Suffice it to say if you want to know about graphic novels – anything about them – you could do worse than sit down and have a conversation with Saskatoon high school teacher Scott Allen.
Remembering his time when he was teaching English in Taiwan, Allen recalled how it was often difficult to get his hands on English material, and so when he was able to obtain the cult classic V for Vendetta by Alan Moore, his passion for the genre escalated from an interest that dated back to his formative years.
Now that penchant for graphic novels has proven to be the catalyst for he and a group of colleagues to embark on a successful action research program funded by the McDowell Foundation to the tune of nearly $16,000, in which the premise is to ascertain how teachers can use graphic novels to improve engagement in student learning (and particularly for English language arts classrooms).
According to the research summary, it’s a qualitative approach to be used to examine the practices of four Saskatchewan high school language arts teachers using graphic novels in their classrooms. Allen is the primary researcher within the group and he ultimately will be presenting the results of the research data in a completed thesis towards his masters in curriculum studies.
Recounting his own experiences with graphic novels, Allen surmised that graphic novels offer students a variety of educational opportunities that written texts alone cannot – particularly for reluctant readers and English as an Additional Language learners, in part because of the artistic aspect they offer.
“The more I thought about it, this was just something I had to do. I’ve found with my students that it’s a lot like a novel or poem and you find them getting angry, sad or laughing because everyone can speak to colour and it elicits emotions, which is the joy of it. You don’t have to be any kind of expert on graphic novels because there are multiple ways that it resonates with students and it’s a powerful learning tool,” Allen said.
A readily apparent benefit is the use of imagination that ensues as students learn to connect the dots by using the panels. As Allen pointed out, the process can be educationally beneficial for students and teachers alike.
“If it’s their first novel, for example, it can be very empowering and every student can bring so much to the process through their interpretation and it helps make them multiple-intelligence learners. I love it, and it’s a lot of fun and it can challenge you,” he added.
Looking back to his younger years when he first became immersed with graphic novels, Allen acknowledged that he would frequently place himself in the role of the superhero, calling it very visceral and that his imagination was completely stimulated.
“It’s a passion that has always been there for me and along the way it has become a really helpful tool in education because I just thought, Why can’t I teach what I have learned myself over 30 years? Why would I do this alone instead of using it to build a professional learning community and getting a chance to share with a group of collaborative teachers on this? I’ve found it to be supportive in the way that it has evolved and it’s been great to see how the other members in the group have become involved and increased their knowledge and interest. It’s completely different between day one and now.”
While the focus has been primarily on EAL students, Allen insists even though that’s a natural fit, the process can be for everyone and so to typecast it into a specific niche like EAL students would be unfair.
The one caution he has though is to remember that for the most part these “comics” are not meant for children, albeit that it might be all right for teens and adults.
Throughout the years Allen has observed how attitudes have changed and graphic novels are now more accepted as the social norm, while adding that in his view those people who still choose to view them as anything less are missing out.
According to Allen, another reason for the increased popularity of the medium is the inclusion of social media, which has a far-reaching effect and as a result has meant Canada is starting to catch up with Asia and Europe in particular, where graphic novels have enjoyed widespread popularity for years.
Allen readily concedes that when he first thought of graphic novels as an educational tool, there were several colleagues who were skeptical due to the fact they didn’t fully understand, or by extension, appreciate, what the medium offered. As a result he had to do extensive shoulder tapping to gain a greater degree of understanding and credibility, which he garnered in part by his assertion that this study fits nicely within the provincial curriculum.
Allen recalled how when he was a student himself he also had to deal with that stereotype, noting that he was an honours student in English and didn’t in any way consider himself a nerd for his appreciation for graphic novels.
“I always had one on my shelf and read as many as I could,” he said, while adding that that doesn’t preclude him from also being a devotee of novels, short stories and poetry, for example, if they are done well. “I guess now I still read them for pleasure, but it’s always in the back of my mind how I can use them in class because it’s great that I get to share that passion,” he said.