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Graphic novels a gateway to improve student literacy?

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Instead of talking about “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet,” the conversations in one high school English course center on Batman and other comic book characters.

The themes are the same. The Whiteland Community High School students debate the motives and morality of the characters. They discuss the obvious and hidden themes of novels and what they say about past and present-day society.

But a typical English course bases the conversations on the works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Jeff Clawson’s graphic literature class students prepare for class by reading Frank Miller, author of the Batman graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns,” and Mark Miller, author of the Marvel graphic novel “The Ultimates.”

Whiteland first offered a graphic literature course after Clawson proposed it four years ago.

Seniors who take the course can earn an English elective for either the Core 40 or academic honors diploma, and so far more than 400 Whiteland students have taken the course.

Clawson wanted to add the course because he said he believed it would interest both Advanced Placement students as well as those without strong reading skills.

He knew some people would roll their eyes at the notion of high schools studying comic books, but that was another reason he wanted the high school to offer the course: to prove that comics and graphic novels aren’t simply for children.

“It’s built upon the premise of reading and evaluating and deconstructing literature. We’ve simply changed the context of the genre,” he said.

Clawson’s students read and discuss four graphic novels throughout the course: “The Dark Knight Returns,” “The Ultimates,” “Civil War,” another Marvel comic, and “Maus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. The course’s textbook is “Understanding Comics: An Invisible Art,” which is itself a comic.

Some of the discussions in Clawson’s class are the same kinds of ambiguous debates zealous fans have had for generations: If Batman arrived on a rooftop and found a child dangling from one end and The Joker dangling from the other, whom would he save?

But eventually the conversations get deeper. Why, for example, has the character of Batman — who’s essentially a vigilante dressed as a flying, nocturnal mammal — been consistently celebrated by comic readers and film fans since the 1930s?

The discussions can get more in-depth during the unit on “Maus,” a graphic novel in which author Art Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experience surviving the Holocaust. Spiegelman then portrayed his father’s story using animals, with Jews as mice and Germans as cats.

Most of the seniors in Clawson’s class have read Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” which details the author’s experiences with his father in a concentration camp. The genres of the two works are different, but the students often look for

similarities between the stories, Clawson said.

They also dig for the symbolism behind Spiegelman’s character choices.

Depicting the Germans and Jews and predators and prey may seem obvious, Clawson said. But students dig for deeper meanings. When cats hunt mice, they don’t simply catch them, kill them and move on. Often they toy with the mice, and students compare that with the way Jews were tortured before being killed during the Holocaust, Clawson said.

Those in-depth discussions and the points brought up by students from multiple backgrounds have surprised him.

He wanted the course to attract both advanced students, who already had taken numerous English courses, as well as students who struggled with reading and analysis and who would benefit by reading stories they were interested in.

Students who have been through advanced courses are used to breaking down and analyzing what they’re reading each day, so they typically start the classroom conversations. But other students, from traditional as well as remedial English courses, almost always immediately join in, he said.

They aren’t worried about how well they’ll be able to keep up with the discussion, in part because it’s easier for them to relate to the reading material, Clawson said.

“It is literature, and it is a different type of literature. And it can accomplish many things at once,” he said.

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