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Pictures / Visual literacy | Class #5, 2018

This week’s class (Feb. 28) focuses on visual literacy: pictures in young adult literature, in works of both fiction and nonfiction. Students will read two picture books and a choice of graphic novels.

The prompts below address the role of these books in the classroom; you might also respond to the interplay of text and pictures (or wordlessness), or to whatever engages you most about these books with pictures.

Two Picture Books

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan

  • Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan

Three Graphic Novels

  • Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

  • March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illus. by Nate Powell

Though not the typical purview of adolescents, sophisticated picture books such as The Arrival and Freedom Over Me offer rich rewards for readers/viewers with an experienced eye. Consider prior knowledge older students can bring to these works and connections they might draw, as well as new information or perspectives to be gained through their exploration.

While teens have been devouring graphic novels, or comics (as Gene Luen Yang calls them) for years, these works are now enjoying a surge of interest and attention from critics and educators, winning awards and finding their way into high school classrooms (four teachers share their experience and expertise in “Graphic Novels in the Classroom: A Teacher RoundtableCult of Pedagogy, October 9, 2016).

Boxers and Saints is a 2-volume work of historical fiction, and March: Book Three is the 3rd volume in John Lewis’s autobiographical account of his role in the Civil Rights Movement. Should these books be taught in conjunction with other historical sources, or can they stand alone? What do they offer young readers that traditional texts may not?

Common Core Standards require students to be able to “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats, including visually” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7). How important is visual literacy for our students?

Lauren Adams
Lauren Adams
Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.
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Rose Connelly

I am struck by Sonya’s comments about how to use these books as historical sources. I agree that primary sources should reign supreme in every history investigation. But I found myself so inspired by the creativity Freedom Over Me used in addressing a gap in the records. Because of the oppression and denial of slavery as a system, so few reliable primary sources about enslaved people in the U.S. exist, and so many of them are written from the perspective of the enslavers (such as the sale record Freedom Over Me is based on). It creates a constant conundrum in learning this history — do you rely on “accurate” primary records that are told from an abusive point of view? Is it right to loosen the rigor of historical inquiry, to give more space for creative interpretation, rather than let an oppressed group’s story fade away. Or does that just do a disservice to the legitimacy of those people’s experience? Ultimately, I think your point of combining sources is a good one, Sonya. And actually, I quite admired how Freedom Over Me did this within the book itself, blending the stark historical record with a lush imagined depiction of the actual human lives the record represented. Pairing the two accounts made them both stronger. I notice that though Freedom Over Me was frank about some of slavery’s abuses, those stories were not the focus of each profile. Instead, the profiles were uplifting, hopeful, full of the passions and home memories of the individual personalities. This is another thing I have struggled with in teaching about slavery to U.S. American students. Obviously, it is vital to tell the story of the horrors of slavery—to never forget how awful and inexcusable the legacy slavery was and is. At the same time, I sometimes feel unease reducing the histories of Black Americans to the story of their oppression. I had a black student once tell me he didn’t want to do a museum tour about slavery, because it was depressing—I get that. But I also had a young black museum visitor once ask me point-blank if slavery was good or bad—when I said bad, and asked him why he asked that, in puzzlement he said he read a book in class that said that enslaved people had built incredible buildings like the white house. That is true, but also missing a huge part of the story. Freedom Over Me does a wonderful job balancing humanity, hope, resistance and resilience, with the grim reality of this group of people. To that point, I really appreciated the choice to END the book with the actual sale record, not begin with it. It ended the book on an important, sobering note, but also foregrounded the human stories.

Posted : Feb 27, 2018 06:58


This week, The Arrival in particular gave me chills, and it had me thinking not just about literacy or visual literacy, but the broader category of art and creativity. One of the conversations about education that I have most often with my mom (a second grade teacher in a low-income school district) is the lack of access to arts education. My mom always tries to insert art lessons into what she does, but it gets harder and harder with district budget cuts that remove arts programs and teacher prep time. Students right now don't have as many opportunities to see and discuss art, which I think makes books like The Arrival and graphic novels valuable in the classroom. They provide opportunities to discuss the meaning of language and communication, but they also allow them the chance to experience visual art, which can be especially enriching when they're not getting that opportunity anywhere else.

Posted : Feb 26, 2018 09:59

Caroline Glaenzer

I was particularly interested by Freedom Over Me, which does a remarkable job of offering humanity to an indelible part of our history. The artwork, which is intricate and colorful, absorbs the reader into individual stories. Bryan, who can't have known too much of the actual life behind the names he found on the estate's appraisal, makes the stories more universal. When teaching slavery to students who have little understanding of its significance, I have struggled to convey its horror and cruelty in a way that does it justice. I have often left my classes thinking I came up short. Bryan's book does a masterful job of giving students a window through which students can access the people who lived and died under those conditions. They may be able to understand with greater acuity the hopes, dreams, fears, and lives of the oppressed. This would be an invaluable book to anyone teaching about this era in American history.

Posted : Feb 26, 2018 09:57

Katie T

I agree with Sabrina that we should have more opportunities in schools to read graphic novels and comic books. I think graphic novels and the like provide an excellent opportunity for students to find new entry points to the text. Like Sonya said, visual literacy allows students a new way to observe what the text is saying and how it is saying it. We’re already asking students to decipher written text in this way, having them decipher vocabulary terms and acclimating to more difficult levels of academic language. However, I’ve found that this can be very overwhelming for struggling readers. Visual literacy provides an opportunity for students to become comfortable with that whole process while removing the barrier of potentially inaccessible text. A lot of the teachers in Gonzalez’s blog post talked about this. However, I agree with them that just because graphic novels are more accessible does not mean that they are “softer” or easier. I remember when I was growing up, my brother read a lot of graphic novels and enjoyed them precisely because of the interplay between the visual and text and how they combined to convey the various themes, symbols, and motifs. Symbolism in particular is an excellent literary device to teach through graphic novels, because the visual makes it a lot more concrete and therefore comprehensible for students. I’d like to expand this concept of visual literacy to film and other media as well. I remember how taking a film class in high school actually deepened my understanding of literary elements/ artistic choices and how they’re used to tell a story. This is why I think (despite some administrators’ weariness) it’s important to bring film into the English classroom as well. Visual literacy and media literacy can be taught together. It’s important for students to understand and decipher all of the messages they’re receiving from society, the media, and the world around them.

Posted : Feb 26, 2018 09:30

Lisa Wu

I enjoy reading Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang a lot. As a Chinese, I especially appreciate the window to see my own culture through a different lens and language. The historical background is familiar and the perception of family obligation is common, but stories of the characters bring out their individuality and really push the readers to think beyond what is taken for granted. The graphics add a humorous touch to a topic that would otherwise be too heavy and unbearable. The topic of Christianity in a Chinese classroom is unthinkable, but the package of graphics and texts make the sensitive topic mild and less alerting. I did not know graphic books could be so profound. Almost toward the end of the book the protagonist asked, "What is China if it's not people and its stories?" That is a great rhetorical question worth discussing, not just for the students, but for adults as well.

Posted : Feb 26, 2018 07:47

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