What would John Dewey do?

I decided that my own butchered comic format would best make my point here.  I made this comic using Plasq’s ComicLife program.

John Dewey from "My Pedagogic Creed" (1897)

Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. New York: E.L. Kellog & Co.

This quotation has always made perfect sense to me. It boils down to student engagement and not requiring your students to (always) conform to your demands and preferences as their teacher. Rather, successfully teaching students demands that instructors find ways to make instruction engaging by appealing to more than just the more privileged, traditional learning or presentation styles.  What better method exists to further develop a student’s capacity to visualize complex texts and events than to present them with graphic texts that provide a visual to stimulate critical thinking?  Don’t think of it as a crutch.  It’s just another tool at your disposal when and where you choose to wield it.

Posted in Classroom practice, Why graphic texts? | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Deogratias: a Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen — Integrating graphic texts with multimedia studies of nonfiction and memoir

Deogratias: a Tale of Rwanda

One somewhat regrettable pleasure of teaching world literature is the opportunity to study historic events in more recent decades. Whereas publishers play catchup and curriculum writers should ideally revise social studies curricula annually (if not more often), literacy classrooms tied to performance-based curricula have more freedom to present wider varieties of texts that address more current events that history classrooms may not always address. While history teachers surely address the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, it would be easy to allow this event to fall to the wayside in a rush to prepare students for end-of-semester standardized tests. Additionally, such instruction may rely solely upon the popular (and deserved) 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, an engaging and thoughtful glimpse at hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s efforts to save as many lives as possible in the face of death and corruption.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda is a popular film to use in both history and English classrooms. I use it, too. But what else could we bring in to deepen understanding and thought?

The film may not have even been eligible to be shown in most schools if it were not for Director Terry George’s efforts to change the original R-rating to PG-13. The film is not necessarily a sanitized portrayal of genocide; in fact, I’ve observed students look away in shock many times. While film is a great way to engage all learners in critical analysis of history and literature, it’s also a more passive activity than reading for some students. Given the gravity of the three-month extermination of 800,000 Tutsi citizens of Rwanda, one hopes that more texts will begin to creep into classrooms quick enough to keep it relevant. Still, only sixteen years old, the history books are still being written on this highly visible and relevant human event. This is where Deogratias should enter the picture.

Vivid, honest, occasionally vulgar (containing generally accurate depictions of sexism), and sometimes confusing, Deogratias is exactly what a narrative surrounding this event should be: tough to swallow, hard to digest, and requiring active re-reading. Stassen structures the narrative in a way that will confuse just about any reader, but this strategy is effective. Each panel has either a black border surrounding it or no border at all. Borderless panels take place before and during the genocide, and black-paneled borders take place afterward. The reader also clues into the narrative structure by examining Deogratias’ appearance. As another blogger/reviewer Liz B. notes, “Deogratias’ appearance lets the reader know whether the setting is the present (1995), with Deogratias dressed in rags, or the past (1994), with his clothes fresh and clean and whole. And, of course, the change in his dress is not just because time has passed; the battered outward appearance reflects Deogratias’ emotional and psychological damage” (2007). Some of this damage results from Deogratias’ dependence on urwagwa, the popular homemade banana beer: a ritual and symbol of brotherhood in Rwanda that grows into a possible poisonous deathtrap for unwitting citizens during this time period.

As a text and teaching tool, Deogratias offers students an opportunity to engage with the experiences of a character more actively. Why does Deogratias react so negatively toward his lesson regarding Hutus and Tutsis at school, leading him to call the teacher a fool? Why does Deogratias wait on hosts to sample urwagwa every time that he finally finds his substance of desire? Why does Venetia sleep around to offer her daughters a better education? Why do Philip and other missionaries tend to lack a detailed understanding of the country’s culture and history until smacked in the face with it?

