Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform

Seeing is Believing: Graphic Novels in the Classroom

One of the most difficult tasks a teacher has is engaging students with complex and unfamiliar subject matter. One solution to student engagement and content comprehension issues may be found in the appropriate use of graphic novels. 

A number of research studies, including Beverley Brenna's work with elementary school students (2013) and Joanna Schmidt's work with college students (2011), among others, demonstrate the benefits to using graphic novels in the classroom. The combination of pictures and words supports comprehension and inspires self-motivation. For example, rather than decode an unfamiliar word, students can use the visual aid to "see" what a word means. This is particularly helpful, of course, with struggling readers or English language learners. Graphic novels offer an educator the means to differentiate instruction while using one teaching resource. Students can clearly see the interdependency of the text with the images, and advanced or on-grade-level students can explore the ways in which the text complements or enhances the images and vice versa. 

In addition, using images allows a story to move forward at a rapid pace without the risk of the students losing the narrative. They will be motived to turn the pages and explore the story as it unfolds. In some graphic novels, the text is minimal or even nonexistent. In those cases, students have the opportunity to use higher- order thinking skills to infer the meaning of the images based on the clues offered in what they can see and how it relates to the context of the larger narrative. 

One of the most interesting findings in the research is that processing text and images together leads to better recall and learning. Neurological experiments have shown that humans process text and images in different areas of the brain, known as the Dual-Coding Theory of Cognition. According to Allan Paivio (1986), images are much easier for the brain to retrieve from memory. He found that pairing a text with an image increases memory retention for both text and images. 

Selected Classroom Strategies
While the advantages of using the appropriate graphic novels in the classroom can be substantial, some specific strategies are useful when teaching with these resources. The following are some examples of ways to use the graphic novel Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga in a classroom. Have the students approach page five of the graphic novel using one of these suggestions. 
  1. Have the students analyze the images one at a time without the support of the text. Use questions to get at the meaning of the image. Who or what is featured in the image? What action is taking place? What is the mood represented in the image and what specifically is creating that mood? After students have made their initial observations provide them with information that will allow them to modify their answers, such as, "In the first panel the men with hats are Quaker colonists and the ones the on the right are American Indians." Unfamiliar vocabulary, such as wampum, can also be addressed. 
  2. Have the students create word or thought bubbles for the characters illustrated in the images based on what the students can infer from the image and the text. 
  3. As students move through the story, have them predict what will be illustrated on the following page based on the evidence from the preceding pages. Have them justify their reasoning based on evidence. 
  4. These are just a few ideas for the many ways to use Ghost River to teach students about this specific period in American history as well as create a better overall understanding of the changing world that American Indians faced in colonial Pennsylvania.


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