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  • Writer's pictureMegan Mariano

Graphic Novels in Middle School: 9 Key Critical Thinking Skills of Focus

Let's face LOVE graphic novels and many teachers are starting to embrace them more in their classrooms. Many may wonder how to utilize them properly, especially in middle school. In high school, the possibilities are endless as their are some fabulous historical fiction graphic novels that are not appropriate for this age group.

However, some teachers still have issues with students reading these types of books. I will dive into the benefits and also the cons of graphic novels, but most importantly, how to use them to get kids THINKING.

Graphic Novels are Important to ME

Those who know me know I am a big nerd. I grew up reading comics regularly. I would not classify myself as a TRUE comic guru by any means, but there were plenty shared between my brother and me.

As I grew older, I learned to love the culture around the comic world even more. I've always loved science fiction and fantasy and comics satisfied that need! When I met my husband, we started going to comic conventions together. He was a budding cartoonist and it was his education into that realm.

2009! One of my husband's first tables at a comic convention.

Fast forward to today. My husband IS a cartoonist for children (check out his work here). His resume is chock full of comics for kids and he runs in lots of circles that promote comics for kids. Many times I have collaborated with children's authors, writers, and cartoonists to help them bridge their work into the classroom. I have been given lots of great freebies due to all the conventions he and I attend.

So, there is a real special place in my heart for comics and graphic novels. I've always known I wanted to use them in the classroom in some capacity.

The Pitfalls of Graphic Novels

Let me preface this with saying these pitfalls are only if graphic novels are not being used correctly in the classroom. Like any other book, graphic novels are a GENRE. Yes, the stories will fit into other genres, but to utilize them properly, they should be studied as a GENRE.

The pitfalls, then, revolve around when they are being read. For example, during my Deep Study of Character unit, I had one student who refused to read anything but graphic novels. I let him because, well, reading. I found it to be a struggle throughout the unit, though. When we did lessons on visualization, he could not do that because everything is visualized on the page. When we did lessons on characters' thoughts and inner feelings, he could not do that because he was unable to find those inner thoughts since, many times, graphic novels don't provide that inner dialogue or first person perspective. Stamina is also a struggle, too, because oftentimes kids, especially early in the year, breeze through them and they shouldn't. When trying to get students to build stamina in prose, graphic novels put a halt to that.

This shows how my graphic novel section compares to my historical fiction section in my library. Clearly, kids LOVE the graphic novels. However, it was the ONLY thing they were reading, so I had to change it up.

So, there are some reading skills that just don't work well with graphic novels. In the beginning of the year, I really want to build their stamina and critical thinking about character and setting based on the LANGUAGE. I avoid them early on and try to get them into hybrids if they are really reluctant.

The Benefits of Graphic Novels

Many avoid graphic novels because they think it's "easy" reading. Notice I didn't mention that in my pitfalls. Sure, some graphic novels are much easier to read than prose, however, if chosen carefully, graphic novels require MUCH different reading strategies than prose.

Let's start with pictures. This is the obvious benefit. For struggling readers, the pictures help drive the story. The pictures are more than just that, though. Pictures have specific functions and reading them properly needs to be taught. Not only that, they have to be read in correlation with the words! I can't tell you how many times my students JUST read the pictures and cannot recall or retell properly.

The words are just as important as the pictures and in a graphic novel unit; you can teach students how to connect the words with pictures properly. Dialogue is a big part of this, as well, so they are perfect for working with dialogue. Sometimes, though, they may not even have words and students have to read pictures only...sounds easy, but again, lots of room for error.

Graphic novels are also ripe with setting and setting plays a huge role in the story-telling. Additionally, emotions and character feelings are expressed a ton in comics.

A must-read for those teaching graphic novels is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. This book reads like a textbook! It's amazing the thought and research that went into this book.

Teach it as a Genre: What I Do

Here are the major skills I teach with graphic novels:

  1. Importance of reading the words and the pictures together.

  2. Humor in short comics.

  3. Common comic "language".

  4. Symbolism and use of color.

  5. Analysis of panels, pictures, and words.

  6. Interpreting emotions and senses.

  7. Setting and how it plays a role in story-telling.

  8. Dialogue versus wordless.

  9. Fantasy components (archetypes, quests, and hero's journey).

For my classes, I make this a fantasy unit, but I don't really dive into that until the end. The reason for this is that the unit that follows is fantasy writing.

So, we start with newspaper comics or the "funnies" as I call them. These are fun to kick off the unit. You can actually get this activity free from my store.

We then talk about common comic language, symbols, and colors. Much like we introduced books to little ones when they were young, we need to introduce graphic novels to our big kids. When they were younger, we would explain what a title is, page numbers, table of contents, etc. Same goes for graphic novels; they need to know what panels are...and more.

From there, we get into color and symbols. This is the basics. In some comics, illustrators use symbols to represent feelings or expressions. These kids have no issue with this because of their exposure to emojis!

We need to give credit to the amazing artists in graphic novels. Their color choices are IMPORTANT. It creates mood and atmosphere.

Then we get into the real nitty-gritty. I love LOVE these next lessons because the students have to analyze SO closely...they never imagined they had to think so critically about graphic novels!

The book Understanding Comics opened my eyes to the need to really look at panels in a different light. The panels serve as a transition between events. Some panels depict small moments or very large moments. It's important for students to notice these transitions.

Additionally, students need to look at the words in graphic novels in a specific way. Sometimes the words go directly with what the characters are saying. Sometimes the words are narrative. Sometimes the words are telling the story and the pictures aren't connected. It's important to notice these differences.

For each of these lessons, we start with a sample comic and then they have to look in their own texts to apply the skill.

For emotions, we spend time looking at line work, colors, facial expressions, etc. and discuss how/when/why emotions change. There isn't too much difference with this than with any type of reading.

Next up is setting. As mentioned, graphic novels are full of setting. As usual, I get them to think critically about the setting. How is the setting playing a role in the telling of the story?

It's always fun to play with dialogue with graphic novels. I like to spend some time with wordless comics during this time. We discuss using all that they learned to read pages without words. I also like giving them wordless comics and having them add their own dialogue. It's also a great way to practice writing dialogue properly in prose!

We wrap up the entire unit with a few lessons on fantasy components. In 5th grade, in my school, students do a fantasy unit, so I don't spend too much time on the specifics.

I mostly like to spend time on the Hero's Journey. Students write a fantasy story after this unit and they must use the hero's journey to craft their story.

I also wrap up the unit with watching the movie Spirited Away because it's just amazing and a great kickoff to fantasy writing. You can read about my fantasy writing unit here.

Just another component I like to add to this unit is Doodle Time! At the beginning or end of each class, I give the students some time to doodle based on a prompt.

Bottom Line

Consider using graphic novels as a UNIT. As passionate as I am about them, graphic novels do not work for every reading skill. It's best to them for specific themes and ideas.

You can get my Graphic Novel unit here!

As mentioned, I follow up this unit with a Fantasy Writing Unit!


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