We took on the topic of disrupting genre by considering incorporating graphic novels and novels in verse in our ELA curricula. We were excited to take on this conversation because we believe that it is important to not only disrupt the texts you’re teaching, but the form in which you’re teaching them, too.
Why does this matter?
It’s crucial to offer students variety and different ways of reading. This shows them that there are multiple ways of writing, reading, and it normalizes such diversity. We also know that because there are learners of all types in our classrooms, offering a range of types of literature is responsible.
What’s the value in graphic novels and novels in verse?
Something to consider is how white supremacy culture is a real thing. In our ELA classrooms, white supremacy shows up in one important way: the worship of the written word. If something isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist. If a book is not in a written format and hailed as “rigorous” or labeled as “classic,” then it’s unimportant and doesn’t make it onto our book lists. If something isn’t written in a western format, then it isn’t worthy of classroom study. This is the bias we hold against graphic novels. When it comes to novels in verse, many teachers doubt their complexity because of word choice. Let us ask you this question: Who determined that long words were the only words that could be considered complex? Additionally, who determined that many words on a page is better and more rigorous?
Another idea that surfaced during our chat was the issue of young adult (YA) novels and how so many teachers dismiss it due to beliefs that it lacks “rigor” and “seriousness.” As we discussed, that only reveals that teacher’s own lack of understanding of YA literature and their lack of ability to dig deep into critical texts. This literature is written for young people and discussing topics they are concerned with. Often, YA surfaces issues of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, and sexuality, that “classical” texts don’t address. And often, when they do address it, because they’re a product of their time, they’re highly problematic. Our own Tricia E. explained, “YA is not a genre; among other things, it’s an indicator of the intended audience. So when you disparage YA, you’re disparaging the audience.”
What do I do since I have a prescribed list of texts and have minimal flexibility to the books I can choose and my curriculum disproportionately features white male voices?
We always invite teachers to consider pushing back and offering resistance to these lists. Challenge your administrators and school leaders that rob your autonomy from you. Argue how that leaves you with minimal power in what and how you can teach and affects your ability to make decisions for the scholars in your classroom regarding what will best help them grow as readers.
Now, for those that are in contexts where this is your stubborn reality, then we encourage you to consider pairing full texts or excerpts of texts that feature the voices of people of color, women, and other characters and authors from marginalized groups. Why? Because it’s a perspective your students are lacking in literature and one they need to hear. It’s a perspective that will offer them a critical lens of the world around them. This goes for all students. All students need to hear and see marginalized characters as main characters and read writing from their point of view, in their voice.
What should I look for when critically evaluating texts from different genres?
As with any other text used in the classroom, #OwnVoices texts should be our first stop when prioritizing which books we choose for classrooms and libraries. Some resources people can consult when looking for graphic novels and novels in verse that accurately reflect the lived realities of marginalized and underrepresented individuals and groups are:
Furthermore, Zetta Elliot authored this informative and expansive blog post: “‘Asian Pride in Kidlit’” that gives us a unique view into the many facets of how Asian people from the diaspora are represented in literature for children.
What are some specific elements of novels in verse, poetry, and graphic novels I should pay attention to when designing lessons and units?
Many books of poetry these days are authored in English but with the Spanish translation on the opposite page like Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart by Alice Walker, and Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Others, like Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, include (AAVE) African-American Vernacular English. There are also bilingual books (like Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X) that showcase the beauty and complexity of what many refer to as “non-standard” forms of English, specifically, Spanglish spoken by millions of people in this country. Even if you, the teacher, are monolingual, it is an important experience to read these texts with your class to develop an awareness of the ways English changes depending upon the context in which it is spoken.
For graphic novels, consider the background and experience of the author first and foremost. It isn’t uncommon for an author to do the inking and not the art, or hire someone else to do the inking and the art for a story they’ve written, but it is imperative that we insist on authenticity and exhaustive research by those who choose to write the stories of and for people of color. Furthermore, questions of race, class, gender come can up when authors reveal their biases in the way characters are depicted. This is an opportunity for conversation about women and authors from underrepresented groups in comics. For example, though many students these days love graphic novels and Manga, the depiction of women in some series lend themselves to important critical examination. The beautiful thing about graphic novels in the classroom is that they offer a visual way to interpret engaging stories while making them more accessible for those who struggle to develop fluency and stamina with more traditional texts. Many could argue, and many have, that there is just as much stylistic and linguistic complexity in the texts mentioned here as there is in some classics or canonical works that have been elevated as superior for the longest time, perhaps too long.
You ask some very important questions here. Giving the system a shake-up that it needs. Thank you for doing important work!