May 22, 2007

Graphic novels

Firefoxscreensnapz002 Evelyn Smith and Diarmid Harris from the Royal High School in Edinburgh are leading a session on graphic novels, after carrying out some amazing work to motivate boys who, until this project, at least, disliked learning. The results are beginning to be summed up over at the Learning and Teaching Scotland graphic novels site.

It targeted that transition phase between primary and secondary, as well as additional needs, and the project brought in parents to help staff the project.

What are graphic novels?
Kidnapped, V for Vendetta, Maus, mangas, super hero novels... the range is as varied as it is complex. What kind of picture books do you use with kids from both primary and mid-teens? The answer, is that you ask the kids to investigate what they would find engaging to read.

How did they plan a programme of work?
A six week programme for each class was planned around making kids see the enjoyment in reading books, graphic novels in particular.

  • Firefoxscreensnapz001 Aged 11-12
    • Fairy tales, evaluation of characterisation, tone and colour, storyboarding their own stories, making their own versions of fairytales (modern versions, subverting the genre by seeing how Shrek, for example, managed to do that, using a fantasy football background as a means to adapt a fairytale [fairytale cup in the fairytale playground, injury problems for humpty dumpty]).
  • Aged 12-14
    • Evaluating the techniques in humourous graphic novels, how colour evokes feeling, font, style, storyboarding...
    • Collaborative analysis of picture books, critical appreciation, talking through stories instead of writing (for refuseniks).
    • Technology played a role in 'delimiting' the scope of stories created by the kids, limiting how many plots, characters and locations, for example, that would be cancelled.
  • Aged 14-15
    • Some S3 students chose texts that would be appropriate for primary school children, practise reading them and then take these stories to local primary schools' seven year olds.
    • Others concentrated on using Comic Life to create photo stories. When you are making a comic like this you are once more constrained into thinking about plot, about what happens when, what appears in each scene, how many details about character you can reveal at once. Doing this 'exercise' initially now acts as an aide-mémoire for writing tasks further down the school year.
    • They also prepared by reading others' photo stories from magazines, critically evaluating them.

Firefoxscreensnapz003 Outcomes from working with Graphic Novels
Students also filmed their projects, no doubt for the benefit of LTS and audiences like us, so there was that multimedia element added to the visual elements already permeating the whole project. That said, the technology used remained modest, with the concentration being on the written word. Evelyn and Diarmot are at pains to point out their own technology skills were not particularly strong, but the barrier to entry in comic life, for example, is minimal.

The project, importantly, gave an insight to what youngsters are capable of, both for parents and teachers. The relationships between staff and pupils have also improved as a result.

The problem, as always, with 'projects', especially those funded by organisations such as our own Learning and Teaching Scotland, is sustainability. The teachers were introduced initially to an extra workload. But what I wonder is whether, when you've done it the first time, it isn't easier to replicate it month on month, year on year. The Royal High are planning on involving more parents and senior students in the school, now that they know exactly what role they could all fulfill.

If you want to find out more on the background to using graphic novels for writing, reading and speaking then the LTS website might help you out.


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I had a great discussion with an 14 year old boy in the school library one day. He'd picked up the graphic version of Romeo and Juliet and even glancing through it was starting to compare it to the play and the film.

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