"It’s One Less Plate That They’re Spinning". Graphic Novels to Help Struggling Writers?

Field Observations of a Struggling Writer’s Experiences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

40 Pages, Grade: A



New and Hidden Literacies: Why Teach With Pictures?

Illustration 1: Taxonomy for this research paper

The Supermen and Superwomen: My Participants

The Super Weapons: My Methods

The Super Story: My Results
Teachers’ Perceptions:

Authors’/Illustrators’ Perceptions

Field Observations: “There’s nothing to be written in this text field—here, we would have sound!”



New and Hidden Literacies: Why Teach With Pictures?

In 1987, John H. Marshall published a rather hilarious 2-page entry in The English Journal titled “Oh, thank Heaven for comic strip bubbles,” in which he described how he, a boy reader, had his literary revelation through pictures:

At twelve, I found myself concentrating heavily on—and having certain strange, new and pleasant feelings—on the comic book image of Wonderwoman’s half-wrapped, starry chest. I soon ignored what the great lady had to say in her word bubbles, and my mind became enraptured by her chesty bubbles. Lo, Wonderwoman’s ample, mammiferous parts had coaxed me gently into the wonderworks of puberty. (Marshall, 1987, p. 59)

He explicitly states that he does not want to make a stand for pornography, but philosophizes about the lack in our society today for the “bridge that spans the gap between childhood and adolescence for young males,” the “motivator and bubble-filler for these boys” (p. 60). He contends that it is the fear of the publishers to offend the “Moral Majority, the TV evangelists, the Bible-belt deacons” (p. 60), and asks whether anything can be done about this. Marshall advocates for “honesty and reality and fun in books for boys, and for girls for that matter” (p. 60), and admonishes that “implied morals” should come second, but not first, in writing for young people. The present study is going to deal with one special boy’s experiences as a struggling writer with the format of graphic novels, and will reveal whether or not he felt any fun and contentment during his literary awakening.

But at first, I want to give a short overview of scholarly research on this topic. Students’ intelligences are not uniform. Howard Gardner, who opposed traditional IQ-testing as not sufficiently revealing of the true intelligence of a child, explained in Frames of Mind (1983) that students bring eight different aspects of “multiple literacies” into the classrooms: 1. linguistic intelligence ("word-smart"), 2. logical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning-smart"), 3. spatial intelligence ("picture-smart"); 4. bodily-kinesthetic intelligence ("body-smart"), 5. musical intelligence ("music-smart"), 6. interpersonal intelligence ("people-smart"), 7. intrapersonal intelligence ("self-smart"), and 8. naturalist intelligence ("nature-smart"). In this paper, I want to focus on point 3, the spatial intelligence, in order to investigate in how far struggling writers who are “picture-smart” can be helped with a teaching strategy including graphic novels.

Students bring what we can call “hidden literacies” into the classrooms; for example, teachers may notice that some students fail constantly on standardized norm-referenced achievement tests in reading, and they have problems comprehending print-only material; however, they are secret comics or manga fans and actually do quite a bit of reading in and out of school, which goes unnoticed by their educators. What teachers can do is to address this hidden literacy in children; to build on it; to use it as a motivational factor and prior knowledge for them to learn new tasks in the print-only domain, to engage with the world around them, and to reveal their inner self. Research has been done about how students (struggling or not) benefit from visual literacies, such as comics, graphic novels, manga, picture writing, and storybook reading in several different content areas. Schwarz (2007) argues that

[b]eyond passing standardized tests, students today need to engage with social issues and media literacy, critical thinking about information / communications and about society if our democracy is to have a future. (…) In fact, media literacy education cannot help but lead to examination of social-political issues like the environment, criminal justice, and consumerism. Graphic novels, a popular new medium, are often based on the author’s own experiences, telling stories and conveying information in ways that can, in particular, engage students who are not well served by the usual text materials. They can promote inquiry. Graphic novels are also being created by diverse artists and writers and even students themselves. The graphic novel deserves consideration by educators… (Schwarz, 2007, p. 9)

Already in 1948, Oftedal wrote about her classroom experiment with third-grade students to whom she taught picture writing as a new tool in creative expression–and this was in the early stages of education becoming aware of visual literacy. In the history of teaching, different kinds of visual literacies could be shown beneficial for students; it need not be a whole novel rendered in pictures, it can start with simple letter recognition. Thus, Fulk, Lohman, and Belfiore (1997) conducted research on the effects of integrated picture mnemonics on the letter recognition and letter-sound acquisition of transitional first-grade students with special needs by showing them graphic representations which still contained the letter in them, for example a kite for the letter “k,” and a cup for the letter “c.” They found that this was an effective instructional technique, and their follow-up data at two- and four-week intervals demonstrates that the learning results maintained over time. Versaci (2001) describes in “How comic books can change the way our students see literature: One teacher’s perspective” the positive effect of visual literacy as follows:

Aside from engagement, comic books also help to develop much needed analytical and critical thinking skills. A common goal, regardless of the level we teach, is to help students read beyond the level we teach, is to help students read beyond the page in order to ask and answer deeper questions that the given work suggests about art, life, and the intersection of the two. Comic books facilitate this analysis in a way unlike more “traditional” forms of literature because in addition to making use of standard literary devices such as point of view, narrative, characterization, conflict, setting, tone, and theme, they also operate with a very complex poetics that blends the visual and the textual (…). By combining words and pictures, comic books force students, rather directly, to reconcile these two means of expression. (Versaci, 2001, p. 64)

Shapiro and Hudson (1991) were able to show the increase of story length, coherence, and cohesion in young children’s picture-elicited narratives when conducting a picture booklet experiment (reduction of task demand). Anderson, Anderson, and Shapiro (2005) investigated how multiple literacies could be supported by engaging parents and children in mathematical talk within storybook reading, where “most of the mathematical discourse that occurred… centred on the illustrations” (p. 9), and their results suggest that mutual storybook reading holds considerable potential for the children to learn mathematical vocabulary and concepts. Frey and Fisher (2004) used graphic novels, anime, and the Internet in an urban high school and noticed that their 32 ninth-grade students, who came from a high school class of one of the poorest and most densely populated communities and were in a class for struggling readers and writers with a 72% ratio of ESL students, became better writers. Bitz (2004) founded the “Comic Book Project,” which he calls a “wakeup call,” in which 733 children of inner-city after-school programs were allowed to feature themselves in comic book stories and thus created a mirror-image of urban life, focusing on such topics as gang violence, drug abuse, and opposite-sex relationships. With regard to students with disabilities, Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (1986) made a ground-breaking discovery when they observed the mechanical, behavioral, and intentional understanding of picture stories in autistic, Down’s syndrome, and clinically normal children: against common prejudice, they found out that the autistic children had no problems establishing the correct sequence of picture panels when confronted with behavioral (socially interactive) tasks, but only when they had to deal with intentional understanding.

Mori (2007) discusses negative reactions towards graphic novels; thus, some teachers complain they are “too easy to read,” “dumbed down,” and in one instance, a father told a Japanese man who grew up reading manga he “would be stupid if [he] read manga and tried to make [him] stop reading it” (personal communication, cited in Mori, 2007, p. 30). However, she also cites a university professor who thinks graphic novels have “challenging” vocabulary, and that one could get “pretty meaty stuff in comic books” (cited in Mori, 2007, p. 30). Mori further cites Stephen Krashen, who dispelled the assumption that comic books are “harmful”: “there is considerable evidence that comic books can and do lead to more ‘serious’ reading” (cited from Krashen (1993) in Mori, 2007, p. 30). Nowadays, graphic novels can be expanded to the realm of online novels. Russell (1996) attempted this in his study about reconceptualizing pedagogy, in which he purports the use of students’ hypertext stories with pictures and words. This is certainly one of the earliest studies on the impact of the Internet (technological literacy) in combination with a new form of visual literacy (graphic novels). Some of the afore-mentioned studies are of special interest for my own research since I am working with a single case study participant who is supposed to be autistic, and who is presently working on the creation of Star Wars graphic novels online.

Educators have not always been open to new literacies; in fact, they used to be rather hostile, trying from a purist’s point of view to define what belonged in schools, and what did not. After all, a “textbook” was called this way because it contained text, and not images, and there are few images to be found in early textbooks in this country. Monnin (2010) describes how the perception of what should be taught has shifted from only print-text literacies to visual literacies in the early 1900s:

The rise of image literacies in ELA actually, and ironically, begins in the 1980s, with a man named Charles W. Eliot and his determined focus on print-text literacies. Eliot, president of Harvard University in the 1890s, was the chair of the Committee of Ten, a group composed of education stakeholders who were selected to decide upon a standard ELA curriculum for high school students. In the end, the Committee of Ten decided that students should be required to read what is now seen as “traditional” or “canonical” literature. Eliot even bragged that this literature could all be found on a five-foot-long bookshelf in his office. On the bookshelf: print-text literature written by mostly white, male, British authors. The message was clear: ELA teachers must only teach these print-text literacies by these authors. (Monnin 2003, Introduction, XIX)

