Using Graphic Novels in the Middle School Classroom

The universe of children’s and young adult literature has changed significantly in the last several years. There was a time when English classes focused almost exclusively on novels, poems, and plays. But literary genres have evolved, which has altered the way we approach teaching and learning. And these changes open meaningful, fun opportunities for teachers in all subject areas.

The term “graphic novel” was coined in the 1960s by writer and comic historian Richard Kyle. Until the last several years, the genre was fairly unknown outside the realm of comic book fans. There’s no concrete, widely accepted definition. Adding to the potential for confusion, the term is used for any book which uses comic-like illustrations to enhance the story. Though fiction books dominate graphic novel offerings, an increasing number of them are being published on nonfiction topics. The term “graphic novel” still applies even to these informational titles.

Although the graphic novel format adheres closely to that of comic books, they’re not the same thing. Comic books are short, tend to be serialized, and often feature a superhero. Graphic novels address a much wider range of themes. They feature eye-catching art, which has the potential to draw in even reluctant readers. These books are written for all ages, even adults, but they’re especially popular among middle school students. If you’re a teacher of this age group who’s intrigued by the potential of graphic novels, here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Reinvigorate creative writing: Readers are drawn to graphic novels because they find the stories engaging and the accompanying artwork appealing. But the applications for these books extend beyond reading, by providing a great springboard to creative writing projects. For example, Raina Telgemeier’s well-regarded books Smile and Sisters are both autobiographical, and would work well as mentor texts for student-illustrated autobiographies. Students can also collaborate on fiction writing projects connected to their reading. Putting children into pairs or small groups can be an effective approach to building teamwork skills, and it can also address the inevitable concerns which will come from students who don’t like to draw or don’t think they’re good at it. This activity connects traditional literature with a graphic novel-oriented response, offering a fresh take on the standard book report.

  • Start book clubs: Thanks to a constantly-expanding array of titles, you can find graphic novels to fit nearly every interest among your students. Using book clubs, also known as literature circles, can help promote positive attitudes towards reading and support independent responses to literature. There’s concrete evidence that book clubs in general are an effective learning tool for middle school students. And incorporating graphic novels might elevate interest and engagement even more. If this approach is new for you, this basic information offers a helpful starting point.

  • Do what you’ve always done. Fictional graphic novels employ the same structures as conventional ones. They have characters, and conflicts, and settings, along with the usual host of additional literary elements. They also might provide numerous opportunities for students to learn new vocabulary. Just because you’re working with a unique format that might be unfamiliar to you doesn’t mean you should disregard the strategies you’ve used with conventional literature. Chances are, activities you’ve used in the past to help students analyze literature, build reading skills, and write responses can still be used. Some modifications might be needed, but incorporating this new genre doesn’t require a full overhaul of your teaching practices. Here are some examples of activities to use in conjunction with these books.

  • Tell your colleagues: Graphic novels aren’t just for language arts classes. If you teach in the content areas, you have options for using this genre in your classroom too. Here’s an extensive list which features graphic novels in STEM subjects, including physics, math, and forensic science. Though the term “graphic novel” is still employed, these are topical nonfiction books which emphasize the same concepts found in traditional textbooks. Teachers of social studies, especially those whose curriculum emphasizes American history, will find numerous titles focusing on the Dust Bowl, the U.S. Constitution, and 9/11, among others.

Bringing graphic novels into your classroom can offer your students measurable benefits, along with the potential for a host of new and engaging ideas to add to your repertoire. Here’s one last list of books which your students may enjoy.

Tracy Derrell is a Hudson Valley-based freelance writer who specializes in blogging and educational publishing. She taught English in New York City for sixteen years.