Despite the increasing prevalence of the use of the comics medium in literacy classrooms, I continue to receive questions at workshops and presentations from teachers about how I managed approval to teach a graphic novel course in a public school held accountable to state standards. My usual response is about how graphic novels serve as effective tools for developing students' English language arts skills, including those found on standardized tests, but due to time constraints, I am unable to demonstrate exactly how specific texts meet specific standards. This article is my answer to the teachers who want a more detailed response to their questions about how graphic novels meet state standards, so that they might convince their own schools to invest in them for classroom use.
Getting Graphic Novels Into My Classroom
As I was creating a graphic novel course at my school back in 2008, my primary goal was to meet my students' literacy needs and remove the negative stigmas attached to graphic novels. To accomplish this, I illustrated how these texts could meet the expectations of the 2001 Massachusetts English Language Arts Curriculum Frameworks.
At that time, graphic novels were not listed as suggested texts, and I was unaware of other high school teachers using graphic novels in the classroom, so by consulting reputable sources listed in the Massachusetts ELA Curriculum Frameworks - namely the American Library Association and The National Council of Teachers of English - I built a rationale in support of graphic novels as educational tools to buttress my course proposal.
Today, if you are a teacher hoping to persuade your school to buy new graphic novel class sets to integrate into your curriculum, you can accomplish this goal by showing how these texts pass muster with the new text complexity measurements outlined in the Common Core State Standards. Recently published resources illustrating successful teaching and learning using graphic novels also may prove valuable for creating an effective rationale. (See the Resources list after the article)
Common Core Standards for English Language Arts: Readiness or Reading Lists?
I think one reason I continue to field the same question from teachers about my course is due to unintentional misinterpretation of state standards. If you are hoping to convince your school to invest in graphic novels, you need to be clear about the intent of the Common Core State Standards for ELA before emphasizing how graphic novels are useful tools for achieving the college and career readiness skills applicable to the grade levels you teach. In an article in the October issue of the Harvard Education Letter entitled "Five Myths About the Common Core Standards," Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education, writes that the "Standards are not a curriculum" but rather "spell out what students should know and be able to do at the end of the year; curriculum defines the specific course of study- the scope and sequence-that will enable students to meet standards."
Rothman also emphasizes that Common Core State Standards do not "spell out how teachers will teach students to 'read and comprehend literature.' Nor does it spell out which texts to use." The Common Core Standards are not a national curriculum as some incorrectly believe. It is important for educators to understand that the list of texts for each grade in the Common Core State Standards is not prescriptive. Rothman says these lists are merely exemplary of appropriate text complexity, "not a reading list." Graphic novels were not explicitly listed as suggested texts in the 2001 Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks for ELA when I was writing my new graphic novel course, but that did not necessarily exclude them from being taught. However, just because graphic novels are now included in the range of texts for grades 6-12 as a subgenre of stories in the Common Core State Standards this inclusion does not necessarily mean that all graphic novels are appropriate for classroom use.
Keeping Text Complexity Standards in Perspective
In the Common Core State Standards for ELA, Reading Standard 10: Range, Quality, and Complexity of Student Reading in Grades 6-12 describes three factors in measuring text complexity: qualitative evaluation of the text, quantitative evaluation of the text, and matching reader to text and task (p.57). Qualitative measures include "levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands" while the quantitative measurements are readability measures and other scores of text complexity measured primarily by computers (p.57).
According to Common Core, some text complexity results measured quantitatively are admittedly limited. Some of the measurement tools calculate complexity according to word frequency and length of words and sentences and yield skewed results. An example given in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for ELA shows how the quantitative measurements of Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath judged it as an appropriate text for grade 2-3, the specious result primarily caused by the simple syntax and language use reflecting the familiar speech patterns of the time period in which the novel is set (p.8). Until more accurate quantitative measurements are available, the Common Core encourages teachers to use judgment employing both qualitative and quantitative measurements.
The third factor listed in the Common Core State Standards for ELA matches reader to text and task. This factor considers "reader variables (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and task variables (such as purpose and the complexity generated by the task assigned and the questions posed)" (p. 57). Using qualitative measurement requires careful teacher judgment since it involves planning for skills development and the acquisition of new knowledge based on an understanding of students while also considering other school-specific considerations. When choosing graphic novel texts and developing the scope and sequence of my graphic novel curriculum, I gave careful consideration to students' prior literacy experiences, reading curriculum throughout their middle and high school careers, and the context of student choice, as The Graphic Novel course is one of four English courses offered to twelfth graders at my school.
