Coupling graphic memoir with the original text (and audio) using Geoffrey Canada’s Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, illusrated by Jamar Nicholas

Fist Stick Knife Gun: a Personal History of Violence

I just spent $200 out of my own pocket to order 20 copies of this text to use in the final few weeks of the semester. Why? Because Geoffrey Canada is purely awesome, and I think his memoir can serve a practical purpose in the classroom as well as a broader one, especially for adolescent males.

An experience teaching an all-boys class proved both enlightening and challenging. It’s not something I looked forward to and it’s not something I honestly would look forward to doing again, but it gave me an educational experience that I’ll be unraveling for years to come. Every teacher wrestles with their own individual perceptions of self, their experiences as students, and how to relate these memories and perceptions to their current students. Ultimately, I’ve realized that my own memories are just that: my OWN memories that were created through only MY lens. Attempting to understand any group of students through my prior experiences – regardless of race, class, and gender – is a generally futile effort that leads to excuses and stereotyping. Who cares what my idyllic memories are? There are 30 kids in the room with individual stories to consider. So when every single day presents adolescent fascination with violence, how am I supposed to react?

This is where Canada’s story will – I hope – provide an opportunity to have an honest dialogue about something that has been keeping me awake at night since August: the role that violence, learning to fight, self-defense, and self-image play in in constructing our individual perceptions of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and the world around us. After reading the graphic version, I immediately sent one student who had already finished current assignments on Neal Shusterman’s The Shadow Club to the library to read the book. Upon his return, another student claimed the book for the day while three others asked “Why can’t we read this?”

The text earns attention quickly. The table of contents portrays a jacket, a can of beans, a low-income apartment building, a broken pencil, a basketball, a heart, a rifle, a knife, a pistol, and a book, and these individual images and symbols begin each chapter before Canada and illustrator Jamar Nicholas investigate the full meaning behind these symbols in Canada’s life. As seen in the free preview, Geoffrey first becomes aware of violence after his brother intimidates a thief to retrieve a stolen jacket. From there, life in the Bronx provides a maturing Geoffrey a number of experiences with increasingly relevant and significant acts of violence. Each incident is examined without the didactic tone that often leads to a sleepy group of teenagers, which is precisely why I can’t wait to use this text to investigate an important adolescent theme as well as to hook student interest toward writing their own memoirs to conclude the semester.

Canada's original memoir

Click above for a 10-minute audio excerpt from Fist Stick Knife Gun recorded for NPR's This American Life

As the graphic novel will be read rather quickly, I plan to couple it with excerpts from the original memoir, which are generally short and high-interest.  This particular link narrates the conclusion of the graphic text – a great way to couple narrative voice with reading the graphic memoir and then comparing its presentation to the original text.  Students might also read Nicholas’ comments on working toward illustrating Canada’s writing to think about the author’s purpose.  Certainly, this nonfiction text could be coupled with Yummy or Sentences as well. Moreover, Canada’s own poems might provide more choice in writing opportunities that are created by reading a text like Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun.

Canada’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone is inspiring other efforts all over the country to stimulate the 8-hour school day by guaranteeing more educational opportunities for all students outside of the building’s walls and traditional operating hours. Maybe if more classrooms examined more realistic writing to foster honest conversation, more genuine interest in education would be naturally stimulated.

Again … I’ll post *everything* we use in the next few weeks for people to steal and adapt!


About marcginsberg

I teach high school English in Athens, GA. I read graphic novels and catch live music whenever possible. I walk my dog Humphrey and kid myself that I'm a distance runner.
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