel that you didn’t get from the graphic novel? My students were floored by all that they’d missed that helped to build the context of the story, from the twinkle lights and musicians in the background of the gala to Mr. Grissom’s bolo tie.
6. Ask the class: Looking back at the graphic novel, can we find those details now? Why didn’t we notice them the first time?
7. Revisit the opening debate.
8. Sit back and watch the fireworks.

The result:

Graphic novels aren’t new to my readers – at our school, many teachers include them in RLA and some even teach separate graphic novel units like mine. But even with this experience, many readers started library class by arguing that graphic novels were easy, “junk food” books with little to no detail or depth. Not every reader loves graphic novels, and that’s perfectly okay – my goal is not to convince every reader to reach for this kind of storytelling. My goal, instead, is to teach graphic novels in the way that we teach poetry: to expose students to examples, guide them through the correct reading and understanding of the text, and make sure they have the tools to properly read and understand them on their own. If students are saying that graphic novels are easy, or that they don’t have complexity, I consider it a sign that they don’t have the tools that they need to read them correctly.

After our lesson, which took between 10-15 minutes depending on the length of the debates, our conversations had a totally different feel. Readers unanimously agreed that reading a graphic novel correctly, to get the level of detail that you would get in a traditional text, is a lot of work. And many started reflecting on their own reading, wondering out loud about what they were missing by skimming through their favorite graphic novels.

I loved using this simple plan as an introduction to our fifth grade graphic novel unit. Any time I can save the lecture and help students to come to the teachable moment or conclusion themselves, it’s the best – not only will they feel proud and excited for having gotten there on their own, but they’ll be more likely to engage in future conversations, hold on to the memory, and remember the message better down the road.

What strategies do you use to teach graphic novels in your classroom or library? How do you help students slow down and treat graphic novels more seriously?

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