27
Dec
11

Classics and Comics

I posted the following letter to The Dickens Forum listserv, in response to a query which questioned the use of “graphic novels” to teach Dickens to middle and high school grade students.

On graphic novels in general, and separately for Dickens:
I too teach Dickens in high school, and have been encouraged to continue adding new novels by workshops such as Dickens Project offers. (Aside: please contact me if you plan to be at the Bleak House Universe this year…looking for People to build me up before July in preparation, especially Twitter users who share a love of CD)I defend true graphic novels, which are their own art form, but I would use the criteria that the texts ought to be original with their authors, so that “illustrated classics” would be a better term for a Dickens text in comic book form.
I would consider WATCHMEN or AMERICAN BORN CHINESE graphic novels which feature images and text that work together. Comics would be a term for them.
As for teaching Dickens using illustrations, I used two sets of illustrations from very specific scenes in TTC last year, one the storming of the Bastille from a Classic Comics version. I asked 10th grade students to watch for repeated imagery in the chapters that describe this event, and in which CD uses highly figurative language, such as throngs of people moving as rushing water. then students read the illustrated version of the event, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the illustrations as an accompaniment to the original language of the novel. Students were engaged, and those who had a difficult time picturing Dickens own scene may have been aided by the pictures, but mainly it was an isolated lesson connected with a novel- long study of CD’s language.
On the other hand, using illustration to allow students themselves to draw scenes, moments, or chapters and characters and maps or diagrams has been a helpful way for them to process their own reading of such texts. Lately some teachers have offered students a challenge of drawing a “graphic novel” of a Classic ( or contemporary) text, but this mainly consists of a series of 6 or so related frames. Through such an exercise, students may demonstrate the use of point of view, figurative language, and narrative elements; thinking like movie makers, they employ their own creativity to depict internal action, or compelling visual gestures and close-ups that are often far more than illustrating a mental image the text itself creates: they seem to be actually interpreting the text.
In a final note, I mention that this year’s 10th graders generated a unit contrasting the film and text of To Kill A Mockingbird, and all but one preferred the book to the film. They have been publishing their findings (it was a sort of class experiment) on a class wiki. Interested teachers may inquire about the web address. Students seem to want to be “in the know” and to understand how to read complex works of literature. Illustrated classics may not help them in this skill, but learning to think as a novelist or graphic novelist does about narrative choices and techniques can help students of all ages to become better readers.
Sincerely,
Gordon Hultberg
Salt Lake City
P.S. Lawrence Baines’s MULTISENSORY LEARNING (ASCD) has a variety of lessons for each of the five senses, backed by interesting research demonstrating that using touch and sight as you learn creates powerful mental connections. Perhaps whatever our level of student, we can employ the five senses in aiding them to draw near to Dickens in pedagogically defensible ways.
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