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November 1, 2013

From Manga to Math

Informational graphic novels can close gaps in students' background knowledge—and even better, get them to read.

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I recently watched as students in a high school American history class spent the period listening to the teacher lecture, taking notes on a worksheet, and completing a set of questions that required looking up answers in the textbook. Although most students went through the motions, it was difficult to detect any enthusiasm for the topic, teaching methods, or text. I realized this pattern of instruction differed little from the one I remembered from when I was a high school student myself, some 40 years earlier.

Just down the hall, I saw students in another American history class having very different experiences, guided by a newly minted teacher, Mark. Active in participatory popular cultural media, Mark incorporates a variety of texts and media into his lessons, including graphic novels.

The class was studying the pre–civil rights period. I watched as students learned from the textbook facts and statistics on Jim Crow, racial segregation, and lynchings of black Americans, especially in the Deep South. But I also saw Mark introduce the class to Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (Vertigo, 2009). This graphic novel gives a name and face to a black man confronting a lynch mob that's waiting outside the Mississippi jailhouse where he's imprisoned on trumped-up charges. By incorporating the graphic novel, Mark clearly generated greater engagement in learning and more thoughtful processing of textual information among students. Students participated excitedly in activities related to Incognegro, including reworking important scenes into their own illustrated panels—complete with modern speech and slang—through digital apps such as Daz 3D and Renderosity.

These two very different scenes illustrate that graphic novels can make a huge difference in terms of motivating kids to plunge into complex information in content areas like social studies. And getting students to interact with informational text is nonnegotiable. Considering the complex prose students must read and learn from, secondary teachers need to achieve three goals: motivate students to engage with informational text, expand students' knowledge of content and concepts, and equip them with text-processing tools. Graphic novels can help achieve each goal.

Students need to relate to informational texts on a meaningful level if they are to take from them as much as they should. However, if students find these texts unappealing or too difficult and find the teaching practices around these texts boring, they may avoid reading about science, social studies, and math (Brozo & Simpson, 2007).

Informational graphic novels, when used at school, motivate students to read in these content areas (Cromer & Clark, 2007). Graphic novels and comics are now found in school libraries and classrooms, alongside traditional nonfiction and literary works. As graphic novelists and illustrators take up an expanding range of topics, this genre is becoming a rich source for teaching students how to read and understand informational text (Brozo, Moorman, & Meyer, in press).

Making DNA Less Dull

The nuts and bolts of DNA strike many teens as dry. Thomas, a high school teacher, decides to introduce a unit on genetics this way:

Imagine a future world in which the entire human genetic code or genome is patented by a single megacorporation and all human reproduction is strictly controlled. Parents must apply for licenses to have children and make mortgage payments to keep them.

This is the dark premise of the graphic novel Genome by Andrew Glasgow and JM Schichtel (Amazon Digital Services, 2012). Thomas used this tale as an accompaniment and counterpoint to the chapter on genetics in the textbook. He reasoned that his students would find the facts and information more fascinating—and their learning would be more permanent—if he linked the topic to a compelling narrative.

Every class, Thomas reads aloud from Genome. Although he asks his students mostly to enjoy the story and visuals, which he shares on the document camera, he also asks them to respond to his listening prompts designed to foster critical thinking about human genetics and to relate the novel's content to both what they read in the textbook and real-life events.

When reading from the part in Genome that references legal precedent for corporate ownership of genetic code, Thomas makes the issue more authentic for students by distributing an opinion piece from the Washington Post titled "Who Owns Your DNA? Not Who You Think" (Rosenfeld & Mason, 2013). This piece reveals that large corporations own patents that give them the exclusive right to examine certain human DNA, making it impossible for doctors to test patients' related genes for potential life-threatening mutations without facing legal risks. With students' interest piqued, Thomas asks them to research related laws in their state and use facts from the textbook to write a letter to one of their congressmen in which they take a stand on whether corporations should own patents on human genomes.

Manga and Close Reading

Proponents of the Common Core standards recognize the link between literacy and the disciplines. But students will have little success reading complex informational texts within academic disciplines if they lack prior knowledge essential to grasping the content and concepts (Brozo, 2010).

Many students find reading informational texts in mathematics and science particularly difficult because these texts are densely packed with unfamiliar concepts. A high school–level science textbook may contain as many as 3,000 new content-specific and academic vocabulary terms, more than students are likely to encounter in foreign language classes (Barton, Heldema, & Jordan, 2002). Informational graphic novels are an attractive way to build knowledge of unfamiliar content.

Walter, a 7th and 8th grade math teacher in an urban school, recognizes the importance of using graphic novels for this purpose. His students, many of whom struggle to overcome low academic self-esteem, require a supportive classroom context to study challenging mathematics content, such as calculus.

The Manga Guide to Calculus by Hiroyuki Kojima and Shin Togami (No Starch Press, 2010), a black-and-white novel in Japanese Manga style, serves as an excellent introduction to calculus. One of the book's many strengths is how it sets a context for using calculus. The authors establish a storyline about a young, ambitious newspaper reporter. Her bureau chief is a calculus enthusiast. To her surprise, the reporter discovers that she can use calculus to help her explore trends in data that provide her with stories of interest that she'd otherwise overlook. For example, she writes a story that uses calculus to predict a Japanese rock star's decline in popularity in direct relationship to his weight gain.

To ensure that his students fully understand key content in The Manga Guide to Calculus, Walter models and elicits close reading from students. Close reading focuses readers' attention on exactly what an author is saying as the basis for more meaningful, expansive interpretations or applications. Complex, foundational content warrants this kind of detailed, repeated reading, and it's a linchpin of the Common Core English language arts standards (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012).

