Informational graphic novels can close gaps in students’ background knowledge—and even better, get them to read.
Making DNA Less Dull
The nuts and bolts of DNA strike many teens as dry. Thomas, a high school teacher, decides to introduce a unit on genetics this way:
Imagine a future world in which the entire human genetic code or genome is patented by a single megacorporation and all human reproduction is strictly controlled. Parents must apply for licenses to have children and make mortgage payments to keep them.
This is the dark premise of the graphic novel Genome by Andrew Glasgow and JM Schichtel (Amazon Digital Services, 2012). Thomas used this tale as an accompaniment and counterpoint to the chapter on genetics in the textbook. He reasoned that his students would find the facts and information more fascinating— and their learning would be more permanent—if he linked the topic to a compelling narrative. Every class, Thomas reads aloud from Genome. Although he asks his students mostly to enjoy the story and visuals, which he shares on the document camera, he also asks them to respond to his listening prompts designed to foster critical thinking about human genetics and to relate the novel’s content to both what they read in the textbook and real-life events. When reading from the part in Genome that references legal precedent for corporate ownership of genetic code, Thomas makes the issue more authentic for students by distributing an opinion piece from the Washington Post titled “Who Owns Your DNA? Not Who You Think” (Rosenfeld & Mason, 2013). This piece reveals that large corporations own patents that give them the exclusive right to examine certain human DNA, making it impossible for doctors to test patients’ related genes for potential life-threatening mutations without facing legal risks. With students’ interest piqued, Thomas asks them to research related laws in their state and use facts from the textbook to write a letter to one of their congressmen in which they take a stand on whether corporations should own patents on human genomes.
Manga and Close Reading
Proponents of the Common Core standards recognize the link between literacy and the disciplines. But students will have little success reading complex informational texts within academic disciplines if they lack prior knowledge essential to grasping the content and concepts (Brozo, 2010).
Many students find reading informational texts in mathematics and science particularly difficult because these texts are densely packed with unfamiliar concepts. A high school– level science textbook may contain as many as 3,000 new content-specific and academic vocabulary terms, more than students are likely to encounter in foreign language classes (Barton, Heldema, & Jordan, 2002). Informational graphic novels are an attractive way to build knowledge of unfamiliar content.
Walter, a 7th and 8th grade math teacher in an urban school, recognizes the importance of using graphic novels for this purpose. His students, many of whom struggle to overcome low academic self-esteem, require a supportive classroom context to study challenging mathematics content, such as calculus.
The Manga Guide to Calculus by Hiroyuki Kojima and Shin Togami (No Starch Press, 2010), a black-andwhite novel in Japanese Manga style, serves as an excellent introduction to calculus. One of the book’s many strengths is how it sets a context for using calculus. The authors establish a storyline about a young, ambitious newspaper reporter. Her bureau chief is a calculus enthusiast. To her surprise, the reporter discovers that she can use calculus to help her explore trends in data that provide her with stories of interest that she’d otherwise overlook. For example, she writes a story that uses calculus to predict a Japanese rock star’s decline in popularity in direct relationship to his weight gain.
To ensure that his students fully understand key content in The Manga Guide to Calculus, Walter models and elicits close reading from students. Close reading focuses readers’ attention on exactly what an author is saying as the basis for more meaningful, expansive interpretations or applications. Complex, foundational content warrants this kind of detailed, repeated reading, and it’s a linchpin of the Common Core English language arts standards (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012).
Walter directs students’ attention to pages 9 and 10 in the novel. They’d already read this section on their own, but he wants to revisit the initial conversation between Noriko, the aspiring reporter, and Kakeru, the head of a branch office of the Asagake Times. Kakeru is explaining to an incredulous Noriko why knowledge of mathematical functions is important in news reporting. Walter reminds students that complex text doesn’t give up its meaning easily; it demands repeated readings. As they reread, they flag any ideas, questions, or points of confusion.
Students next turn to a neighbor and discuss their observations about this section of The Manga Guide, which contains essential information about functions. This gives them the opportunity to work on asking questions and posing problems, as well as communicating with clarity. Walter walks around the room listening to student conversations, offering clarification and support. As students express their emerging understanding of a text and expand their thinking on the basis of their partner’s ideas, they’re going through an important phase of the close-reading process.
Walter then asks the whole class to respond to questions he poses, requiring them to give evidence from the text to support their answers. Pushing students to return to the novel reinforces close reading. He chooses questions that will help ensure students don’t miss important aspects of the text, and he targets some questions to areas of misunderstanding that he overheard in student conversations.
