Keep watering the rocks by Di Laycock

20 Sep

For goodness sake put that graphic novel down and get yourself a real book to read.

Overheard in the school library, this comment was a short, but far from simple, remark made to a student by a colleague. Given the work I’d done with this teacher as to how graphic novels might be used in the classroom, I was disheartened to hear that graphic novels still struggled to make her literary cut. And whilst another colleague once told me not to waste time ‘watering the rocks,’ a part of me wasn’t going to give up so easily – I enrolled in a professional doctorate and grabbed my watering can.

The above scenario took place nearly six years ago, around the same time that Carter (2007) suggested graphic novels ‘still remain largely on the fringes of the [teaching] profession’ (p. 1). To reposition graphic novels more centrally, added Carter, more success stories of their use in schools were needed.

There’s little doubt that progress has been made since Carter’s comments; the literature indicating increased use of graphic novels in classrooms, and higher visibility of the format in school curricula. Despite these trends, however, and in the face of compelling evidence of the educational benefits of graphic novels for student learning (Frey & Fisher, 2004; Laycock, 2007; McVicker, 2007; Ranker, 2007; Schwertner, 2008), teachers remain cautious regarding their uptake (Connors, 2010; Lapp, Wolsey, Frey, & Fisher, 2012). The aim of my current doctoral research, therefore, is to provide some of the “success stories” that Carter found wanting in the hope that teachers will be encouraged to include graphic novels in their repertoire. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first such study focusing on Australian teachers’ use of graphic novels in the classroom.

The nine secondary English teachers in my study, four female and five male, ranged in professional status from Heads of Department with over twenty years of teaching experience, to early career classroom teachers. They were teaching in both the government and non-government sectors, and in single-sex (both boys’ and girls’) and coeducational schools. Teachers’ experiences with the comics medium spanned the full spectrum from those with a fairly extensive personal and professional grounding, to those who had little or no personal or professional experience. In accordance with my selection criteria, all used graphic novels as a primary, but not necessarily exclusive, text for a unit of work taught within a twelve-month data collection period.

Whilst the diversity of teachers’ experiences with comics, and graphic novels in particular, was welcomed in terms of broadening the potential audience of teachers who might identify the participants’ experiences as their own, such diversity was more coincidental than by design; like Annet (2008), I found only a small pool of teachers who were formally teaching with graphic novels and willing to share their stories.

The use of a hermeneutic phenomenological research approach, characterised by multiple in-depth interviews with participants, enabled both the generation of unique descriptions of teachers’ experiences with graphic novels, and identification of the essence, or essential constituents, of the phenomenon – “teaching with graphic novels”. By necessity, what follows is an overview, delivered with very broad brush strokes, of various aspects of teachers’ experiences with graphic novels.

The findings of Lapp and colleagues (2012) suggest that teachers work primarily ‘from definitions that [position] graphic novels as tools that either motivate readers or are supplemental in character’ (p. 31). Whilst my participants confirmed that graphic novels were certainly texts to motivate, or as one teacher put it, were the ‘hot chips’ to which her seagull-like students flocked, hooking students in with lifeworld-relevant texts was just a starting point for all nine teachers. From this position, and contra to the finding that graphic novels were not generally considered by teachers as tools for enrichment (Lapp et al., 2012), all teachers in my study perceived graphic novels as engaging and enriching texts for students, and utilised them for the facilitation of students’ visual, critical and cultural literacies.

In contrast to the finding that teachers’ graphic novel use is primarily ‘supplemental’ (Lapp. et al., 2012. p. 31), eight of my nine teachers used graphic novels as stand-alone texts and not as image-based adaptations to support students’ decoding of the original text. Where a graphic novel was studied alongside a film, print novel or poem, it was done so to help students recognise the various ways in which narratives can be represented, and to encourage students to consider the contextual appropriateness of such representation.

In working with graphic novels in their classrooms, all teachers, bar one, acknowledged a professional responsibility to help students acquire the unique metalanguage that would enable them to consume and produce examples of the graphic novel format. As one teacher noted: ‘we would be doing a massive disservice to our students if we weren’t giving them the toolbox to unpack the texts that they’re encountering constantly in their everyday lives.’ Despite knowing what was needed, however, and despite their individual efforts to upskill through online research, corridor conversations, and social media, all teachers expressed varying levels of discomfort, inadequacy and frustration in regard to their knowledge and understanding of comics codes and conventions. Even those with a solid personal grounding in comics acknowledged the need to know more. Such feelings of inadequacy were exacerbated by a frustration with educational authorities, whom teachers perceived as being of little help in regard to the provision of graphic novel resources and professional development opportunities. Also considered problematic, were the constraints of a narrow, crowded and prescriptive curriculum which prevented teachers giving graphic novels the attention they felt was warranted.

