/ Courage / Middle Grade Books / Literature Circle / Graphic Novel

The Power of Visual Texts

Visual texts are great jumping off points for discussion and reflection during literature circles. Since students are reading a variety of books, it is useful to have common texts to help anchor the unit and teach specific skills and ideas. Of course, mentor texts and read aloud texts are essential in this, but visual texts should not be discounted. They can be attention grabbing and offer entry points for students at a variety of reading levels.

I've previously mentioned how helpful picture books can be at the beginning of a unit to help pre-teach vocabulary and concepts. Other useful visual texts are comics and cartoons. For my heroic journey literature circle, the online comic Zen Pencils has been particularly effective. Artist Gavin Aung Than typically takes a famous quote and develops a comic strip around it. By going through his back catalogue, I was able to find various comics relating to courage, perseverance, and kindness, which were used as key supports throughout the unit.

At the beginning of the unit, we practiced interpreting individual comics in order to teach visual literacy skills. Together we read through a comic about Nelson Mandela, that used the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henly. As well, we read a comic that tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, using her own words. Because both comics are about real heroic figures, we started our unit discussing what it means to be a hero. As well, we practiced reading through the text, interpreting the images, and drawing connections between the words and the pictures. By building a basis of visual literacy skills, students are better equipped as we use more visual texts later in the unit.

Each week, our discussions centred on a different heroic quality, starting with courage. However, this word is often overused, so I used two visual texts to help students explore the meaning of courage. The first is called Fear is Paper Tigers, based on a quote by Amelia Earhart. The second is called Nature Loves Courage. By comparing and contrasting the two comics, students gained a deeper understanding of courage, which they took forward for a more meaningful understanding of their novels.

Throughout the unit I asked students to complete reflections based on their reading. Often I prefaced these reflections by showing a comic that got at the heart of what I would like them to analyze. For instance, I showed them an illustration about failing better prior to having them write about perseverance in their book. Or we read a comic inspired by an Eleanor Roosevelt quote before focusing on how our characters demonstrate courage. Or we looked at a comic about kindness, prior to discussing the difference between kindness and selflessness and how each might be present in our novels. These visual introductions set the stage for deeper reflection than a written prompt.

By using these Zen Pencil comics, I demonstrated key concepts in a way that was engaging and accessible to students. I found it helped promote deeper thinking about their texts as well, since students worked on making connections between the visual text and their own novel. At higher levels, the comics offered opportunity for critical analysis, as they often included challenging poetry or deep ideas. As well, the illustrations presented a story that could be an effective foil for their own text. By including visual texts in my literature circle unit, students were challenged to consider their books in a new light and to think more deeply about their characters. Given this success, I fully intend to incorporate more visual texts in other units in the future.

Ellen Bees

Ellen Bees

I am a middle school teacher with a passion for sustainability and human rights. Opinions are my own.

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