Global Education & Graphic Novels: A Teacher's Professional Development at Harvard University

MaureenIf you and your students can't travel the world together to obtain a global education, another way to do it is through reading graphic novels. Over the course of this past school year as part of my effort to add a more global bent to my school's twelfth grade English curriculum, I joined an online graphic novel book group through Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Center and attended several workshops focused on resources for teaching graphic novels related to the Middle East region and Muslim communities.

In the graphic novels book club that took place online over a period of weeks throughout the fall of 2010, Harvard's CMES Outreach Center Coordinator, Anna Mudd prompted and guided rich graphic novel conversation among educator-participants from various parts of America using Elluminate's interactive discussion forum. In addition to resources stored on the CMES blog, participants read and discussed graphic novels including Marjane Satrapi's Chicken with Plums, the Web comic Zahra's Paradise, and Toufic Al Rassi's Arab in America. Using Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Anna introduced the basics of the comics format toUnderstandingenable participants unfamiliar with the medium to fully appreciate how textual meaning arises from examination of both content and form within sequential art narrative. In other words, she instructed on defining the medium and its unique vocabulary and grammar. Those new to comics learned a bit about iconography and closure to enable them to judge a good graphic novel beyond its content or literary aspects. Many teachers who participated in the online book club found the prospect of teaching graphic novels and concepts of visual literacy to their art, elementary, and high school students so exciting that they signed up for the winter and spring workshops to learn more.

Harvard's CMES January workshop, "Graphic Novels, the Middle East Region and Muslim Communities: Introduction to Content and Resources" focused on graphic novel resources, including a presentation about the comics industry by Harvard alum Tony Davis, owner of The Million Year Picnic, a comic shop located in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge. Attendees were treated to a tour of Tony's shop and free graphic novels after the workshop. Comic shop owners have a wealth of knowledge about the comics medium, its history and development including the rise of the graphic novel, detailed information about comics authors and artists - many of whom they've met - and a thorough understanding of comics' connection to the film industry. I recommend inviting your local comic book shop owner into your elementary, middle school, or secondary level classroom to share their knowledge with your students and to get kids excited about reading.

After Tony presented, I shared my experiences teaching an entirely graphic novel-basedGN classcurriculum in a high school English language arts classroom at Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, Massachusetts. I gave a number of reasons why I developed a visual literacy curriculum using graphic novels as central texts and discussed how I implement the course. Lesson plans for the many graphic novel texts I teach are explicated in The Graphic Novel Classroom: Powerful Teaching & Learning with Images, an instructional resource created for educators looking for concrete examples of teaching and learning with graphic novels. As part of my presentation, I also showed students' sample compositions resulting from enthusiastic engagement in authentic, deep reading of graphic novels, some of which can be found at Graphic Novels & High School English.com, a social networking site created for teachers.

The following CMES workshop in February, "Using Comics to Enhance Global Studies" focused on the power of iconic images within historical and global contexts. As an example of the seriousness and realistic power of comics, participants examined an American Islamic Congress' comic pamphlet called "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" circulating throughout the Middle East. We also viewed a YouTube interview with Nasser Weddady, the AIC Civil Rights Outreach Director about the important part this particular comic played in the recent revolutionary action in Egypt. The workshop also included a presentation from Marek Bennett, a comic artist in residence in New Hampshire schools, who showed teachers how to use comics to engage students in historical and global contexts. Marek engaged the audience during his presentation by encouraging us to doodle while we listened as a way of taking pictorial notes, a handy tool I then implemented with my own students when I returned to the classroom. Marek gave us access to his image gallery of historical comic books, showed us how comics taps into multiple intelligences, guided us through reading stained glass sequential art, and showed us video footage of his cultural learning exchange project between New Hampshire students and Nicaraguan children. Check out Marek's website for many of these great teaching resources.

