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Creating Effective Teaching Guides for Graphic Novels
Peter Gutiérrez

These days there seem to be more and more teaching guides for graphic titles, with publishers either providing free downloads or giving them away at conferences. Or sometimes educators themselves are posting lesson plans on blogs or in online communities.

All of this is great. But the trick is to make sure that any instructional materials for graphic novels and nonfiction are up-to-industry in terms of what K-12 educators are used to seeing. Here are some ideas that I try to keep in mind when developing teaching guides.   

Teaching Guide, Reading Guide, or Lesson Plan?

Sometimes the comics community uses these terms interchangeably, but that can be confusing. And while none of them are formally defined anywhere, here’s how I distinguish between them on a practical level:

 

  • Reading guides are used for lit circles and book groups. Yes, they can have classroom applications but they’re generally developed with librarians (and perhaps booksellers) in mind. The emphasis is on discussion, although other activities and extension projects can also be included as long as they don’t require too much in the way of time or resources.

 

  • Teaching guides should show how instruction supports curriculum, and might include a section on standards alignment to that end. Activities and projects can be more involved, and there should also be an assessment component, even if it’s rather informal; after all, if “teaching” is occurring, then so should “learning”—but what’s the evidence for it? 

 

  • Lesson plans typically focus on a specific skill or type of content: they’re designed to “teach x” within one or two class periods, and so are quite prescriptive in terms of what a teacher must do. In contrast, a solid teaching guide should provide several ideas that a teacher can then develop into individual lesson plans; its purpose is to outline approaches to an entire work.

Who's the Student?

While you don’t need to target a precise grade level, you should at least have a grade span (e.g., 5-8, 9-12) in mind. It’s easy to forget, for example, that at the primary grades kids are still learning to read, so it makes sense that such a guide would focus on comprehension and maybe even include phonics and other basic skills. You’ll also need to bear reading level in mind if developing student activity sheets: kids need to understand the vocabulary you’re using in the directions!

Don't Forget the Graphic Elements

Sometimes you’ll come across guides for graphic titles that are full of insights and interesting discussion questions… but you’d never know that the book in question is, well, graphic. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with dwelling on the standard “story elements” one also finds in prose texts—plot, character, setting, theme, dialogue. Those are an important part of graphic novels, too. But where possible, take a look at how the visuals support such aspects of the narrative, e.g., “How does the choice of colors underscore the theme or mood?” or “What does the way the costumes are designed say about the characters?”

"Translate the Transfer"

This phrase comes from Terry Thompson’s wonderful book Adventures in Graphica, and in a sense it represents the flipside to “don’t forget the graphic elements.” In short, make it easy for teachers to see how they can help students transfer literacy skills and concepts that are clear in the comics medium back into more recognizable curricular goals in terms of prose texts. On a simple level, this might entail asking students how the feelings communicated with word balloons featuring certain expressive shapes and fonts could be conveyed instead in a short story using conventional mechanics.

Focus on the Unique Strengths of a Title or Creator

Sometimes we instinctively know why we’re teaching a particular title—we just think it’s great, or we love the creator’s work and this book happens to be a really good fit for a certain age level. But what exactly about an artist’s style or a writer’s themes distinguishes this book from others we could be teaching? Addressing such points will make your guide feel less generic, your discussion questions a bit more fine-tuned. For this reason, you might even want to approach guide-writing or lesson-planning like a critic, by revisiting the text with a close read so that you can better notice detail and nuance—and in turn help others notice them.

Activate Background Knowledge

This suggestion falls under a general imperative that might be called “Don’t forget about the student.” Sadly, many guides are so facilitator-centered that students become almost passive reactors—listeners to the “sage on the stage” who merely try to provide the right answers. Instead, consider starting things off by having students share what they already know about a given topic, genre, or creator. Look for ways to have them connect with the text through their own experiences, or even just through other media products they’re familiar with (e.g., movies, TV, videogames).

Troubleshoot the Text for Educators

It’s no secret that some graphic works have content that’s problematic—it’s either intentionally complex or just “inappropriate” given the age of students or the standards of certain institutions. If developing a teaching guide to such a title, don’t try to ignore such challenges, but tackle them head-on. No, you won’t want to spotlight such content with a student activity, but remember—you’re writing for teachers. They’ll appreciate the heads-up regarding potential trouble spots and any tips you have for dealing with them. This might mean including suggested text for a note home to parents alerting them to certain issues, or discussion strategies for exploring delicate or tricky passages.