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommended in 1911 that teachers not take heed to the committee’s suggestions but rather consider the proper interests of their students. Literary scholars of the 1920s and ‘30s then purported – based on the works of Richards (1929) and Rosenblatt (1938) – that the get-together of reader and text creates a “unique and aesthetic meaning” (Monnin, 2003, XIX), and reader response theory claimed that English teachers should be influenced by their individual students as individual interpreters of literature. Dora V. Smith coined the term “English Language Arts” in 1952, which gave rise to the expansion of the scope of responsibilities of English teachers, which were suddenly extended from reading and writing to speaking and listening. The Newsom Report in 1963 revealed that 50% of Great Britain’s adolescent population considered itself marginalized by the English Language Arts curriculum, and admonished teachers to widen their horizon on what they perceived as literacies, so that they could meet visual learners with image-dominant popular culture literacies (Monnin, 2003, XIX). That teachers are admonished does not mean they actually apply new visual literacies in their classrooms—in this study, I want to examine what is actually done with graphic novels in classrooms, how they are perceived, and whether “it works.” So as to bring order into this investigation, I have established a taxonomy, which will be supported by the voices of the various participants and followed throughout this paper (although not always chronologically; certain sub-topics will only be dealt with in my dissertation, due to page restrictions for this paper). Thus, I will be delving into what distinguishes a graphic novel from a comic book; how graphic novel creators work; what kind of graphic novels should be created and taught; how graphic novels should be used in teaching; what special uses of graphic novels there might be; what the positive and negative effects of teaching (with) graphic novels could be; what the positive and negative uses of the graphics are; whether there is a market niche for graphic novels for children with learning disabilities; what graphic novels for struggling writers should look like; and what difficulties one encounters during the content analysis when assessing a struggling writer’s work with graphic novels.

Illustration 1: Taxonomy for this research paper


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The Supermen and Superwomen: My Participants

The superhero and single case study participant is Pierre, a 6th-grade, male struggling writer of African descent, born in the U.S. He and his mother signed consent forms, including audio- and videotaping, and the Human Subjects Committee approved the study involving a minor on March 5th, 2010. Pierre is not professionally diagnosed, but has an IEP at his middle school for “executive function disorder,” which officially does not exist as a “disease.” His teachers have noticed that he has trouble executing written tasks, although he is perfectly able to dictate content of high quality. It seems to be not only a graphomotor dysfunction, for he can type a little better than handwrite; the main problem for him is to start a writing task, and also to finish it. As preliminary data from a year-long tutoring experience in a local Reading Clinic revealed, during which time I worked with him first in a classroom environment for half a year, and then in my office with just two tutees present, the boy reads at 9th grade level; however, when asked to do a quickwrite in 10 minutes, he can only come up with sentences like, “Can I have a drink please?”, whereas the other tutees managed to write half a page or a page of a story. His handwriting is huge, uneven, bears mechanical errors (although not enough to call him dyslexic for his age category), and so slow-paced that he cannot manage to finish a task in a given time. In clear opposition to this stands the observation that Pierre has an astonishingly advanced vocabulary; when talking to him, one thinks he is much older and more mature, and very polite and well-behaved. This impression fades when one tutors him and he exhibits unsuppressed, child-like behavior like farting and belching without embarrassment. The other participants are 28 teachers / professors who use graphic novels and took an online survey; 2 high school English teachers who do not use graphic novels and were interviewed personally; 20 authors and illustrators, as well as scholarly reviewers of graphic novels who took their respective online surveys. Two authors / illustrators and one scholarly reviewer of graphic novels were interviewed by phone. One teacher was also an illustrator and graphic novels creator. The teachers were recruited through their emails gathered from their schools’ websites, and from online discussion groups where they had revealed themselves as being purporters of graphic novels. This resulted in teachers from countries outside the U.S. participating in the study. The authors / illustrators and academic reviewers of graphic novels were contacted through their websites and facebook, or were referred by presenters and panelists attending the Chicago Comic Con on Saturday, April 17th, 2010.

The Super Weapons: My Methods

My role as naturalistic investigator is that of a participant observer. I am taking part in the creation of an online graphic novel about Star Wars, helping Pierre to download photos of his Lego figurines from the digital camera I lent him onto the computer, to insert the photos into his website that we created together, and to proofread and edit his writings with him. I do not type for him. I do, however, offer him to take hand-written notes, on which he can base his own typing. I have been conducting longitudinal clinical observations and ethnographic field studies with Pierre since Spring 2009; first, in the context of my tutoring at the Reading Clinic, and for the past year, privately, together with his 2nd grade sister, Rula. The setting is my office, a little colorful room on the third floor of an ugly concrete building; quilt tops hanging on the walls, throws and quilts covering the chairs, and pictures from Rula hanging above the desk. There’s a huge shelf with various books for the Reading Clinic students, as well as colored paper and markers. An i-flip camera is placed on shelf three of the bookshelf. Free candy and soda are always available for snack time. Both children receive remunerations for their work: they can order a book or a toy each month.