Following Marek's presentation, Michael Gianfrancesco, a high school English teacher from Rhode Island and co-creator of the New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference that took place in March, 2011, led participants through a sample lesson in visual literacy. Using an excerpt from Will Eisner's graphic novel, New York: Life in the Big City, Mike's Objective-Inference-Assumed (OIA) lesson demonstrated the thinking processes involved in reading images. He showed how he uses this lesson to help his students determine irrefutable facts, explore arguable or implied aspects of images in sequence, and examine assumptions based on prior knowledge and experience when deciphering meaning from sequential wordless panels. Such valuable reading and thinking skills are applicable across the curriculum and key to learning.

The third day-long workshop in March, "A Graphic Novelist's View of the Middle East and Israel- Palestinian" featured Sarah Glidden, author of How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, who prompted conversation among attendees about the role of comics memoir and comics journalism in learning and teaching about the Middle East. Harvard's final CMES outreach center events in April were open to the public and included a comics-making workshop where roughly twenty-five participants created comics while skyping with comic artists in the Middle East region. The following day-long panel event, "Comics and Muslim Identity" included a two-part panel discussion of comics and Muslim identity from a variety of perspectives. The first panel included Jeffrey Melnick of the University of Massachusetts, Boston who spoke about comics and 9/11 culture, Hussein Rashid of Hofstra University who discussed Muslim identity representation in graphic novels, and David Lewis of Boston University and Co-Editor of Graven Images: Religion inGravenComics and Graphic Novels who talked about depictions of Muslim identity within the superhero genre. The afternoon panel included Darby Orcutt of North Carolina State University and contributor to Graven Images: Religion in Comics and Graphic Novels who shared his knowledge and research about the connections between comics and religion.

Laura Weinstein, the Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Museum of Fine arts in Boston was also present to explain graphic storytelling and the Shahnameh. Finally, Nasser Weddady, the American Islamic Congress Civil Rights Outreach Director appeared in person at Harvard to discuss the history of the AIC's use of "Martin Luther King & The Montgomery Story" as part of grassroots activism in the Middle East. Though seemingly divergent, the panelists' insights and experiences overlapped and intersected in fascinating ways around graphic storytelling effectively creating rich dialogue about the ancient past, present, and emerging political events in the Middle East.

My participation in the various professional development events at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies confirmed that an effective way to build or enhance a global education curriculum is through teaching graphic storytelling. I lengthened my classroom reading list of graphic novel titles about the Middle East, and I was reminded that in addition to exploring graphic novels' great themes, aspects of the comics form are particularly suited to and effective for discussing identity, stereotypes, and the way we learn, especially the way we learn about people around the globe.

Based on Harvard's CMES graphic novel-related programming and the long list of scholars and other professionals who presented and attended these events, it is safe to say that comics occupies a formidable and unprecedented presence in education today. I know from my own experience teaching comics that when students become aware of the way they make meaning from visual images, especially images in sequential order that form narrative, it alters the way they read the world, changes their understanding of the role of perception, and effectively broadens their perspective. Add important global content to such learning and therein lies a recipe for rich curriculum at any level of education.

I hope to continue to learn about ways to use visual media forms to promote student learning this summer at Harvard's summer workshop, "Using Film & Literature to Promote a Global Studies Agenda in the Humanities Classroom," a five-day program for teachers beginning on August 8th, 2011 that will, according to the program advertisement, "introduce educators to media that will open their eyes and the eyes of their students to different parts of the world and the cultures represented." I'll be sharing my experience teaching Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis with fellow attendees at the workshop, so if you are open to new perspectives, engaging materials, and innovative ways to approach global studies, please join me, and be sure to keep your eyes open for future events about teaching graphic novels. I have a feeling more professional development opportunities related to comics and education are on the horizon!

Maureen Bakis is a high school English teacher in Massachusetts and the author of The Graphic Novel Classroom: POWerful Teaching & Learning with Images. She is webmaster at Graphic Novels & High School English where she blogs about her teaching and learning experiences and provides resources for educators. In addition to writing for Diamond BookShelf, Maureen also writes a regular feature about teachers using comics in the classroom for Graphic Novel Reporter.