A number of teachers linked the “silence” of educational authorities towards graphic novels to broader negative perceptions of graphic novels in the community. Several cited the role of the media and so-called education experts in perpetuating what they considered a disappointing and frustrating attitude to graphic novels; an attitude that was also evident in some of their colleagues, elements of their parent community, and even their students. For this reason, all teachers chose to explicitly use the term “graphic novel” in their classrooms, as opposed to the more generic “comic book,” in an effort to emphasise the complexity, sophistication and academic integrity of the texts under study.

Despite teachers devoting a considerable portion of the descriptions of their experiences to the challenges faced, without fail they were overwhelmingly positive about teaching with graphic novels. Several described the way in which the use of a non-traditional text gave voice to students who normally remained silent, thus providing them with opportunities to shine. As the unit of work with the graphic novel progressed, a number of teachers also described their satisfaction in seeing students move from positions of negativity or ambivalence towards graphic novels to an attitude of respect for the format. And despite some concerns that students might not perform well in tests and assignments focused around a “new” text-type, all teachers were more than happy with their students’ demonstrations of their learning.

In terms of the implications of their experiences for their own practice, most teachers saw a bright and extended future for graphic novels in their classrooms. Whilst recognising that there was still more work to be done, they generally indicated that their experience had given them greater confidence with the format. Several teachers also commented on the pleasure they felt to see students excited and motivated in a subject that is often seen by students as irrelevant and boring, and noted the improved teacher-student relationships that evolved from increased student interest and participation.

It was evident that the teachers in my study were cast of a particular mould: they were willing to take risks with relatively innovative texts; step outside their comfort zones to learn alongside, and from, their students; and were opportunistic and largely self-driven in their acquisition of knowledge and skills regarding graphic novels. As well, they demonstrated a dynamic attitude to the notion of literature, and to the nature of English as a subject discipline. These pedagogic traits label my teachers as early adopters (Rogers, 2003) and agents of change. Such standing places them in a powerful position to influence the uptake of graphic novels as classroom texts by enabling their colleagues to live vicariously the “graphic novel experience.”

It is hoped that the illumination of these teachers’ experiences and the contribution of their stories to existent research and literature will encourage non-adopters to include graphic novels in their practice. As well, it is hoped that my findings will help prompt educational authorities to consider how teachers using graphic novels as classroom texts can best be supported. Perhaps then, when teachers and policy-makers can walk hand-in-hand, graphic novels will march from the fringes to the mainstream of the profession.


Annet, D. (2008). ‘Implementing graphic novels into the Language Arts classroom’. Minnesota English Journal. 150 – 179.

Carter, J. B. (2007). ‘Introduction–Carving a niche: Graphic novels in the English Language Arts classroom’. In J.B. Carter (Ed.), Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel. (1-25). Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Connors, S. P. (2010). ‘The best of both worlds: Rethinking the literary merit of graphic novels’. ALAN Review, 37(3), 65-70.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2004). ‘Using graphic novels, anime, and the Internet in an urban high school’. English Journal, 93(3), 19-24.

Lapp, D., Wolsey, T. D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). ‘Graphic novels: What elementary teachers think about their instructional value’. Journal of Education, 192(1), 23 – 34.

Laycock, D. (2007). ‘Going graphic: Using graphic novels to engage boys in school reading’. Access. 21(1), 13-17.

McVicker, C. (2007). ‘Comic strips as a text structure for learning to read’. The Reading Teacher, 61(1), 85-88.

Ranker, J. (2007). ‘Using comic books as read-alouds: Insights on reading instruction from an English as a second language classroom’. The Reading Teacher, 61(4), 296-305.

Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Schwertner, A. (2008). Motivating reluctant readers through graphic novels: An action research project. Unpublished Masters thesis, Texas Tech University.

Di Laycock is a full-time teacher librarian at Barker College in Sydney, Australia. She is also currently completing a part-time Doctorate of Education (EdD) at the University of Sydney on the topic of English teachers’ experience with graphic novels as classroom texts. For some ten years Di has been a passionate advocate for the inclusion of graphic novels in school libraries and classrooms and, to this end, has published a number of articles and presented papers at local, national and international conferences.


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