Monday / June 17

The Scary-Fun Magic of Learning Alongside Students: A Graphic Novel Case Study

Here’s what learning alongside my students looked like last April: me, hunched over the back table during my planning period, head in my hands, staring blankly ahead in abject misery, paper and scraps of used eraser littering the table. I was near tears when my next door teaching buddy walked in.

“I just don’t know how to do this,” I whined.

By “this”, I meant drawing and writing a chapter of a graphic novel.

By “this”, I meant teaching students how to draw and write chapters of their own graphic novels.

What I discovered was that, in fact, I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed my students to help me. We needed to do it together.

“My vulnerability changed the tone of my classroom. My students were more engaged with this project than they had been with any other unit that year.”

How do you help your students try something you know little about and, frankly, scares you?

Like yours, my students had been increasingly smitten with reading graphic novels over the last few years. As a reader, I watched as NPR and the New York Times have added graphic essays to their regular rotation of articles and news.

This was clearly a thing that real writers made. And if I believe my students are real writers, they needed to be making them, too.

But, probably also like you, I prefer to teach units in which I feel confident. Graphic novels were NOT it. You guys: I literally considered teaching a graphic essay/graphic novel unit for years before working up the courage to try. (Check my Twitter feed for proof!) But I knew deep down that I was doing a disservice to my students if I denied them the opportunity to try this kind of writing that is so popular and so ubiquitous just because of my own fear.

Finally, I relented, and, with the support of my social-studies teacher pal, I embarked on a unit that tasked students with writing and drawing a scene from a real Holocaust survivor’s oral testimony.

“I am really nervous,” I admitted to the students on the first day. “You know I am not an artist, and, to be honest, I’m not even sure how a writer gets from a blank piece of paper to a finished scene of a graphic novel, but I think we can figure it out if we study some mentor texts and do it together.”

Here’s what happened over the next few weeks.

Students and I learned together in a truly authentic and symbiotic way.

Not knowing where or how to start, we started where I always find myself beginning: with mentor texts. We learned the jargon of comics so we could communicate: frame, panel, gutter, foreground, special effects lettering.

As readers first and then as writers, we studied three World War II graphic novels and noticed how writers get these stories on the page in both images and words. For instance, we noticed writers of graphic novels,

  • Use speech and thought bubbles to reveal characters’ relationships, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Use narration boxes to help the reader understand what is happening.
  • Use special effects lettering as onomatopoeia.
  • Use larger frames to hold more important moments of the story.
  • Often use establishing shots to set the scene and give visual perspective.
  • Use a mixture of midshots, zoomed-in shots, and wide shots to show readers what they need to see to understand the scene.
  • Choose a color palette and use that palette to create a vibe.
  • Balance thoughts and emotions with actions

As novices together, we sat together and asked questions: What is happening in this frame? Why did the artist show this in that particular way? How could we use this move in our own work?  What do you think?

I asked as often — or more often — than my students did.

I wasn’t the expert, so students taught me.

As we moved from studying the work of professionals to creating our own scenes, collaboration around the classroom became even more critical. We listened to survivor testimony, selected scenes we wanted to depict, and then we started our rough, rough drafts.  And, boy, did we rely on one another.

After drafting, we shared and asked one another to help us see what was missing and what was unclear. We walked around the room asking questions like, “Can anyone draw a windmill?” and “What does this look like to you?” and “I want to show _____, how do I draw that?”.

We laughed together at some terrible sketches (mostly mine) and problem-solved to make them better.

While students worked, I worked. And when we conferred, we conferred with one another — me gathering feedback and ideas for next steps alongside the students. They showed me how to draw simple shapes, suggested ways I could communicate ideas with pictures, and helped me clarify my storyline.

We built a process together.

We knew the stories we wanted to tell. We had an idea of how we would tell them. With rough, rough drafts ironed out, we began to iron out a plan together for moving forward. How could we make our final graphic novel scenes look professional and coherent?

We talked and puzzled it out, step by step.

By studying mentor texts, we knew that we needed to have margins around the page, and by sketching out our rough, rough drafts, we knew we needed to work in pencil first no matter what. The next logical step to make sure we had room for all of our ideas was to draw in the frames. Then, we filled frames with images in words (also in pencil!), outlined everything in Sharpie, and added color.

Not every unit needs to be a high-wire act of co-construction, but I discovered some compelling benefit to experimenting and learning with your students. Yes, I learned a lot. I am five percent more confident in my artistic abilities now. And it was good for me to sit in the students’ metaphorical desk and remember just how hard and how scary writing can be. While I felt this panic over graphic-novel writing, many of my students feel this way any time we write.

But, chief among the benefits I experienced is this: my vulnerability changed the tone of my classroom. My students were more engaged with this project than they had been with any other unit that year. Part of it was content-based: because I was willing to pursue their interests, they leaned in. But part of their engagement was that they were needed — I couldn’t do all the heavy-lifting on my own this time. I needed their wisdom, their expertise, their problem-solving. And they rose to the challenge.


Written by

Rebekah O’Dell teaches 7th and 8th grade English in Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of three books on secondary writing instruction and co-founder of the popular writing blog She is a frequent speaker and consultant in districts around the US and Canada.

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