Comics in the Classroom Revisited: Looking on the Sunnier Side of Teaching Graphic Novels
*Note–Last semester, I wrote a piece reflecting on my experience teaching a graphic novel class, which you can read here. This piece returns to that topic but updates it with the experiences of a new semester and group of students. Further note: all of the artwork shown in this post is from my students this semester.*
This semester, like last semester–when my students have been working on creating their own comics or in groups analyzing the comics we read in class–anytime I asked if students needed any help, I’ve been met with a wall of silence. Unlike last semester, though, this wall of silence was built for a different reason: whereas last semester my students were being stubbornly silent because they didn’t want to engage in any of the work, this semester my students are so into their work that they don’t respond. But make no mistake–my students this semester will ask questions and engage in deep discussion, just on their own terms and pace. And for this reason, this semester of teaching comics has been a night and day difference from my experience last semester.
Last semester, I had only about five students who were passionate about comics and were often restrained in those passions by the rest of the class, students who didn’t care about effort, let alone comics. This semester, most of my students are passionate about comics in some way (even if they don’t like Persepolis or Kuper’s adaptation of Metamorphosis), and maybe more importantly, have an intellectual curiosity that sparks genuine discussion.
Questions that would meet with a half-hearted sentence last semester, give birth to an authentic discussion that often pushed other questions from the agenda, simply because we wouldn’t have enough time to get to all of them. When I brought in a student teacher who was born and grew up in Iran to speak to the class about her experience and add insight to our reading of Satrapi’s memoir, my class’s eyes and ears were all glued to her. They didn’t ask many questions, but the ones they did ask were thoughtful and genuine.
This semester, my students have jumped into not just one choice book (like my students last semester did) but two. And not only that, but their discussions and presentations for this choice book have been more detailed and clearly passionate. I even had one student who checked out all Nausicaa graphic novels within one week (even though only the first was required for a choice book). To a lesser degree, this happened with my other copies of Wandering Son and Bone. And showing that this passion doesn’t restrict itself to my graphic novel class, I have a student who is reading Nimona for a book talk in my AP Language and Composition class, plus Dan Slott’s She Hulk for the second choice book in my graphic novel class.
But what has impressed me the most has been the effort my students have put into making their own comics. They each have different levels of quality on the product, some drawing in more detail than others and creating work that “looks” better, but every student has bought into the process and created some great storytelling, despite differences in their ability to “draw well”. And they’ve created work of such variety: ranging from a heartbreaking look at bullying to a light-hearted story of a crab stowing away on a plane and getting lost as a result–I haven’t read the next part of his adventure, finding home, but I’m sure it’s just as engaging as the first one was and just as engaging as the student creating a dystopian society where everyone is literally connected to an online network.
Just as impressive, the variety my students have brought to their stories has also transferred to a variety of storytelling devices not seen from my first semester students. Instead of coloring a whole piece, I have some students selectively coloring parts of their page to emphasize certain details or moods, almost like Spielberg did in Schindler’s List. Without showing Fables to any of my students, I have had a student create Buckingham-like borders on each side of the page, a move that might not show more of the story but definitely creates a stronger tone and aesthetic experience. And examples like this are just the tip of the creative iceberg floating in my class this semester.
This creative experimentation is something that has also freed me up to experiment with my own comic, Rebirth of the Gangster. Although I was always pushing myself creatively, as you can see in my first piece about creating the comic, I’ve recently started experimenting with less linear layouts, making my comic feel less like storyboards and more like a, well, like a comic. While I’m sure some of this evolution in my own process is something that happens naturally, I’m also sure that a big part of it has been watching the many different processes and products my students have shown me this semester. Just like the ideal classroom, I’m learning as much from my students as they are from me. And even though I’ve been pretty pessimistic about my class last semester, one of my strong students from last semester (who I also learned a lot from) is returning next year for an independent study with me. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from working with a student one-on-one, especially since I have some new approaches revealed by my students this semester.
In short, my gloomy summary and prediction of teaching graphic novels last semester has faded to a bright and sunny outlook this semester. Some of this might be attributed to better teaching on my part (I did cut out some parts of the class that didn’t work last semester and streamline others that did but went on for too long) but to be honest, most of this change is a result of the change in students and better mix of individuals to create a strong classroom community. But that’s teaching in a nutshell for you. Even though classes always have their ups and downs across semesters and different groupings of students, I hope to keep this high point (and maybe even scale to new heights) next year. What can I say? I love the view–I just hope it stays this way for a long time.