Visual Literacy & the Graphic Novel
Posted 01/31/2018 05:40PM

At Whitfield, we teach students to be curious, to understand, and to draw connections and conclusions. We teach them to love learning and we facilitate opportunities for them to learn in new ways by weaving in technology and taking less conventional approaches to materials.

As an example, this year Whitfield juniors and seniors have the opportunity to explore new elective courses in the English curriculum that examine storytelling through memoirs and podcasts, the evolution of graphic novels as a literary medium, and the art and language of cinema. Students examine ideas, read critically, make presentations, design media products, and communicate using a variety of technology resources, acquiring concrete skills to prepare them for college, careers, and to be active and engaged citizens.

In Visual Literacy & the Graphic Novel, in addition to breathing new life into traditional content with the help of technology, students examine a historic medium with 21st century eyes—comics.

Students in this class closely read comics and graphic novels to study the evolution of graphic literature as both an art form and storytelling medium. Selections include works from a variety of creators such as Brian K Vaughn, Chris Ware, Marjorie Liu, Daniel Clowes, Greg Rucka, and Alan Moore.

Faculty member Jill Gerber is a passionate proponent of graphic literature in the curriculum. “As a medium, graphic literature tells stories in all genres,” said Gerber. “Its use of sequential art storytelling creates, communicates, and teaches complex concepts in unique and beneficial ways. It provides an opportunity for students to see abstractions and to make connections that they might not always be able to make with just the printed word. This helps them draw greater meaning from the literature.”

In the last several years, schools in the U.S. have become more open to including graphic literature in their English curriculum including colleges and universities, such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. In 2015, Columbia University awarded a doctorate in education to Nick Sousanis for “Unflattening”, a graphic novel about the relationship between words and pictures in literature and how we make meaning.

“Graphic literature as a medium has been around forever and has always been very well respected and considered legitimate literature in Europe,” said Gerber. “In the U.S., it’s not had the same amount of respect, particularly in libraries and schools. For a lot of adults, they think of it as comics or funnies or just for little kids. Or they think the word ‘graphic’ means inappropriate content or imagery for children. That is obviously not the case.”

During this trimester, Gerber has invited several guest speakers to share their professional experience in the comic book industry with her students: David Pepose ’04, writer of "Spencer & Locke" a comic which reimagines Bill Watterson’s classic “Calvin and Hobbes” through a hard-boiled noir landscape; Joe Illidge, senior editor for Lion Forge Comics and its Catalyst Prime superhero universe; and Christina “Steenz” Stewart, artist of the award-winning graphic novel “Archival Quality” and social media strategist for Lion Forge Comics. Speakers meet with students in person and over Skype using the technology built into the Intellectual Commons.

“Bringing guest speakers to the students provides them with real-world context on how the creative and collaborative process works in graphic literature, specifically in the comic book and graphic novel industry,” said Gerber.

Whitfield alumnus David Pepose talked with students about the collaborative nature of graphic literature, specifically his process of working with an artist to bring the characters he envisions and writes about to life in his books.

“Collaboration is part of our mission and working collaboratively is a skill that our students will need in college and in their careers—it’s not just something we do here in our building,” said Gerber.

This summer, Gerber presented at three different conventions, Book Expo, San Diego Comic Con and the American Library Association National Convention, and shared how she utilizes graphic literature in her classroom. “I’ve incorporated graphic novels in my middle school English classes for years and have used graphic literature as support material for teaching Shakespeare,” said Gerber. “This genre is a visual way to tell stories using dialogue, thoughts, and narration combined with artwork in sequential panels. It’s accessible to students of all ages and abilities.”


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