Highlight Text Features in "Content Area" Reading

Comics are especially great for teaching text features that are already part of the curriculum, whether in English or content areas such as science or social studies. If you’re developing a teaching guide for the latter subjects, you might want to make a point of drawing attention to cutaway diagrams, maps, timelines, charts, letters, and similar graphics:  teachers are always looking for ways to help students navigate these (not the least of which is that they appear on standardized tests).

Structure Your Discussion Questions

Many guides list questions that, although individually engaging or thought-provoking, require teachers or librarians to do all the heavy lifting in terms of actually planning and running a group discussion. When there is no explicit organization to such questions, they’re often presented in sequence according to the order of the book’s content. But is that always the best way to approach discussion? If everyone has read the text, why start at the beginning? In fact, if you’re addressing a major theme, you might ask a question that mostly concerns the climax and only secondarily reference events in a story’s beginning or middle. And actually that’s a good way to organize your questions: you can create a heading called “theme,” another called “style,” and so on. Or if your questions are sophisticated and touch upon a variety of issues simultaneously, consider using icons to call them out. The point is, don’t just dump a bunch of questions on your guide’s readers that require them to search for the curricular connections.

Be User-Friendly

Include the relevant page numbers from the text when writing questions—sometimes this is tricky, as in the case of manga that lacks folios, but even there you can cite a chapter title or spec that a small piece of art be reproduced. More importantly, if you’re developing activities or questions that are objective, make sure that you include the answers! Similarly, when creating any reproducible pages consider whether they include color images that can end up looking muddy when photocopied in black-and-white.

Differentiate Your Instruction

It’s ironic that this is one of the key pedagogical areas often omitted from teaching guides—because so many of us know that graphica is well-suited to working with below-level readers or English Language Learners. To avoid this problem, make sure that your mental image of “students” is not strictly confined to those who immediately come to mind for you personally, but rather reflects the diverse group of learners that make up the audience for the graphic title. Differentiating instruction can mean offering ideas on how to support or “scaffold” the text for students so that it’s more accessible. Or it can mean using the text to support overarching goals for such student populations, such as oral language development. Oh, and don’t forget to include advanced students—just be mindful that this doesn’t equate to simply giving them more work or assigning unrealistic projects (“Now have students write and draw their own graphic novels based upon the Old West…”). Instead, recast the same teaching/learning strategies you’re already employing but at one or two grade levels above the rest of the guide.

Well, that’s it. Write to me if you have any questions or want to share links to guides you’ve developed…!

Peter Gutiérrez is an Eisner-nominated comics pro and an NCTE spokesperson on graphic novels. His consulting clients include Sesame Workshop, Pearson Education, and Cambridge University Press, and in 2011 Scholastic will publish his new book, Motivating Middle Schoolers with Media-Based Writing Lessons.  Peter writes on comics, film, media, and pop culture for publications such as School Library Journal, Screen Education, and ForeWord Reviews, where he is a contributing editor. He can be reached at fiifgutierrez@gmail.com.

For those eager to learn more about graphic novel teaching resources, Peter will be moderating a panel at the 2010 ALA Annual Convention on “Navigating Teaching Resources for Graphic Novels.” More information is available here.

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SAMPLE GRAPHIC NOVEL LESSON PLANS AND TEACHERS GUIDES 

ReadWriteThink
Lesson plans and teaching units provided by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. Search for “graphic novel” or “comics” and discover lessons on everything from lessons on onomatopoeia to Middle Eastern history.

Diamond BookShelf Lesson Plans
BookShelf offers a number of lesson plans for different ages and reading levels.

Marvel Illustrated Teachers’ Guides
Resources to accompany Marvel Comics’ classic literature adaptations.

TOON Books
Leveled lesson plans for K-4 readers

Capt’n Eli Teachers’ Guides
Resources to accompany Nemo Publishing’s Capt’n Eli series

Rapunzel's Revenge Teaching Guide
Accompanies the graphic novel by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale and Nathan Hale