These questions are not necessarily answered while viewing Hotel Rwanda – nor should they be considering these are entirely different texts. Again, I plan to continue showing this film to my own students, but I’d love to find other ways to engage them in thinking about this international crisis.  For these purposes, a text like Deogratias will appeal to young adult readers because of what Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud calls “closure” (1993, p. 63). Amidst various panels, McCloud explains how comics require more active mental participation on the reader’s behalf than film.  In interpreting meaning in comics, the reader must interpret events that happen in between panels which forces active involvement with the graphic text; this involvement is a unique experience for the comics reader that cannot be replicated by film or by text alone.    According to McCloud:

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloudThis phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole has a name.  It’s called closure.  In our daily lives, we often commit closure, mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience.  Some forms of closure are deliberate inventions of storytellers to produce suspense or to challenge audiences.   Others happen automatically, without much effort . . . Part of business as usual.  In recognizing and relating to other people, we all depend heavily on our learned ability of closure . . . In film, closure takes place continuously — twenty-four times per second, in fact — as our minds, aided by the persistence of vision, transform a series of still pictures into a story of continuous motion . . . Between such automatic electronic closure and the simpler closure of everyday life — there lies a medium of communication and expression which uses closure like no other . . . A medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time and motion.  See that space BETWEEN the panels?  That’s what comics aficionados have named “the Gutter!” And despite its unceremonious title, the Gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics!  Here in the limbo of the Gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.  Nothing is seen between the two panels but experience tells you something must be there! . . . The closure of electronic media is continuous, largely involuntary and virtually imperceptible.  But closure in comics is far from continuous and anything but involuntary.  Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice.  An equal partner in crime known as the reader.  . . . Participation is a powerful force in any medium.  Filmmakers long ago realized the importance of allowing viewers to use their imaginations.  But while film makes use of audiences’ imaginations for occasional effects, comics must use it far more often!  . . . Clsoure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience (1993, pp. 63-69).

Even in citing McCloud, much of the point is lost without his illustrations, panels, and the implications of what lies between each panel — and how these elements combine with his words to create a unique, meaningful experience for the reader. Thus, while a viewer can watch a film like Hotel Rwanda and certainly engage both emotionally and intellectually, a graphic text such as Deogratias provides a different, unique opportunity for the reader to develop understanding of the Rwandan Genocide through another avenue that may trigger different thoughts and emotions than the film.

Of course, traditional text can and obviously should be a piece of this study as well. Rusesabagina’s autobiography An Ordinary Man provides more detailed and direct experience via memoir, and various excerpts (including this audio excerpt from NPR) can be found scattered across various Google searches. Other teaching tools might include various news reports, print and film, easily found on the internet, as well as PBS Frontline’s Ghosts of Rwanda documentary.  Many other texts about genocide are easily located.

As a final thought, one striking scene in the film occurs when journalists staying at the hotel realize that some of their footage, however brutal, absolutely must be aired for the world to see. Western governments, militaries, and citizens need to actually see the brutality and inhumanity of genocide to even begin to comprehend or develop intervention strategies. Given the plethora of internet imagery related to the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, or even current affairs in Darfur as well as other historical examples of genocide, students can easily produce moving, powerful audiovisual documentaries using (often) free programs such as Microsoft Photostory or Windows Moviemaker such as the Deogratias book trailer viewed earlier in this post. Samples of such projects are widely available from any streaming video website. Such a photo-documentary may not seem like a comic at all, but McCloud defines comics as:

Scott McCloud's definition of comics

McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics: the invisible art. New York: HarperPerennial, p. 9.

Given this definition of comics, everyone – not just teachers – should probably rethink what role graphic texts (or comics, or graphica, or whatever other term we want to throw out there) can play not just in the classroom, but just about everywhere around us.

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Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri; illulstrated by Randy DuBurke


In the land of the free and the home of the brave, who is to blame when an eleven-year old boy born to an abusive, neglectful, drug-addicted prostitute kills a 14-year old girl as he aims at a rival in a gang-related shooting?  With more than a few Robert “Yummy” Sandifers walking around various locations throughout the country, how are these narratives symptomatic of deeper societal ills, and how can the graphic novel format call attention to them in ways that can compel change by engaging wider audiences, both young and old?

Told through the eyes of Roger, an eleven-year old Chicago youth, Yummy presents a highly accessible story of urban poverty in America through innocent, curious eyes that are less jaded and more empathetic than most adults who read about Yummy in Time Magazine. Author G. Neri relied upon many sources to craft the book, stating, “I read everything about the incident, lots of detailed daily reporting, in-depth coverage, court transcripts. I talked to experts on the gang and did my own personal research with gangs in Compton. I even went to Chicago to see all the points in the story myself, including the spot where Yummy died.” These links are important. While the graphic text itself is a worthwhile book for independent, group, or whole-class reading, the possibilities for nonfiction exploration and research after reading Yummy present endless opportunities for students to learn more about poverty and gang violence in America. Preview the exposition below.

