I discovered the power of graphic novels as a language-learning tool while teaching English in Japan in 2006. As a non-Japanese speaker, I was encouraged by my colleagues to learn more vocabulary by reading manga or comics, specifically the classic comic strip Sazae-san(Kodansha International, 1997). Since then, I have become an avid reader and teacher of graphic novels. In Japan, manga is everywhere. It was not unusual to see students reading it in the classroom, between classes, or in the cafeteria. If you’re a high school teacher in the United States today, the sight of graphic novels in the hands of a teen reader is not uncommon.
From 2008–2011, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) at Pan American International High School in Queens, NY. I was excited to share the love and passion I’d acquired for graphic novels with my students. Fortunately, I had colleagues and literacy coaches who were already experienced in creating curricula around teaching graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon, 2004) and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (First Second, 2006) that supported English language learners’ (ELL) development in multiple literacies. Studies have also shown increased engagement and vocabulary development in ELLs when reading graphic novels and producing visual narratives.
During my tenure as a high school ESL teacher, I developed curricula that enabled students to practice their English language skills across all modalities by reading and creating visual narratives. Teaching graphic novels with ELLs requires specific planning and scaffolding of activities. Here are some of my best practices for using graphic novels in the ESL classroom.
TEACHING ART SPIEGELMAN’S MAUS
When planning to teach reading comprehension and literary analysis to ELLs using graphic novels, it is best to assess students’ prior experiences with visual narratives and subject interests. From survey results gathered at the beginning of the fall 2009 semester, I realized most of my 11th grade intermediate and advanced ESL students wanted to learn more about world history. From my research, using online educator resources such as theInternational Literacy Association’s Read Write Think website, I decided to teach Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Pantheon, 1991), the Pulitzer prize−winning graphic novel about the journey of his father, who survived the Holocaust.
Although a number of students were familiar with reading manga, others needed to learn the basic visual grammar of graphic novels. This meant providing explicit instruction of graphic novel terminology such as panels, dialogue, captions, and speech bubbles. Because I had a mixed-level class, I chose excerpts from Maus for students to read aloud during class, combining excerpts that focused primarily on the main character’s experience living in concentration camps.
To help students understand the historical context of the story, I did in-class activities about Polish ghetto life. Students matched captions I’d written to select photographs of Mendel Grossman, whose work was published in the book My Secret Camera (HMH books, 2000). I also facilitated activities using PowerPoint presentations, explaining the causes and outcomes of World War II, and focusing on the rise and fall of Nazi powers in Europe.
During class, students enjoyed reading aloud select pages from Maus while writing their thoughts and responses to questions in reading guides that I’d created. They were prompted to review what happened in a scene, foreshadow what might happen later, and analyze the symbolism Spiegelman uses in the story. Students were asked why they thought the author chose to represent Jews as mice and Germans as cats, and how this device was effective to convey key concepts of the story.
After collectively analyzing Maus, students were asked to write a comparative literary essay using this story and another work of literature. I created a packet that scaffolded the essay writing process that would help prepare students for the required New York State English Language Arts Regents exam. Overall, the students were engaged throughout our selected chapter readings and discussions ofMaus. A few extended their interest in learning about the Holocaust by opting to go on a field trip to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to watch a puppetry production about Auschwitz later that semester.