Graphic Novels as a Teaching Tool

By Toni Massari McPherson, Anchorage Public Library

It might surprise you to learn that high school teachers in the Anchorage School District are using comics in a variety of ways to connect with and inspire their students. In fact, the first volume of “Persepolis” is on the ninth grade reading list, which, admittedly, was one of the reasons Anchorage Public Library chose the graphic novel “The Complete Persepolis” for this year’s Anchorage Reads.

Google “comics as teaching tools” and you get nearly 35 million hits. “Gone are the days of children sneaking comics past diligent parents and teachers watching out for sub-par literature,” notes teacher Kelsey Allen in an online article. “The comics of today not only have plenty to offer, they are gaining well-deserved recognition and awards. Take advantage of the natural affinity children have for comics and use them as a powerful teaching tool in your classroom.” Local teachers agree.

Teacher Jill Jordan just finished reading “Persepolis” with her ninth grade class at East High School. The book is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir about growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the years immediately afterwards. This was Jordan’s first foray into the realm of graphic novels and what she discovered was unexpected.

I was surprised that students liked it so much,” she said. “The content of ‘Persepolis’ is very, very different from the standard graphic novel or comic book that they read.”

Official 2012 Anchorage Reads selection.

Jordan did a lot of studying to prepare for “Persepolis” since she had never used graphic novels before in class and, is not a comic book fan. She researched how to read a graphic novel and was intrigued by how small details like the shape or size of the frame, the colors used, and the intricacy of the drawing lent so much to the story. In Persepolis, the simplicity of the black and white drawings reinforces a direct connection between the adolescent Marjane and Jordan’s students.

Some of the questions the students asked were so insightful,” she said. “We talked a lot about veils. They asked questions about the war (between Iran and Iraq), and they wondered why Marjane became disillusioned with God and why she didn’t reconnect with Him. They seemed to really identify with Marjane, because the story was told from a kid’s perspective rather than an adult’s.”

The freshmen wrote letters to Marjane giving her advice about her challenges. Class discussions revealed a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of graphic novels and interpretations of the frames of the story. After finishing the book, Jordan asked for feedback and their responses surprised and pleased her.

“‘Persepolis’ really engaged the boys on a level that other books haven’t,” she said. “I would definitely use graphic novels in class again.”

Susan Derrera, a teacher of English 11 and AP Literature at Dimond High School, is at the other end of the spectrum from Jordan. Derrera loves comics – Stitches, a haunting graphic novel about a boy’s operation gone wrong, is one of her top five favorite books. She incorporates artwork into her classes in interesting and original ways.

While she doesn’t teach Persepolis, Derrera’s English 11 classes do study “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about Poland during World War II. In it, Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats.

It is written in an engaging way that immerses you in a different time and place and also allows students to see history in a way that is immediate and personal,” Derrera said. “It is very difficult material, but is more moving and involving that showing a documentary about the same subject.

“‘Maus’ teaches a lot about style,” she said. “There is a comic within a comic, and we discuss the different writing styles and why each works.”

When reading Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Derrera takes a long time dissecting each of the first four acts, discussing the language, exploring the culture and examining the characters. For the last act, students are required to perform their own analysis using the graphic novel version of the play.

When her AP Literature class studies Dante’s “Inferno,” Derrera requires students to create a map to keep track of the story, illustrating it with illustrations and quotes from the text.

“Some of these creations are quite amazing,” Derrera said. (Some of the students’ Inferno maps are on display on level 3 of Loussac Library through March 11).

“I am a huge fan of graphic novels,” she said. “This is a very visual culture we live in. Graphic novels are very engaging for students. They are definitely great for kids who are not connecting.”

Anchorage Reads 2012: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, runs Feb. 2 – Mar. 9.
A full calendar of events can be found at