Preview below linked via Scribd and Lee and Low Books

To begin, if the exposition introduces the main characters, the setting, and the overall situation, this preview offers a great concrete example of how the author develops all of these ideas immediately. Students can evaluate the effectiveness of the author’s story development by listing all of the concrete ideas that are visually accessible — of which there are at least a dozen obvious examples. As Neri and DuBurke develop not just Yummy’s character and conflicts but also the narrator Roger’s struggle to make sense of Yummy’s existence, the reader begins to see Yummy develop into a rounder character who possesses both surface and deeper levels. While the strongest imagery is obviously Yummy’s gang-related activity (who won’t respond at least somehow to images of a gun-wielding eleven-year old?), other moments include his love for candy bars (which earns him his nickname) a pet frog named Jelly Bean, a teddy bear, and Yummy’s childish responses to his grandmother. With this mixture of imagery and characterization, the reader cannot help but think about the internal conflicts faced by a child like Yummy, or even narrator Roger, a much more fortunate child growing up in the same environment. The same body biography activity common in classrooms everywhere would be a great tool to pull out in association with a graphic text such as Yummy because of the complexities of the novel’s main character. Striving readers should take to the task more easily with a graphic text because developing the items to include as visuals relies less upon their ability to visualize what they’re reading and more upon their evaluation of the text. Nearly all of my incoming “on-level” 9th graders generally tell me that they don’t visualize while they’re reading, so a text like this one would allow them to further develop their analytical skills while not penalizing them for lacking literary imagination.  As a final thought on literary analysis, Neri employs Roger’s narration as a tool to push through a theme of tolerance, understanding and love.  This theme ultimately shines in the novel’s resolution when Roger leaves his final message to Shavon, Yummy’s victim: “I’m sorry you didn’t get to be a hairdresser.  Maybe if you see Yummy, you can cut his hair, and help him be a better person” (Neri, 2010).

Yummy's story was featured on the cover of TIME in 1994

By printing copies of the TIME magazine article, teachers could spark research interests by allowing students to explore the myriad social issues provoked in this graphic text.

Since the text itself is a quick read, Yummy invites teachers to use it as a jumping-off point for research, debate, and writing.  Related issues include gang violence, urban poverty, sentencing laws, child abuse, prostitution, child neglect, public education, and many others.  Students can easily identify these themes themselves, and from there teachers could facilitate individual or group investigations into these issues.   Depending on the grade and skill level of students, research projects could develop traditionally as written essays or via internet mediums such as blogs that collect facts, related links, and document other related narratives.  The text specifically references the Black Disciples, and a simple Google search reveals  a wealth of information that could prove both relevant and helpful to an open, honest dialogue in the classroom.  Furthermore, texts like Suddhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day disappear from my reading table just as fast as graphic texts.

Venkatesh's nonfiction book provides many possible excerpts to examine along with Yummy's story. Click the picture to read an excerpt from the New York times.

An in-depth investigation into life, poverty, and gang-activity in Chicago’s Robert Taylor projects, Venkatesh’s dissertation-turned-bestseller also provides a balanced account of the lives of gang members and other citizens in Chicago.

By combining texts like these and allowing students to investigate related social problems on their own terms, teachers invite students to construct knowledge about gang violence and urban poverty beyond what they might see on the evening news.  As  Roger points out in Yummy‘s conclusion, it’s hard to hate a child who was never given a chance, and Venkatesh’s time with J.T. and the Black Kings as well as other residents and employees in the Robert Taylor homes gives a more human face and feel to realities that too many of us discover only through far more superficial terms such as the evening news or popular film. Neri says it best: “My telling some kids to stay out of gangs means nothing to them. But Yummy’s story is such a compelling wakeup call that I don’t have to say anything, or moralize on the issues. Readers can draw their own conclusions by seeing what happened to Yummy. There are no easy answers to be found, but hopefully the book will spark a lot of needed discussion.”

A teacher’s guide for Yummy including great discussion questions can be found here.

Visit the author’s site for more images, videos, and articles related to the story here.

A not so favorable review that fails to consider the text’s possibilities in the classroom can be found here.

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Replacing traditional texts?

