Graphic Novels in the Classroom

By Kevin Norris

The room resides on the first floor of a 50- year-old red brick school building. Rows of students line up in a six by five old-style fashion. Mrs. Bates, a teacher for over almost a decade, stands behind a podium. An outsider looking in might think they were looking into an old-fashioned classroom, but there is nothing traditional about Mrs. Bates’ reading material. Instead of reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a traditional novel, she is reading American Born Chinese, A graphic novel.

According to Linda Smetana’s article, “Using Graphic Novels in the High School Classroom: Engaging Deaf Students with a New Genre,“ the graphic novel has been around since the caveman. They told stories through paintings. Likewise, the Ancient Egyptians told stories through hieroglyphics. According to the article, comic books started out with the working class because they didn’t have a high enough reading level to read contemporary literature.

Furthermore, there are many negatives, according to the Smetana’s article. Graphic novels are considered substandard. They are not good to read out loud, and boys like them more than girls. However, I don’t know about the latter statement.

“I love graphic novels. They have more pictures, and they are action packed. I love Attack on Titan, “a ninth grade girl states.

Smetana’s article also states some positives. One positive, according to the article, is that graphic novels enhance imagination. Furthermore, since students are prone to the stimulation of smart phones and video games, graphic novels naturally appeal to today’s youth.

The fact that students are drawn to it is what made Mrs. Bates interested in teaching it. “I started using it when I taught at an alternative school. I first used the “The Odyssey,” which was made into a graphic novel. Then when the school purchased American Born Chinese, I started using it.” She states that the students can relate because it talks about racism and a person’s first crush. These are strong central themes and topics that school children are familiar with.

Though they may look like a comic strip, they are written for seventh through twelfth grade and can be used to teach critical thinking skills.

However, where does one go if she or he wants to learn to write a graphic novel? Most MFA programs teach contemporary literature and a few teach “pop” fiction. However, conducting a google search displays one that offers an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in the graphic novel. According to Daniel Staple’s article “Goddard Launches Graphic Novel MFA – Goddard Launches Graphic Novel MFA,” Professor Pollack, a faculty adviser, states that the market is becoming flooded with it. So the question is if there is a demand for the graphic novel, will other MFA programs follow? And, should they?

A calm serene quiet fills Mrs. Bates’ classroom as the students sit quietly reading. There’s not a mumble, not a pencil knocking on the desk, only the white noise of the air conditioner. There’s no paper flying, no slapping shoulders, only the sight of eager eyes scanning from left to right, absorbed in the writing and graphics on the page.


Kevin Norris is a second year MFA in Creative Nonfiction candidate at Old Dominion University. He also teaches High School English; therefore, he has a strong interest in the current trends of public education.  He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife of 22 years and three children.

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