Using Alternative Texts in the Classroom

One of my favourite professors taught me two of my favourite classes during my B.Ed., and both of them dealt with media and utilizing technology and alternative texts in the classroom. Alternative texts, of course, being any tool utilized in the classroom which differs from the traditional textbook and chalkboard. I have always been a big supporter of fun and meaningful education. It’s basic common sense that students are not going to retain information or find it beneficial if it is not meaningful to them. This can be difficult for teachers to overcome because, between the ages of 12 and 18, what is meaningful to students? Obviously, each student is hugely different and will find various topics more relevant to them, but overall, it’s not like we can go ahead and start teaching about parties or video games or the Kardashians. However, we can use our knowledge about what students enjoy and are passionate to our advantage and relate as much of our curriculum and instruction to these things.

In my experience, students find almost anything beyond the ordinary classroom lesson interesting and will generally become more involved and attentive. That’s why I love to bring in alternative and unique texts to teach various topics. I don’t mean simply bringing in the video version of Romeo and Juliet (which is still a great tool and always works for the classic comparison essay). I mean bringing in things like board games, food, commercials, magazines, and so on. Today I want to focus on one of my favourite forms of alternate texts: graphic novels.

          The first effective way I’ve found to use graphic novels is to blatently teach the curriculum with them. When teaching Canadian history, a tool like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel comic is excellent because it actually shows students what is happening. I creates a more vivid reality of the history and aids in their ability to understand what occurred and to better recall information for exams and essays. Furthermore, it’s always fun and worthwhile to have students create their own comic strip to tell another account of history. They’ll have a lot of fun with the art aspect and will really grow to grasp the history.

          Moving away from basic curriculum, when teaching English or a class such as Sociology, Philosophy, etc. it can be fun and rewarding to get involved with a graphic novel that includes big ideas, moral issues, and so on. Although I wouldn’t recommend Grath Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher series in a high school classroom (just a bit too much drugs, violence, sex, and religion to avoid conflict), a series or novel which contains the same amount of discussion and throught-provoking material is hugely beneficial. I’m a huge advocate for critical and abstract thinking (who isn’t?). When students write me papers, I want them to write to me about ideas and theories and have course material support their claims; a graphic novel full of untraditional “good vs. bad” and moral questions provides ample resource and also keeps students engaged as it’s a different medium than the traditional novel they’re all so used to.

          The final way in which I’ve found it effective to use graphic novels in the classroom is when you relate them to course material. I had the exciting fortune of teaching a class of 21 grade 11 boys at a sports academy poetry. Let me tell you, that was no easy feat, so I did my very best to bring in as many alternative forms of poetry and as many alternative texts as I could to really engage them. When teaching Shelley’s “Ozymandias“, I decided to bring in the reference from Watchmen. First I showed the students a clip of the film, we read a portion of the graphic novel, and I had them throw out descriptive words about the character of Ozymandias. From there, we read the poem and compared the characters and the mediums. Finally, I had them write an essay asking them to either compare the characters or explain why Moore used Shelley’s Ozymandias character as an inspiration for the character in the Watchmen. The kids loved the inclusion of popular culture in the classroom and their essays were phenomenal and really drew out strong comparisons and ideas about the two different characters.

Overall, I’m obviously a huge advocate of utilizing graphic novels in the classroom and really hope to expand upon all of the different ways in which I can explore their value further within education.

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