A colleague proposed an interesting question to me today. I didn’t ask, but I’m assuming it’s okay to pose it here:

Is it possible for graphic texts to replace traditional texts in classrooms?
Is this something we — educators, literacy instructors, English teachers, academics, citizens, or whomever you are — would want to see?

On one hand, I see a huge push for leaning more toward visual learning styles. How many graphic organizers have you been asked (or even forced) to use as formative assessment in the last few years? How great would it be if YouTube were more accessible within the school building as an instructional tool? How many of us see student engagement *click* in response to art and images in ways that texts often fail to accomplish? Given the bombardment of imagery via television and internet media and its predictable growth via handheld telecommunication devices, we definitely need to consider how students are taught to read and analyze images as texts. As culture changes, so must classrooms …

On another hand, how awful would it be to replace a rich literary tradition with occasionally-watered down versions of classics — or to completely disregard classic literature altogether? Batman is great, but Huck Finn can’t be disregarded.

And then there is this.
Direct mail from Maryland Democrat Nancy King's campaign for Senate.

If I lived in Maryland, King might be the only Democrat I’ve never voted for.

But back to that original question … thoughts?

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Blokhedz: created by the MadTwiinz, Mark and Mike Davis

Nevermind the corporate synergy at work for Gatorade here – just watch this preview:

Trying to find a consistent link or updated information on Blokhedz (WARNING – my browser warns of viruses from this link) has proven difficult. However, getting students to read Blokhedz: Genesis has been a pleasure (Click the previous link to view Amazon’s thorough preview).

As indicated in the text’s pre-reading synonpsis, Blak is a seventeen year-old wannabe rapper internally battling between his own social conscience and the harsh realities of the music industry. Influenced by his older brother Konz (short for Konzaquence), Blak is advised early to consider that “people would kill for [his talent]. You wanna be a tough guy? Tough guys get touched every day. You may not realize it, but your words have power” (Madtwiinz, 2007). Konz then bestows his Lion medallion upon Blak as a symbol of wisdom and power. The Lion previously stopped a bullet from reaching Konz’s heart before he was incarcerated, and the medallion carries great weight to young Blak.

The Lion medallion is a symbol of wisdom and power - one that Blak loses and regains as he resolves his internal conflict.

Young and brash, Blak fails to heed Konz’s advice, leading to Konz’s eventual death at the hands of the Wild Dawgs, a rival clique.  Wrestling with guilt over his brother’s death, Blak spits rhymes throughout the text that will impress and engage any reader – especially adolescents.  For example:

When u mention Blak critics say the God is hot / Arrogant is something tha thte God is not / Sign autographs and flow in front of barbershops / One problem, When I start I find it very hard 2 stop / Now that my destiny is known / I’m the king and G-Pak is protecting the throne / What (MadTwiinz, 2007).

This verse pales in comparison to Blak’s ultimate battles with Blok Murda Records rival Vulture: a rapper who preys upon the ignorance of Empire City’s lust for violence.

As pure entertainment, both the Blokhedz text and web cartoon stand on their own.  As for literary value, readers will likely be most drawn to the vernacular; a ‘slang glossary’ is even provided as an appendix to the story.  Still, the text is not devoid of meaning or literary value.  Blak is a wholly round, dynamic character who stands in direct contrast to flatter, static characters like Vulture or Bloko, the record label’s boss who resembles Death Row’s Suge Knight.  The Lion medallion presents an accessible symbol with layered meaning open to interpretation, and given the vivid illustrations, the intended positive message will not be lost upon most readers.  Furthermore, foreshadowing is scattered throughout the piece, the best example erupting when Blak’s crew pull a U-turn while failing to notice a No U-Turn sign littered with stickers and graffiti.  The result?  A her0-esque encounter with a corrupt policeman who is later proven to double as a henchman in Bloko’s underground domination of Empire City’s drug trade and organized crime.

The key to justifying housing this text in the classroom is the fact that the message is ultimately positive.  In an interview, author Mike Davis states:

We wanted to make a statement that it is important to use the power of one’s words in a responsible manner. Hip-hop is very powerful and influential. Words have manifestation and attraction powers. What you think is communicated by what you say and what you say shapes your reality. With the current values that are presently reigning in mainstream hip-hop, the message the youth are receiving is one of materialism. The essence of the struggle and its creativity is being over shadowed by industry. We wanted to do our part to maintain the voice of struggle, its creativity and express the strength and influence of this magical art form called hip-hop (Ward, 2007).

