Graphic Novel Literacies for All

Today’s teachers are living and teaching during the most unique, pivotal moment in the history of literacy education.  Teaching in a world that is not only reliant on teaching reading and writing with print-text literacies, but also (and equally!) reliant on teaching reading and writing with image-text literacies (Kress, 2003) today’s teachers are receiving a superhero call to save the day.  Every teacher – in every content area – must redefine what it means to be a literate 21st century reader and writer.

In order to better understand just how significant today’s superhero-teachers must be please permit me a brief, historical flashback.

During what started as a normal school day on September 11th, 2001 American literacy educators found themselves at the beginning of the greatest communication revolution in the history of education.  On that day every single literacy educator tragically realized how powerful reading with image literacies can be.  What could we say to our students about what they were seeing?

In the years following September 11th, 2001 literacy scholars have worked intensely to provide some possible answers to just that question.  If asked to list some of the most influential and inspiring names in contemporary literacy scholarship I would recommend the following: Buckingham, 2003; Carter, 2007, 2011; Hobbs, 2007, 2011; Hull & Schultz, 2002; Kist, 2004, 2009; Kress, 2003; The New London Group, 1996; Stanley, 2004, 2009.  Surely, this list of scholarly greatness about teaching a shared literacy stage could be much, much longer.  But for the purpose of this blog entry I will simply end my list there and encourage you to go on a treasure hunt of your own.  You will find many gems.  You will also meet a host of other new literacy scholars and their amazing work as well.

With those scholars and their work in mind my own scholarship has stood upon their shoulders and focused specifically on teaching a shared literacy stage with graphic novels.  Built upon the premise that images and words work together to tell literary level stories, the birth of the graphic novel format was not a coincidence.  Purposely termed to differentiate itself from its often-criticized comic book cousin, the graphic novel term emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as an alternative format for telling more literary level stories, stories that could build upon the comic book’s action-packed plot and branch out to include other critical elements of story typical to print-text canonical literature.  The graphic novel, the comic book community explained, would not only have a literary level, action-packed plot, but also have a literary level setting, characters, themes, symbols, and more.  All of the elements that we have traditionally seen as key to great, canonical literature could now be explored with both print-text literacies and image literacies in graphic novels.  And although this conversation was much greater than I can give it credit, for there were many key players, the “official” birth of the graphic novel came in 1978 when Will Eisner published The Contract with God.

The Contract with God made a small splash in what was to later become a much greater pond.  That greater pond appeared in the early 1990s when Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus II won the Pulitzer Prize.  Hitting mainstream society with force, everyday people (meaning those outside of the comic book and graphic novel worlds alone) started to ask Just what is a graphic novel? 

Since then, and in unison with the evolution of teaching more image centered literacies from film and television, mainstream society and its educators have become better acquainted with the graphic novel.  It’s not a comic book.  It’s a literary-level story told in both words and images.  Perfect for teaching what contemporary literacy scholarship describes as a shared literacy stage the graphic novel provides literacy educators with a unique bridge during a unique time in history.  Second historically to the invention of the printing press but first in terms of impact and significance today’s communication revolution is truly a call to action.

We are the first generation of literacy educators who live and teach during a time of literacy transition.  And we must be heroic in our pursuit of new texts and new methods for teaching our now shared literacy stage.  And one of our most powerful and helpful aides, our sidekick?  The graphic novel.

Dr. Katie Monnin, is presenting 2 workshops at the Literacy for All Conference on Monday, November 5, 2012 in Providence, RI, on the topic of teaching with graphic novels:

  • Valuing Literacy Learning for All: Redefining Reading with Graphic Novels in K–2, 21st Century Classroom Settings (Grades K–2)
  • Valuing Literacy Learning for All: Redefining Reading with Graphic Novels in 3–6, 21st Century Classroom Settings (Grades 3–6)

Dr. Monnin is the author of 4 books for teachers, including Teaching with Graphic Novels (2010), Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels (2011), Really Reading with Graphic Novels (2012), and Teaching Content Area Graphic Novels (2012), all by Maupin House Publishing.

Visit our website to read Katie’s workshop descriptions and to learn how to register for Literacy for All.

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