Pivot Points

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.3; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3

Mentor Text: Smile by Raina Telgemeier

What They’ll Learn: Conflict and character development

What to Do: Smile is a good text to use when discussing the impact of narrative events on a character’s development. In the graphic novel, Raina falls and knocks out her two front teeth, wreaking havoc on her self-esteem. 

Students can trace the arc of Raina’s development by stitching together episodes that show a rise and fall of action or a conflict and reaction. After the first reading assignment, brainstorm the conflict for that grouping of episodes and how the character dealt with it. Explain that how Raina deals with each conflict is key to understanding her character development. Students should note other turning points or points of conflict as they read. Then, ask them to continue Telgemeier’s narrative arc by writing their own predictions of what will come next. Ask: “Knowing Raina, if you were writing Smile, what would happen after this?” The next day, have students share their predictions.

Perspective Change

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.6; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7

Mentor Text: March: Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell; The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis

What They’ll Learn: Civil rights

What to Do: Sixth-grade ELA teacher Melissa Berry, who teaches at Fort Lupton Middle School in Colorado, collaborated with teacher-librarian Tasha Tolbert for a unit on the civil-rights movement that paired The Watsons Go to Birmingham with the graphic novel March: Book One (note: contains some strong language and violence). As they read March, students compared the graphic novel’s depiction of notable events, such as lunch-counter sit-ins and the March on Washington, with descriptions found in The Watsons. They also focused on what life was like for a child growing up in the North versus the South.  

Tolbert and Berry extended the activity by having students compare the two texts with poems and videos (some useful examples are “Merry-Go-Round,” by Langston Hughes, and videos from History.com) and to primary sources, such as newspaper articles. As they analyzed depictions of the same events, students began to understand the role that text format and genre play in shaping tone and content. The two teachers asked students to write their own poems, newspaper articles, or mini graphic novels from the perspective of a person living during the civil-rights movement. Students used the RAFT writing strategy, which looks at several components, including the role they play as writer, the audience they are writing for, the format they are writing in, and the topic they are writing about. In this way, students explored the connection between content and style in their work and that of other authors.

Power Prologue

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3

Mentor Text: Amulet: The Stonekeeper (Book One), by Kazu Kibuishi

What They’ll Learn: Prologues

What to Do: Prologues are literary devices appearing in novels, plays, and films that give the reader/viewer insight into events that occurred prior to a story’s beginning. By using this device, authors set the scene quickly and efficiently. The importance of a prologue is seen in Amulet: The Stonekeeper, the first book in the series. In this graphic novel, a powerful and terrible event in the main character’s life occurs two years before the start of the book. This event sets the stage for the sequence of events following and gives insight into the main character and her struggles.

To explore the role that the prologue plays in telling the main character’s story, ask students to read it and make note of the ways in which images help to tell the story. Students might identify the ways that the frames’ lines mirror the events and how the images provide extra detail. Additionally, they will notice there are several wordless frames in which the images do all the talking; ask students to consider the ways that the lack of text on these frames causes them to stand out.

Do these frames appear more intense than the others? Why or why not? Finally, have your students discuss Kibuishi’s decision to use a full-page frame at the conclusion of the prologue. What impact does this blown-up image have on the story and how it is read and interpreted? Once your students have a sense of the ways the artistic choices reinforce the narrative, ask readers to choose a Greek play to use as the inspiration for their own graphic novel prologue. Many Greek plays generously employ prologues to bring readers or viewers up to speed with a character’s or story’s background prior to the start of the play. Have your students adopt these prologues in the graphic novel format, drawing on the visual language Kibuishi employs in his work. A great resource for age-adapted Greek plays is Albert Cullum’s Greek and Roman Plays: For the Intermediate Grades.

Seeing Is Believing

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.3; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.6

Mentor Text: El Deafo, by Cece Bell; Cardboard, by Doug TenNapel; A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, by Madeline L’Engle and Hope Larson; and Trickster, a graphic collection of Native American tales, by Matt Dembicki

What They’ll Learn: Visual storytelling

What to Do: To challenge students to see how writers and illustrators communicate narrative through images, Nikki Ritchey, an ELA teacher at Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, New York, uses excerpts with her seventh and eighth graders. (Following Ritchey’s lead, we have chosen texts with characters who challenge the norms and save the day.)  

Ritchey asks students to observe the way the texts tell their stories using language and images. What kinds of scenes does each story include? How do the graphic novelists emphasize key moments? Then, students apply what they have learned to design their own graphic novels. In each group, they take on job roles, such as illustrator, colorist, or writer. “Students research risk takers throughout history and create historical narratives,” says Ritchey.

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