More importantly, he notes, “Lastly, on the social front, Blokhedz has become a tool to encourage literacy for the generation that was born in the information age and might not want to read a book. With the imagery, and hip-hop undertones, we attract them to the look and then drop jewels or lessons to them in a non preachy way” (Ward, 2007).

A 2008 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, used copies of Blokhedz can be found for $0.01 on Amazon.com … I’ve already run through four of them in the last few years.

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Characterization: says, thinks, does …

I utilized this EASY to implement, quick, and simple formative assessment while reading Sharon Draper’s Forged by Fire with a group of often-reluctant 9th graders recently. I adapted the idea from Thompson’s Adventures in Graphica, which has proven to offer a wealth of classroom possibilities in the hands of an imaginative instructor.
First, we reviewed the idea of characterization and distinguished between direct and indirect characterization.
Second, as scaffolding, we watched Lil’ Wayne’s infamous interview from the Katie Couric show

Students were told to record at least 10 examples of both direct and indirect characterization. They obliged.
Third, we constructed a sample body biography of Weezy on the dry erase board. Guess how long it took a group of 22 9th grade boys to make a multi-layered, analytical character sketch of The Best Rapper Alive?
After discussing how the sample was constructed, students broke into groups and chose characters from Forged by Fire. I gave them poster paper, art materials, and these dialogue/thought/action bubbles that I made using Plasq’s awesome, cheap, easy-to-use Comic Life program.

Admittedly, their final products were not wonderful (I will post images ASAP), but keep in mind that this group of students (ahem, ALL MALES) does not always take to reading nor analyzing text in the same way that most of us did in our youth …

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Tomorrow’s activity? Each student will post direct quotations for each of the three prominent characters in tomorrow’s assigned reading. These quotations must demonstrate thought, speech, and action. From there, we’ll analyze how conflict is developed by the author … And hopefully make some progress.

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Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm – written by Percy Carey; illustrated by Ronald Wimberly

Sentences cover art
“Hey no bullshit man, that was a good book.”

I simultaneously grimaced and grinned as one of my less academically inclined 9th grade students handed me back my latest copy of this title – the second one I’ve purchased over the last two years after the first magically disappeared from my shelf.

Wondering if he was serious or if he was, well, bullshitting me, I engaged him in conversation about the graphic autobiography of rapper M.F. Grimm.
“What do you think of the main character?” I then asked, “Do you think he changed? Why do you think he wrote this book?”

My student went on to explain that Percy, or Grimm, wanted to portray his life as realistically as possible to point out that he learned from his mistakes. His poor decisions in his youth — drugs, dealing, violence, feeling invincible — led him to his current condition, and he wants readers to learn from his experiences to avoid the same mistakes.
Sure, Sentences will mainly appeal to adolescents for many entirely wrong reasons, but isn’t that part of the joy of reading in the first place? The media specialists at my school have noted that this text is amongst their most circulated titles, and in my own classroom, dozens of students breeze through it for independent reading each and every semester. If it weren’t for the obvious – and necessary – vulgarities and depictions of violence and drug dealing, this could be a perfect text for a group of “non-readers” to enjoy as well as explore for literary merit.

To begin, this text presents a legitimate and useful teaching tool to distinguish between narration and dialogue: something every English teacher has observed striving readers struggle to understand fully. As the text begins with a prelude before moving into a typical starting point for a memoir, the text could be used to examine narrative structure as well as to scaffold the contents of memoir and autobiographical narrative. The novel moves the reader through Carey’s entire life, including his experiences in high school which I will assume appeal to adolescent readers.

As Thompson points out in Adventures in Graphica, “Graphica is read from left to right and top to bottom, just like traditional texts. Creators may veer from this pattern at times to draw readers to something specific or because it is a more effective way to support the meaning of the text. The directionality, speech bubbles, and panels in comics are extremely meaning driven” (2008, p. 29). Sentences presents such key pages early in the text. These two pages appear side by side to depict the intensity and confusion of the shooting that led to Carey’s coma, which is later thoroughly detailed in the narrative. While the narrative boxes read left-to-right, top-to-bottom here, the immediate attention is on the snow and onomatopoetic “blams” scattered throughout the page. Each boxed in panel portrays the event in frame-by-frame memory: likely the only way to remember such a traumatic event. The final panels on the page portray steaming bullets laying on the ground as four unidentifiable shadows disappear into the distance. These first few pages conclude with a blank panel that is preceded by increasingly splotchy panels to indicate Grimm’s slow drift into a coma. But the full meaning of these pages is further layered by the setting which includes a metaphorical layer of snow that confuses each panel as much as it invites the reader to feel how cold and ultimately empty Grimm’s body must have felt as he lay paralyzed, snow piling upon his body, waiting for authorities to stumble upon the scene of the crime.