For example, Walter asks, What’s the most common way to express a function mathematically? To answer, students must reread an explanatory panel and one of Kakeru’s speech bubbles in which he explains to Noriko that the most common expression is y = f(x). In addition to drawing his students’ attention to an essential formula in calculus, Walter’s question helps determine whether his students are reading the text closely. He follows this question with one about the basic meaning of a function in the example of using calculus to predict trends with frogs and tadpoles that Kakeru gives Noriko. Walter also invites students to ask their own questions from their notes and conversations.
What Research Tells Us About Graphic Novels and Education
The inclusion and use of graphic novels in the school library and curriculum is no longer a matter of "if" but "how" (Gavigan 2012b). Researchers have demonstrated that graphic novels help make the curriculum more relevant for students by allowing them to connect with and explore popular culture (Alvermann and Xu 2003; Schwarz 2006; Xu, Sawyer, and Zunich 2005). Educators can also take advantage of the way in which children communicate with each other today. As our students text, tweet, and send photos of themselves to each other, they are using both text and images to create and process ideas and information. The way in which these different modes of presenting information work together to create meaning is very similar to the way that graphic novels use text and image to convey meaning. As AASL has noted, "Multiple literacies, including digital, visual, textual, and technological, have now joined information literacy as crucial skills for this century" (2007, 3). The use of graphic novels in the curriculum can help us better prepare students for the literacy demands of their futures.
In his many studies concerning research on youth literacy, Stephen Krashen has found that comics and graphic novels offer 20 percent more rare vocabulary than traditional chapter books (2004). Krashen has also discovered that graphic novels are beneficial to the literacy development of English Language Learners (ELL) and low-level reading students (Ujiie and Krashen 1996), and that graphic novels help students develop a taste for reading and serve as a bridge to other types of literature (Krashen 2004; Ujiie and Krashen 1996). Writing independently, both Stephen Cary (2004) and Stephen Krashen (2004) found that boys often choose graphic novels when given the opportunity to select reading materials.
Concerning the way that graphic novels relate to gender, research indicates that males respond positively to the image/text combination of graphic novels because they are more visually/spatially oriented learners (Ontario Min. of Ed. 2004; Smith and Wilhelm 2002). Karen Gavigan (2011) found that those struggling male adolescent readers who engaged with graphic novels felt more confidence as readers, and were encouraged and motivated to read more often. I have found that male and female high school students enjoyed reading graphic novels, but to varying degrees, with male students expressing more enjoyment in understanding the author and illustrator's full intention through text and visuals, and female students conveying that they preferred to switch their graphic novel reading with traditional novel reading to more fully exercise their imaginations (Moeller 2011).
Various other facets of individual students' learning needs have also been connected to reading graphic novels. Studies have shown that engagement with graphic novels has increased the reading interests among students with disabilities (Gavigan 2011; Smetana and Grisham 2012) and that the high-interest topics and visual support of graphic novels were beneficial to ELL students (Cary 2004; Chun 2009; Liu 2004; Ranker 2007). Finally, research in learning and brain activity shows that we engage both the back and frontal cortex functions of the brain as we create meaning with the use of visuals, making this type of learning highly brain-compatible (Zull 2011).
Graphic Novels and the Common Core Standards
Most of education today has turned its attention to how to help students fulfill the Common Core Standards. In addition to these standards, school librarians also need to look for opportunities to incorporate AASL's Standards for the 21st Century Learner <www.ala.org/aasl/standards> into student learning. "Understanding the importance that the AASL and the Common Core Standards Initiative place on graphic novels can help librarians and their stakeholders value the role that graphic novels can play in supporting their school's curriculum" (Gavigan 2012a). Karen Gavigan has described a few examples of the Common Core Standards that could reflect the use of graphic novels:
Grade 2, Reading Standard 7: Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.
Grade 5. Reading Standard 7: Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).
Grades 6-12, Standard 10: Range, Quality, and Complexity of Student Reading: Includes the subgenres of adventure stories, historical fiction, mysteries, myths, science fiction, realistic fiction, allegories, parodies, satire, and graphic novels. (Gavigan 2012b, 21)
AASL's Standards for the 21st-century Leaner (2007) emphasize that the definition of "information literacy" has been transformed to include multiple literacies such as textual, digital, technological, and visual. This recognition of the importance of multiple literacies can be found throughout the standards. The following are a few examples:
As school librarians are concerned with both student learning and student access to information, it is important to keep in mind the valuable role that graphic novels can play in our curriculum and collections.