Why didn’t I think of this earlier? – The graphic novel, language and creativity combined

I have to mark a lot of reports.  I teach a unique Dutch cultural subject which translates as Cultural and Artistic education. It potentially touches on all sorts of cultural themes, visual art, architecture, film, theatre, fashion, photography, street art and design in all its forms.  A large part of the subject is giving the pupils (aged 15-16] a kind of cultural orientation.  As teachers we provide the class with cultural input, experiences and excursions and the pupils reflect on what they have seen or done.

It’s a subject that I love teaching alongside my more practical orientated art lessons.  However, with quite large classes, and multiple groups to teach, the reflection part does often mean that a significant number of reports are written and in turn, must be read and marked.

Recently I watched movies in class with three different groups, around seventy pupils in total and the plan was for them each to produce a 1000-word report.  I decided to offer an alternative, partly because pupils generally like have a choice, partly because I know I have creative spirits in all my classes who love to draw when they can, and yes, partly for myself to break the boredom of having to read so many reports.  The new approach was to make a more concise report (and in terms of text much shorter) in the form of a two A4 page graphic novel inspired design.

I gave those who chose this more creative route an extended deadline that stretched over the Christmas holiday, hoping that they would respond well to a less rushed time frame.  Did it work as I would have liked?  Yes absolutely, both in terms of content and design.  And oh, so more enjoyable to grade and give feedback on.

Educational aims

The purpose of the assignment is to require the pupils to think carefully about the film we watched and to reflect on how the skills and approaches used by the film makers have been applied.  Ultimately, they are required to explain their own opinions of the film involved, its strengths and its weaknesses.  Having looked through the resulting pieces of work I think I would say that by having to think about which images from the film to recreate the pupils have taken an extra reflective step before beginning on the creative work.

A second, and for me significant extra aim, is for the pupils to combine the use of language with image making and creativity.  My lessons are taught in English, which for these Dutch pupils, is their second language.  The graphic novel form forces a lean and to the point use of language in the text. This is certainly a skill worth learning alongside considering how image and text can be integrated and support one another.

I’ll certainly be using this graphic novel inspired work form again.  I find myself wondering if it could be applied in other areas, a book review perhaps?  Or could it go further?  A diary of a school exchange to another country as a graphic novel, a report on a biology dissection lesson as one?

The contemporary world in the art lesson – a content and language integrated lesson idea (CLIL)

I’ve written before on this blog about how I have worked contemporary issues around the theme of immigration into my art and culture lessons. Immigration as a social theme is one that has always been with us. But I hadn’t anticipated when I first started putting lesson material together just how big an issue it was about to become and how it was going to touch European social and political structures in so many ways.

arrivalI am fortunate to teach a broad artistic and cultural education subject here in the Netherlands that allows me the space to show my pupils how various creative people and groups have tackled the contemporary immigration subject using visual art, photography and film. Some documentary of this previous work can be found using the links below:

Illegal Immigration and Art

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

Immigartion – Pupil work and feedback

Apart from exposing the pupils to areas of new experience in the art and cultural world part of my teaching task is also to strengthen their grasp of English. I teach in English, the pupils’ second language, and deliver my content in a dual learning approach known as CLIL (content and language integrated learning). I am constantly looking for new ways to bind the arts material of the lesson to language learning opportunities without compromising the content.

With this background in mind I will this year I’ll be adding a new element in the immigration module that offers some new language possibilities that I haven’t explored before. I should first though say thank you to Kathrine over in Kansas for pointing me in the right direction for this new source of material. It concerns a book called The Arrival by the Australian artist, writer and filmmaker Shaun Tan. The Arrival is a graphic novel, it follows the story of a man who flees his homeland, leaves his family behind and arrives in a new and unfamiliar place. What makes Tan’s novel rather different is that the whole story is told without the use of text. We are not told specifically what he is running from, clever visual devices are used to clue us in to the fact that he is trying to escape something that hangs like a specter over society there. Each page on the A4 format book is made up of multiple drawings (often twelve or more on a page) each sensitively and realistically drawn.

arrivalconfusedmanThe book (like other graphic novels) could open the door to practical assignments linked to depicting stories using multiple images, but what of the language driven opportunities? The fact that each page carries so much information and communicates so much content is where the CLIL learning opportunity lies. Tan’s approach tells a story that on many pages that can be laid down next to the current events that we are seeing across Europe, we bring our own baggage and opinions and add them to the story being played out in The Arrival. I find myself thinking of several possibilities here, not necessarily working with the whole book, loose pages may well be enough.

The strength of Tan’s work is that it challenges us to think and interpret, he doesn’t feel the need to resort to speech bubbles or extra direction. We are asked to form our own narrative, to fill in the gaps and the pages would challenge our pupils to do the same. Pupils could be asked to:

  • Write their own narrative text to accompany each image
  • Write a narrative based on what the man himself is thinking and reflecting on the world around him
  • Write a short poem that documents a fragment of storyline
  • Write a newspaper article that reports the man’s plight
  • Write the questions that they would use if they had a chance to interview the man – a second pupil could then try and answer the questions

These are obviously all language driven assignments, useful in challenging pupils articulation of complex themes. But for me as an art teacher interested in showing the importance of the arts in engaging in contemporary and relevant issues the chance of encouraging to place themselves in the position of the main protagonist in the book and in doing so maybe gain a little more understanding of the refugee situation confronting Europe is where the real gain lies.