Graphic Novels: Complex Texts
Notable graphic novel titles that meet the Common Core State Standards text complexity measurements for grades 6-12 include Art Spiegelman's Maus, Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Will Eisner's A Contract with God and A Life Force, Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Spiegelman's Maus contains multiple levels of meaning. It is a story about complicated family relationships, guilt, the Holocaust, perception and truth, and the problem of art in preserving and conveying both personal and cultural memory. The layered biography, memoir, and allegory challenge neat categorization of both genre and race, while other formal aspects of the text worthy of close analysis include allusion, flashbacks, and irony. Similar to the universal human concerns present in the aforementioned graphic novels, Spiegleman's work demands prior knowledge of the Holocaust and can be examined from critical perspectives including historical or psychoanalytical. These qualitative complexities of Maus require sophisticated critical analysis from students and allow teachers to design appropriate language arts and visual literacy lessons to promote for college and career readiness.
In terms of language conventionality and clarity, I won't argue that the dialogue and narration found in Maus or American Born Chinese is more refined than language found in some classic works of literature, but that does not mean the language cannot help students gain new content knowledge or be studied to promote skill development, including grammar and writing. When examining dialogue, a graphic novelist might use slang as a stylistic technique or to convey realism, similar to language employed by Mark Twain in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Vladek Spiegleman's accent and Yiddish phrases in Maus challenges readers in ways similar to Twain's character, Jim, whose dialect reflects that of a slave living in Missouri in the early 1800s.
Deciphering and comparing dialogue or other narrative technique or examining language use as thematic, whether in Twain, Eisner, Spiegelman or Moore's work, is necessary for a thorough interpretation of story, as form is intricately tied to content in both media forms. As noted in the example of the rather imperfect quantitative text complexity measurement of The Grapes of Wrath, simple syntax and length of words or sentences do not necessarily define a text's complexity.
Since images are at least equally responsible for conveying story, analyzing the language of images and the conventions of the comics medium is also essential in understanding content. If number of words is part of measuring text complexity, the number of images that demand simultaneous cognitive and visual processing should also qualify as an additional text complexity measurement. In addition to the print and visual language demands of graphic novels, the knowledge demands necessitated by Spiegelman, Eisner, and Moore's graphic novels include an understanding of history and historiography, expressionist art, genre, iconoclasm, political satire, and existential concerns. Though these texts are more suitable for secondary grade levels and contain mature themes, a plethora of age-appropriate graphic novels that meet appropriate text complexity exist for younger readers.
If you hope to convince your school that graphic novels are a worthwhile investment for students, address the text complexity level of the selected graphic novel titles you hope to teach, and illustrate how the inherent characteristics of the graphic novels you have selected promote appropriate skills and content learning.
Getting Graphic Novels into Your Classroom
The Common Core State Standards define end-of-year expectations and what students should know and be able to do in order to be college and career ready no later than the end of high school. If you can prove how graphic novels meet text complexity standards and demonstrate how these literacy tools can help students meet end-of-year expectations to be college and career ready, you will have built a convincing argument. In addition, as more and more educators share their success stories using graphic novels in the classroom across grade levels and subjects, the easier it will be for you to add that evidence to your rationale. Perhaps this article will also come in handy to support your endeavor to teach graphic novels in your classroom.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org.
Rothman, R. (September/October, 2011). "Five Myths About the Common Core State Standards." Harvard Education Letter, 27 (5). Retrieved from http://hepg.org/hel/article/513.
Resources Illustrating Successful Classroom Use of Graphic Novels
The Graphic Novel Classroom: Powerful Teaching and Learning with Images by Maureen Bakis, (Corwin, 2011)
When Commas Meet Kryptonite: Classroom Lessons from the Comic Book Project by Dr. Michael Bitz, (Teachers College Press, 2010)
Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel by Dr. James Bucky Carter, (NCTE, 2007)
Rationales for Teaching Graphic Novels by Dr. James Bucky Carter, (Ed.), (Maupin House, 2010)
Visual Literacy by Douglas Fischer and Nancy Frey, (Corwin, 2008)
Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom by Dr. Katie Monnin, (Maupin House, 2010)
Teaching the Graphic Novel by S.E. Tabachnick, (Ed.), (Modern Language Association of America, 2009)
Maureen Bakis is a high school English teacher in Massachusetts and the author of The Graphic Novel Classroom: POWerful Teaching & Learning with Images. She is webmaster at Graphic Novels & High School English where she blogs about her teaching and learning experiences and provides resources for educators. In addition to writing for Diamond BookShelf, Maureen also writes a regular feature about teachers using comics in the classroom for Graphic Novel Reporter.