These introductory pages are perfect examples of how graphic texts invite readers to investigate layers of meaning to go beyond just the words and even images on the page to truly analyze the intended effects of language and art – to investigate themes and messages being communicated by the author and how they manifest in the reader. This is a skill that experienced readers engage with regularly; this is not a skill that striving readers would even be all that conscious of. This multi-layered meaning is what Versacci refers to in This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature when he writes, ” … comic books are not a mindless but a mindful form of escapism that uses a unique kind of language — ‘graphic language’ to invite us into different worlds in order to help us better understand our own” (2007, p. 6). The more I read titles like Sentences, the more I begin to realize that proficient readers are already fluent in translating text-only pieces into “graphic language,” whereas striving readers not only need motivation but also high-interest examples to guide their imaginations and mental processes toward effective reading habits and practices.

I want 25 copies of Sentences for classroom use, and I just might buy them on my own knowing that few if any supervisors would ever spend taxpayer money on this title. As a protagonist, Grimm is the perfect dynamic character, and the strong narrative voice combined with Wimberley’s illustrations create a powerful read rife with possibilities for deep character analysis, examination of character motivation, internal and external conflict, and ultimately thematic analysis. The text portrays Percy/Grimm as a reader, even picturing him with To Kill a Mockingbird in his hands as his friend chastises him for wasting time with books. As a writer, Percy/Grimm is often pictured as serious, determined, and reflective, and several verses scattered throughout the text offer readers a chance to examine skillful uses of language for dramatic effect. A depiction of a high school classroom’s discussion of slavery poses a great opportunity for writing and discussion of individual perceptions of the high school experience, and the presentation of historical accounts of hip-hop’s growth in New York City in the 1980s invites research opportunities. While students will be most drawn to portrayals of famous rappers including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Nas, and others, the novel’s ultimate positive message can easily become the central focus in the classroom in the hands of a caring instructor. In the novel’s resolution, Grimm becomes an advocate for prisoner rights and the epicenter of literacy amongst prisoners. In what amounts to the novel’s epilogue, he says, “But most important, I want to show the youth that there’s other options out there that don’t involve guns and crime. You CAN make it in this business — and any business for that matter — without taking the route I took. If I can help one person, then this project has been a success” (Carey, 2007). By the same token, if taking a risk and housing a potentially controversial book in your classroom leads to even one student gaining an enjoyable, meaningful experience with literature, then you have succeeded.

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Burnout – written by Rebecca Donner, illustrated by Inaki Miranda


When Danni and her mom move in with her mom’s alcoholic boyfriend, Danni develops a fierce crush on Haskell, her soon-to-be stepbrother who’s a hardcore environmentalist. Desperate and confused, Danni wrestles with what she’s willing to sacrifice as she confronts first love, family secrets, and the politics of ecoterrorism – set against the lush backdrop of the Pacific Northwest (Donner & Miranda, 2008).

From the now defunct Minx series, Burnout broaches ecoterrorism, illicit and near-incestuous teenage curiosity, alcoholism, abuse, and apparent (though mis-perceived) adolescent apathy in a beautifully illustrated and highly controversial 140-page package that many teachers will be hesitate to house in their classrooms. This is not to say that Burnout is too hot to handle. However, it may be a bit too complicated and mature for younger students.

The story begins and ends with protagonist Danni applying a lighter to her index finger to see how long she “can stand it” (Donner & Miranda, 2008). After the the plot concludes during which she moves into abuse stepfather Hank’s home, shares a room with Hank’s son Haskell, becomes romantically involved with her apparent stepbrother, moves away from her more rebellious best friend Vivian, and becomes involved in Hank’s “activism” — spiking trees to prevent deforestation and shooting down powerlines which leads to an unintended forest fire, Vivian’s attempts to test her pain tolerance have grown by at least one second.

