Powerful Teaching: An Interview With Maureen Bakis

Maureen BakisIn her new book The Graphic Novel Classroom: Powerful Teaching and Learning With Images (Corwin, 978-1-4129-3684-2, $31.95), high school English teacher and graphic novel advocate Maureen Bakis offers educators a guide for using comics as teaching tools, based on her own experience. In the book, she examines the compositional elements of comics using several volumes as examples and demonstrates how they can be used to teach different concepts and skills. She also teaches workshops on graphic novel use and is a frequent contributor to BookShelf and GraphicNovelReporter.com.

BookShelf spoke to Maureen about the book, her classroom experiences, and help for teachers seeking to use comics.

You've stated that your introduction to comics came from a graduate class that was focused entirely on graphic novels. How did you end up in that class? Was there one book in particular that really changed your mind about the value of graphic novels?

I was taking a course called "Topics in American Literature" as part of my master's degree program (English). The "topic" turned out to be graphic novels. I had never heard of graphic novels before I walked into that classroom. I had been exposed to Spiegelman's Maus in another course on autobiography (my favorite genre); reading it a second time after having learned about comics as a medium blew my mind. Not only do I love the story of Maus, I appreciate it as memoir and as a comics masterpiece because of what Spiegelman does with the medium. I'm pretty hard to impress, so I figured if I liked these books, my students just might appreciate them too.

When you were creating the curriculum for your class The Graphic Novel, what kind of response did you get from your school? Were they supportive, or was it a struggle to convince them to let you start the class?

My department chairperson had absolutely no idea what I was talking about when I suggested a course about graphic novels; however, he was an open-minded, flexible, seasoned educator. He saw my excitement and passion, and he also knew I was struggling to stretch our then-current curriculum to meet older students’ needs. He trusted my experience and my knowledge and so supported me despite being unsure. I think Dave had enough wisdom and credibility with administrators and school committee members that they trusted him (and by default, me) and agreed to let me run with my new graphic novel course. The administration knew seniors needed to find more pleasurable and meaningful titles to read. They were impressed that we were trying to address this issue.

Graphic Novel ClassroomIn the book you mention it's best not to assume that the students are familiar with graphic novels simply because the comics have been perceived as "childish." What were some other preconceptions you might have dealt with in teaching the class, as far as how the students related to the graphic novels?

I have observed over the past three years of teaching graphic novels that most students who are familiar with comics are the manga readers, though there are a handful of boys who read graphic novels like Batman and The Walking Dead.

Other preconceptions students usually come to the graphic novel course with (though less so each year because the reputation of the course has spread) are about the workload and the difficulty level. Many students are stunned at the amount of reading, writing, research, collaboration, sophisticated discussion, and technology skill required and practiced throughout the course. They somehow think that pictures in books equals easy; they usually report in their portfolio reflections that the graphic novel course is one of the most challenging courses they have taken in high school.   

What are some of the more effective graphic novels you’ve used in your lessons?

It's difficult to choose because each title I teach is, well, so teachable! Every title enables me to tap into different themes and aspects of literature to explore and every graphic narrative allows for a variety of skills practice whether that is traditional forms of writing and discussion of story, to technology and new literacies practice, to visual literacy and critical media literacy. I hate to pit one novel "above" others, but Alan Moore's V for Vendetta is a favorite of students and versatile in terms of its teachability. I also really like my Persepolis unit for genre study of memoir and critical media literacy. My students' perspective of Middle Eastern people changes dramatically over the course of this unit. A short comics narrative, "Unmasked" by Chris Ware is my absolute favorite resource for teaching anything literary and everything comics. Ware is amazing and this piece is simply, yet mind-blowing. I use it in workshops all the time and its analysis serves as students exam after reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

Part of your class involves the students making comics themselves. How do they react to this? How does it compare to their reaction to more traditional writing assignments?

Students feel rewarded when they are allowed to take risks, try a new form of expression, tell their stories, and generally make a mess of things. They are also quite proud of their attempts and usually surprise themselves with their originality. I think they become better academic writers by trying out the conventions of another medium (comics) and writing with pictures. They also gain real appreciation for the work of the talented cartoonists they've read after trying to compose in comics. The degree of personal engagement in creating comics is substantially higher than writing more academic pieces; that is not to say the value of comics is superior to writing — it's just different, and I think that’s part of what students appreciate.

You also offer workshops for teachers who are interested in teaching with graphic novels. What kind of interest have you seen in these workshops?

I have been conducting workshops as part of larger comics conventions and in educational professional development events over the past year and a half. I recently visited Columbia University's Teachers College to talk with educators about ways I use graphic novels to teach literacy and last summer I presented as part of a global literature and film program at Harvard. I am planning to present at the WildCat Con in Williamsport, PA which is a combination comic-con and educational event and at the International Reading Association's Annual Convention both this spring, so the interest in teaching graphic novels has been steady. Based on my own experience as a high school teacher, I know that teachers' professional development time and money is spread rather thin, so it is difficult for individual schools to invite me to conduct workshops on site. Individual teachers are more apt to look to social networks for ideas and teaching tips, so I have plans to create videos to post on my social network site www.graphicnovelsandhighschoolenglish.com as virtual mini-workshops on teaching graphic novels.

What advice would you give to a teacher who is thinking about or trying to incorporate graphic novels into their classroom lessons?

My subject knowledge is in language arts, but I know graphic novels can be utilized to teach several subjects and promote many skills. There are several resources that exist listing appropriate titles for grade levels and various disciplines, Karen Gavigan's Connecting Comics to Curriculum being the most recent publication that I know of. Obviously, seek out experienced teachers for ideas, many of whom post on social networking sites. That being said, my general advice to teachers is to be unafraid of teaching visual stories even if you feel like you have incomplete knowledge about the medium. As when using technology in a lesson for the first time, teachers and students can learn a lot from trial and error. Allow students to take the lead and model a risk-taking attitude of messing around with the unknown.  I have learned a lot from wandering into unfamiliar comics territory. In addition, I would also suggest you welcome and listen closely to students' responses to visual stories and encourage them to reflect on the ways they make meaning. Not only is this interesting to observe in students, metacognitive awareness is important for all of us as life-long learners.