Walter directs students' attention to pages 9 and 10 in the novel. They'd already read this section on their own, but he wants to revisit the initial conversation between Noriko, the aspiring reporter, and Kakeru, the head of a branch office of the Asagake Times. Kakeru is explaining to an incredulous Noriko why knowledge of mathematical functions is important in news reporting. Walter reminds students that complex text doesn't give up its meaning easily; it demands repeated readings. As they reread, they flag any ideas, questions, or points of confusion.

Students next turn to a neighbor and discuss their observations about this section of The Manga Guide, which contains essential information about functions. This gives them the opportunity to work on asking questions and posing problems, as well as communicating with clarity. Walter walks around the room listening to student conversations, offering clarification and support. As students express their emerging understanding of a text and expand their thinking on the basis of their partner's ideas, they're going through an important phase of the close-reading process.

Walter then asks the whole class to respond to questions he poses, requiring them to give evidence from the text to support their answers. Pushing students to return to the novel reinforces close reading. He chooses questions that will help ensure students don't miss important aspects of the text, and he targets some questions to areas of misunderstanding that he overheard in student conversations.

For example, Walter asks, What's the most common way to express a function mathematically? To answer, students must reread an explanatory panel and one of Kakeru's speech bubbles in which he explains to Noriko that the most common expression is y = f(x). In addition to drawing his students' attention to an essential formula in calculus, Walter's question helps determine whether his students are reading the text closely. He follows this question with one about the basic meaning of a function in the example of using calculus to predict trends with frogs and tadpoles that Kakeru gives Noriko. Walter also invites students to ask their own questions from their notes and conversations.

Tools for Close Reading

To interact meaningfully with texts, readers must develop strategies for understanding any complex text they encounter in school, careers, and throughout life—even texts that don't compel them. Because graphic novels are highly engaging, they give teachers the perfect opportunity to develop reading and learning tools that students can take with them.

With complex, informational graphic narratives, students must synthesize information they learn from the text's captions, speech or thought bubbles, and occasional longer text panels and combine this knowledge with information depicted in illustrations. To do so, they must summarize and organize important information and ideas, sometimes reorganizing ideas in a logical and meaningful way (which makes content easier to study and recall).

Split-page notes (Fisher, Brozo, Frey, & Ivey, in press) are a good way to organize content. Students create such notes by drawing a straight line down each notebook page, splitting it into a one-third and a two-thirds section. In the narrower left column, students write big ideas, key dates, names, questions, and so on (such as World War II); in the right column, they note supporting information (Pacific and European theatres; U.S. declares war 1941). Students should be encouraged to paraphrase and abbreviate. They can study their notes by covering information in either column and using the uncovered information in the other column as a prompt to recall knowledge.

This note-taking method has many advantages. It's logically organized, shows how to differentiate between big ideas and supporting details, allows for inductive and deductive prompting and recall, and develops students' ability to get the gist and paraphrase. It can be used across texts and is flexible enough to incorporate notes from lectures and class discussion.

Let's look at how Tiffany used split-page notes to help her secondary students organize the content within a 150-page graphic novel they read when studying genetics, The Stuff of Life by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon (Hill and Wang, 2009). The book includes complex concepts and dense technical information. An intelligent species of sea-cucumber-like beings called squinch lack the genetic diversity needed for a successful reproductive strategy. Bloort 183, the chief squinch scientist, comes to the rescue, reporting on Earth's successful DNA and genetic strategy and how diversity is crucial to the success of Earth's species. The clever storyline and characters make it easier for students to learn the technical information. Figure 1 shows split-page notes by one of Tiffany's students for a section of Chapter 1 of the The Stuff of Life.

FIGURE 1. Sample of Split-Page Note Taking
Notes on a section of Chapter 1 in the graphic novel The Stuff of Life

From Manga to Math - table

Big Ideas

Supporting Information

Cellsbuilding unit of all earthly organisms nucleus chromosomes
Atomssix essential atomic elements for life on Earth oxygen, carbon, phosphorous, sulfur, hydrogen, nitrogen link together to form essential elements (e.g., water)
Proteinscomplex chains of atoms nucleic acids: DNA and RNA
DNAdeoxyribonucleic acid four bases: adenine, thymine, cytosine, guanine strong bonds form, creating macromolecules strands of DNA composed of genes (e.g., for hair color, height)

Building Knowledge for Life

Teachers like Mark, Thomas, Walter, and Tiffany recognize the importance of incorporating engaging informational graphic novels into their instruction. These texts tap students' interests, make it easier for them to build knowledge, and prepare them for challenging texts they'll encounter in school, workplaces, and their daily lives.

Author's note: All names are pseudonyms.

References

Barton, M. L., Heldema, C., & Jordan, D. (2002). Teaching reading in mathematics and science. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 24–28.

Brozo, W. G. (2010, October). The role of content literacy in an effective RTI program. The Reading Teacher, 64(2), 147–150.

Brozo, W. G., Moorman, G., & Meyer, C. (in press). Graphic novels in the disciplines: Building knowledge and honoring diversity. New York: Teachers College Press.

Brozo, W. G., & Simpson, M. L. (2007). Content literacy for today's adolescents: Honoring diversity and building competence. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Cromer, M., & Clark, P. (2007). Getting graphic with the past: Graphic novels and the teaching of history. Theory and Research in Social Education, 35(4), 574–591.

Fisher, D., Brozo, W. G., Frey, N., & Ivey, G. (in press) 50 instructional routines to develop content literacy (3rd ed.). New York: Pearson.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2012). Text complexity: Raising rigor in reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Rosenfeld, J. A., & Mason, C. E. (2013, April 7). Who owns your DNA? Not who you think. The Washington Post, p. A21.

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