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Graphic Novels for Kids, Engaging Students and Current Events

October 4, 2019

Graphic Novels for Kids, Engaging Students and Current Events

Re-imagining Migration explores how educators can use graphic novels for kids in the classroom and help engage students in current global events.


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Driving Engagement with Graphic Novels for Kids

Introducing subjects like migration into your classroom, through a historic or current events lens, can feel overwhelming. Where do you start? One possible resource is graphic novels.* Mirroring the continued historic increases of people on the move worldwide, growing numbers of graphic texts (memoirs, journalism histories, and fiction) are centered on migration-related topics. Three examples of the burgeoning canon are Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, a work of fiction based on primary sources accounts, Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman, a mix of fiction and lived experience, and Drawn to Berlin by Ali Fitzgerald, a work of comics journalism embedded with memoirs. 

At its most basic level, a graphic novel is made up of sequential art images that intentionally co-mix text and visuals to communicate meaning. This complexity of meaning creation makes graphic novels for kids an ideal tool for teaching topics like migration through a globally competent lens. In reading graphic novels, students use 21st-century skills of media and visual literacy overlaid with perspective-taking to investigate deeper understanding. While the use of graphic novels in the classroom has become commonplace over the last decade, there still exists a gap in knowledge about how graphic novels function within learning and effective pedagogies for using these resources with students.

To get you started, here are four ideas on how graphic novels engage with the Asia Society’s four domains of global competence. These ideas line up well with the Re-imagining Migration framework.

Communicating Ideas with Graphic Novels for Kids

All of the types of media and sources (video, documents, literature, art, etc.) involve an attempt by one person to communicate an idea from his or her brain to someone else’s. In this process, we as “readers” attempt to translate the clues the author has left us about their message. Graphic novels help students’ metacognition about the communication of ideas because this process is more transparent, as authors and artists of graphic novels intentionally use both text and visuals. As students read a graphic novel, they must decode by investigating the interplay of text and visuals by framing questions, analyzing and synthesizing relevant evidence, and drawing reasonable conclusions that lead to further inquiry; then, they have to find a way to share their understandings with peers who might have other interpretations. 

graphic novels for kids help student engagement

 "Pigs Might Fly, graphic novel," by Jerel Dye is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Graphic Novels for Kids: Help Students Recognize Different Perspectives

Two visual devices—dialogue balloons and the gutter—emphasize the role of perspective-taking in reading a graphic novel. The use of dialogue balloons emphasizes a particular character’s perspective on a situation, while the gutter (a space between two panels that the author intentionally leaves blank) requires a reader to actively participate in constructing the story by filling in what happens between the panels. As each reader fills in the gutter, infinite possibilities of realities within the same story are created.

When reading a graphic novel, students must read critically from multiple points of view; their own, the author’s, and characters/people the author portrays. Graphic novels, when used as primary sources, are often criticized for their subjectivity and lack of validity. However, graphic novels are no less subjective than traditional primary sources; it is just that their perspective is often easier for students to decode because of the combined visual and textual literacy. Interpreting and understanding multiple layers of “point of view” allow students to open up to new ideas and ways of thinking, question their prevailing assumptions, and develop self-awareness about identity and culture.

Investigate the World with Graphic Novels for Kids

In graphic novels, time travel is possible, which means that time is both simultaneous and sequential in these novels. As a reader, you can view the panels in a sequential order (1, 2, 3, etc.) focusing on a single panel at a time or multiple panels (1, 4) at the same time. This duality of viewing and time allows students to engage in compare/contrast and change-over-time thinking. Within a history classroom, students can also consider the work within a larger historical context given the sequential and simultaneous nature of time on a page, leading to an understanding that world events and global issues are complex and interdependent.

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Build a Bridge Between the Global and the Local

After working with engaging texts that will help them to better empathize and understand the experience of migration, students are better prepared to think about how what can seem like a huge global issue plays out in the lives of ordinary people. While the challenges of mass migration and humanitarianism might feel overwhelming, educators can help students bridge between the global and the local by helping them connect what they have read to their own spheres of influence. The Re-imagining Migration website has wonderful examples of how others have taken action in issues of migration and while they are terrific models, as educators our job isn’t to tell our students what to do, but instead to help them learn the skills they need to be civically engaged. That said, here are a few things they might consider: 

  1. Create a migration poster campaign for the school community. 
  2. Initiate a campaign to surface the migration stories in your own school community. One tool you might consider is Re-imagining Migration’s Moving Stories study guide and mobile app.
  3. Use the Democratic Knowledge Project’s 10 Questions for Changemakers to help students develop their own ideas.

Join us!

Reading a graphic novel in an academic context to engage in globally competent thinking is a skill students need to be taught. While graphic novels usually have less text than traditional primary and secondary sources, they take just as much time to “read.” Join us on Wednesday, Oct. 23, from 7-8 p.m. for a more detailed discussion on the use of graphic novels for kids within the framework of Re-imagining Migration’s learning arc, specific best-practices for classroom use, and exemplar panels from recently published works.

*Note: Teachers should not feel graphic novels can only be incorporated into the classroom in their entirety. Class sets of graphic novels are expensive, and curriculum time is limited due to the expanding scope of standards. In the same way a teacher would excerpt a long primary source for relevant passages, graphic novels can be used in panels/sections.

Kimberly Young is a World History teacher at Weston High School in Weston, Massachusetts.  She cultivates her students’ identities as explorers by bringing the world into her classroom through artifacts, technology and experimentation.   Expanding students’ global competence and inspiring them to become engaged global stewards is her core source of passion in teaching.  Her classrooms regularly participate in the Out of Eden Learn platform communicating with students from around the world about migration issues.   She is currently completing the Qatar Foundation International Teacher Leadership Program and administering a National Geographic Society grant aimed at improving the teaching of migration in schools.  Follow her on twitter and instagram @9thWorldHistory.

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration. Throughout his career, Mr. Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world. The resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in SchoolsIdentity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining the Re-imagining Migration Project, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.

Re-Imagining Migration
Re-Imagining Migration's mission is to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive... See More

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