I sent the teachers a 25-item online survey created with the online builder www.surveymonkey.com. When a teacher had answered it, he/she had the opportunity to contact me for a follow-up interview, either in person, by phone, or by email. The process of developing interview questions was emergent; the more I learned from the online surveys and previous interviews, the more points and the more diverse questions found their way into my interviews. Since interviewing is a pretty open technique, we also talked about topics that had not been the substance of my originally crafted interview questions, which helped me to gain additional data. Likewise, I sent out a 27-item online survey to the authors / illustrators / reviewers of graphic novels. I developed follow-up questions for phone interviews, presenting individual authors with rather radical statements gathered from other authors (without mentioning names), in order to receive highly engaged and emotional answers. In the following, I will keep the teachers anonymous as announced in my consent forms, and will mention the names of well-known authors and illustrators if they filled in their name (optional) on the survey to be associated with their statements as artists, did not choose a pseudonym, or agreed to be interviewed.

The Super Story: My Results

Teachers’ Perceptions:

With regard to the K-12 teachers’ and college professors’ experiences, I was interested in ignorance about the topic; perceived prejudices about graphic novels; stories from the field about “what works” when teaching graphic novels; and also what kind of support they received from their schools. Two Illinois high school teachers whom I interviewed personally had not made any experiences with teaching graphic novels yet, although one of them might be interested in an “experiment” for the future, if I can provide him with free copies for a class. A male teacher (T1) in his late 40s / early 50s whom I (V) had visited in his classroom after school (alas, shortly before he was to go on a trip to Washington, so I had caught him on a busy day) laid open his concerns about the benefits of teaching with graphic novels, commenting on the gains of understanding story content, but on the loss of language experience. He further stated that “[t]he other downside is that—to graphic novels—is that the imagination is confined... I think, because the image is already there; you can’t develop it in your mind.” (personal interview with teacher 1 on 03/05/2010)

T1: I mean it’s a balance with graphic novels, because what we’re trying to do is teach—well, it depends what your purpose is. If your, if your purpose is to teach story, like for instance, Macbeth —right?—uh, if you want them to know the story of Macbeth, a graphic novel is a perfectly good way to do that. If you want them to experience the language I was listening to something on the radio the other day to em to a person who publishes graphic novels of Shakespeare. And so they do a modern translation in addition to the pictures. And I can see the benefit of that because it can engage the kids in the story... They can get a sense of Shakespeare as not daunting—you know—not over-... you know On the other hand, they don’t experience the... the language, the beauty of the language... (interview with teacher 1 on 03/05/2010)

Teacher 1 also had a special student who could not perform the code-switching between manga language and academic language; the teacher complained that he only wrote in speech-bubble dialogues instead of rendering plot and setting. His word choice of “these manga” seems to imply a negative stance already.

T1: I have several kids that are just addicted to these manga. Em, and one in particular; I noticed that in his narrative... he only writes in dialogue! Virtually all. So, I mean, he is used to seeing the picture, and, and following the dialogue, but there is very little narration. I thought—it’s the first time I sort of—it hits me forcibly, em, that I think his taste in these manga really has an impact on his writing.

V: You could use that by having him do a play or something, with roles...

T1: Right, but we wanna get into writing set-, setting, you know, and narrative and character... that’s where we want to get. (interview with teacher 1 from 03/05/2010)

Teacher 2, another male but in his mid-twenties, whom I met in a restaurant, seemed to have a more positive outlook. I have to admit that I created a confounding variable by bringing graphic novel samples for teacher 2, but not for teacher 1. Since neither of them had had any experience teaching graphic novels before, and had not seen that there exist two versions (original text and adapted easy-reader text) of classics adaptation in graphic novel format, teacher 2 had the clear advantage of being able to revise his preformed opinion. He worried about loss of language experience, too, but since he knew he could choose an original-language text, he was not that much opposed and made a clear choice against easy-reader or “quick-text” versions:

V: It’s modern English, at least.

T2: Fine. Well, …

V: It’s shorter.

T2: That would be my concern, I guess. When I teach, em…Yes, I WANT them to enjoy the story. [emphasizes “want”] It’s, it’s about getting through the language, the original text. So, if I were to use a graphic novel, I definitely would want one that’s in…

V: The original text?

T2: The original text, yeah. Uhum. (interview with teacher 2 on 03/19/2010)


Excerpt out of 40 pages


"It’s One Less Plate That They’re Spinning". Graphic Novels to Help Struggling Writers?
Field Observations of a Struggling Writer’s Experiences
Southern Illinois University Carbondale  (Curriculum & Instruction)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
it’s, less, plate, that, they’re, spinning, graphic, novels, help, struggling, writers, field, observations, writer’s, experiences
Quote paper
Dr. Christina Voss (married Lyons) (Author), 2010, "It’s One Less Plate That They’re Spinning". Graphic Novels to Help Struggling Writers?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1132999


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