Textually and graphically, the text will support student reading. The best pieces include Danni’s time spent in history lectures where her apparently perverted teacher (who at one point “stare[s] at [Vivian’s] tits”) presents lectures on revolutionaries such as Che Guevara while students send text messages to one another under their desks. These are the positive points that would encourage librarians and teachers to shelve this book.

On the other hand, Vivian is characterized through cursing, low-cut shirts and short skirts, and at one point removes her shirt during band practice and implores a bandmate to “Suck on ’em, baby!” Later, Danni and Haskell’s mutual attraction boils over, and Donner and Miranda keep the text appropriate for the audience by having the parents arrive home just as the graphics become, well, graphic. Furthermore, while ecoterrorism certainly presents excellent questions of ethics and activism for high school students to consider, Haskell’s activity may not be construed as rational by all readers.

Clearly, Burnout would only be appropriate for high school audiences, and even then, many teachers may hesitate to introduce this text. It would become a distraction amongst immature students, and many parents may object to the content. In the end, Haskell’s subversive activity is not glorified when he accidentally burns down the forest, so the message in the text does not aim to glorify his actions.

Instructionally, Burnout may not appear relevant at first. However, Donner offers a unique perspective in an interview with Comic Book Resources. She notes, “The teenage guy and girl in question know they’ll soon be stepbrother and stepsister, so they’re star-crossed lovers in this quasi-incest situation — call it a modern twist on the Montagues and the Capulets” (Jensen, 2008). I certainly did not think connection while reading, but Donner’s idea presents a classic twist on connecting near-ancient texts like Romeo & Juliet to contemporary teenage confusion in 2010 and beyond.

At first, I was not going to house this text in my classroom, but after more consideration, I will place it on the graphic novel shelf on Monday. Why? It’s a good book. I enjoyed reading it, and if someone else will one day, it’s worth whatever justification I may need to provide. Additionally, fans of the Minx series (who have been both male and female in my experience) will find yet another text that provokes mature subject matter and ethical conflicts that are fare more important than any state-mandated curriculum standard.

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So you want to utilize graphic texts, but you aren’t sure about what to consider?

This common dilemma is a wonderful problem because there are ample solutions. Bringing graphic texts into the classroom presents unlimited opportunities and new teaching tools and reading materials that are easy to introduce and implement and enjoyable for teachers and students alike. But like most new ideas — especially in the classroom, graphic novels and comics come with certain risks and potential controversy, too.

The first consideration to be made is your relationships with adults and students within the school community. Sure, your kids might love the reading materials you keep in your classroom, but without the trust and support of their parents and your co-workers, what is that energy worth? Of course, you’re a great teacher who commands respect and earns it by giving careful consideration of the potential positives and negatives of presenting any student with any text, so why are you worrying so much?

In Adventures in Graphica: Using comics and graphic novels to teach comprehension, 2-6, Terry Thompson (2008) provides a selection guide to assist teachers in selecting what he calls “Graphica (noun) – A medium of literature that integrates pictures and words and arranges them cumulatively to tell a story or convey information; often presented in comic strip, periodical, or book form; also known as comics” (2008, p. 6). Attached to this post readers can download an adapted set of considerations to examine each new graphic text being surveyed for classroom use. I adapted Thompson’s guide because his audience is stated as grades 2-6. While all grade-level teachers can benefit from supplying graphica in their classrooms, high school teachers granting students more flexibility and autonomy may wish to introduce more controversial texts to maintain motivation and both independent and assigned reading.

Such considerations include:
Will students be motivated to read this text?
Will students be interested in the subject matter, themes, and characters?
Is the subject matter appropriate for your students?
How challenging is the vocabulary?
Do the illustrations support language to assist in comprehension?
Does the design including panels and gutters aid comprehension?
Do illustrations help develop literary elements: plot, symbolism, characterization, setting, & conflict?
How “busy” are panels and pages?
Will students be able to determine where to focus?
Is it appropriate for students?
Are visuals and language vulgar?
What risks may the text present?
As a student, would you have read this text?
As a parent, would you facilitate your child’s reading of this text?

The only thing to fear is fear itself. If you can successfully choose traditional texts for classroom purposes, you can do the same with graphic texts.
Click the link to view/download the adapted selection guide Rubric for evaluating graphic texts

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