Last year I got an e-mail from Alison Binney asking for permission to use some images from my book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style for an article she was writing for an teachers’ publication. She recently sent me a copy of the booklet, Planning for Innovation in English Teaching, and I really appreciated her article, “Every picture tells a story: Exploring a sense of place in The Arrival by Shaun Tan”, which chronicles her first attempts to use comics in a secondary school English class setting. Alison herself is a newcomer to comics and I was impressed by how game she was to give it a try and, more importantly, how quickly she grasped the fundamentals of comics language and was able to align them with her concerns as an English teacher, much to the delight, as it turns out, of her students.
I’m an English teacher from Cambridge, England. I work in an 11-18 comprehensive school, teaching students across the full age and ability range. Like most English teachers in the UK, almost all the reading I do with students in the classroom involves purely print-based texts. However, for a while I’ve been wanting to explore how teaching comics might work in an English classroom.
Given that I came to this with no experience of teaching comics at all, my choice of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a graphic novel in which the entire story is told through pictures alone, might seem unusual! For an English teacher used to working solely with words, it was certainly a challenge to my lesson planning, my expertise and my whole thinking about what constitutes ‘reading’. However, it was a challenge that I very much enjoyed, as well as being one that has enriched my practice as an English teacher.
I chose to teach The Arrival mostly because I’d loved the experience of reading it myself. But it was also a good choice for the school where I teach because it is a very ethnically and linguistically diverse community. Quite a few of our students have had the experience of moving from one country to another, so I hoped that these students would be able to bring some of the experiences they had had to their exploration of The Arrival. At the same time, studying a book without any words could help to provide a level playing field for those students who were fairly new to speaking and understanding English. The group of students I chose to study it with was a mixed ability class of 28 students aged 13 and 14.
The first thing I did with the group, before we started to look at The Arrival, was to spend a lesson working with Matt’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. I photocopied different versions of the story and gave them out to my students, who had to look at the page they’d been given and then tell that story to their neighbour, without showing them the page. They then compared the versions they’d been given in small groups. It was great to watch the dawning realisation all around the classroom that they all actually had the same story, just told in many different ways! This then led into an exploration of some of the techniques used by cartoonists, such as zooming in or out, arranging the panels vertically or horizontally, changing perspective etc. For the majority of my students, who had little experience of this genre, this provided a really good introduction to some of the techniques used in comics and graphic novels.
The main challenge presented by teaching The Arrival was how to ‘read’ it together as a class. As an English teacher with 12 years of experience, I was very used to sharing novels with a class. But how do you ‘read’ a text without any words? I wanted our exploration of The Arrival to be a collective process, so I was keen to try to recreate the experience of sharing a text that is read aloud. The nearest equivalent I could come up with was to project the images from the first chapter of The Arrival onto the board using a visualiser so that the whole class could look at each image at the same time. This generated some really interesting discussions, and it was lovely to see how one student’s observation would trigger another’s speculation about what might be going on.
After looking at the first chapter together, I then experimented with different approaches. Sometimes students read a particular chapter in pairs and sometimes in small groups. Interestingly, while most seemed to enjoy the collaborative nature of this sort of reading, one or two students became so absorbed in their own reading that they preferred to remove themselves from their small groups and read on their own. When I asked the students afterwards which method of reading they had most enjoyed, there was no consensus at all: some had liked looking at images together as a whole class the best (“I like hearing everybody’s ideas”), others enjoyed the small group and pair work (“I liked looking at the book in pairs because you can work at each other’s pace and it makes you think about what the writer is trying to tell you”), while others very definitely valued the solitary nature of exploring the book on their own.
One thing I learnt from this was how comfortable the students were about asking questions about The Arrival while they were reading, and how valuable the discussions they then had with each other about what they were noticing were. When I’m reading a print-based text with a class I always invite and encourage discussion, but usually at the end of a chapter or episode. And while students are often keen to discuss what they’re reading, they are generally much less willing to admit to not understanding things. While teaching The Arrival, I found it really interesting to observe that when students didn’t understand what they were looking at in a picture they had no hesitation in expressing this, without seeming to feel the same sense of inadequacy that they might if they were making the same admission about a piece of written text. The students themselves were enthusiastic about the sense of open-endedness that they experienced when exploring a story told through pictures. As one of them said, “It was good because the pictures could mean anything you wanted them to.” Somehow, these students seemed to feel a greater freedom from inhibition in responding to pictures than they often did in their response to written texts.
I was also interested in using our study of The Arrival to explore the relationship between the visual techniques used by artists and the creative techniques used in writing. Most students in my class were able to grasp very quickly some of the techniques Shaun Tan uses, such as zooming out from an extreme close up to a long shot over a sequence of several panels. Not only could they spot the techniques Tan uses, but they were also able to come up with really perceptive ideas about why he might have chosen to use these techniques and what effects were being created. We then explored how some of these techniques might be applied in creative writing. With the zooming out example the students chose from a list of objects such as a knife, a candle, and a glass of water, and then wrote a sequence of paragraphs in which they described the object in detail, and then imagined they were zooming further and further out, gradually describing more and more of the object’s surrounding context.
Rather than just using The Arrival as a vehicle for developing students’ creative writing, I also wanted our exploration of The Arrival to open the students’ eyes to the whole medium of comics. Only a few students in the class were already keen readers of comics, manga and graphic novels when we started looking at The Arrival, but by the time we had finished studying it several others were keen to explore more comics, and I tried to feed their newfound enthusiasm by bringing in a selection for them to have a look at, as well as directing them to the relevant section in the school library.
At the end of our study of The Arrival I gave the students in my class three options: they could either read another graphic novel and keep a reading journal to record their thoughts and responses; create their own short comic; or produce an extended piece of writing using some of the creative writing techniques we’d been looking at in our work on The Arrival. Half the class chose to create their own comics, with the other half split fairly evenly between the other two options. Once again, 99 Ways was really helpful for students thinking about how to create their own comics, and Scott McCloud’s Making Comics was also invaluable.
Altogether, I found that teaching The Arrival was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience, and as someone who started out with no expertise in teaching comics at all, I ended up feeling excited by the possibilities of exploring the genre further in English lessons. The fact that most of my students enjoyed it too is summed up by one student’s final comment in her evaluation of these lessons: “Could we look at more graphic novels? Please and thank you!”
Alison Binney is Head of English at The Netherhall School in Cambridge, UK, where she teaches students aged from 11 – 18, and also teaches trainee secondary school teachers on the PGCE Course at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. She has been teaching English for 13 years and is a recent convert to the pleasures of reading and teaching comics.
You can purchase the booklet Planning for Innovation in English Teaching, containing the article on which this post was based, here.