The overarching question of the article seems to be the validity of using comic books, aka graphic novels, in the classroom. Sure. Why not? I used them in some of my college classes. Rado seems to be aghast that graphic novels are being used in the classroom when she really should be finding out why classroom teachers are using them. Are they using them so students can compare the voice and style of the work in the graphic novel to that of the original work? Excellent. If so, what are students learning as a result of that experience?
Are teachers using graphic novels so students can learn about the power, even the possible manipulative power, of visuals? Excellent. And, if so, to what end?
After several inches of text, Rado reports on a presentation two teachers did at a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference. Students were reading the epic poem Beowulf. Some read the traditional work and some read it as a graphic novel. The students who read the work in its traditional form spent about six hours reading it whereas the graphic novel took about two hours. It was at this point I started to hear the scary music in the background because I knew nothing good was about to be revealed in print. Herewith.
Both groups took the same 25-question multiple-choice test. Students who read the traditional text scored 81 percent on average compared with 75 percent for those who read the graphic novel.
The teachers' presentation raised the question: Is the score worth the additional time spent by kids who read the traditional poem or "would that time be better spent doing other things?"So here's the thing. I don't care if kids read the comics in the newspaper or a graphic novel or a translated form (think Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) or in it's full original glory. What I do care about are the learning objectives.
Why have kids read Beowulf? Because it is early literature that reminds us that we are not so different from 10th century poets. Because it is a story of courage. Because, as Robert Yeager writes,
The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts from shape to shape. That the darkness (be it Grendel, a dragon, or treachery, greed, and pride) is familiar only renders it more frightening — and the more instructive. . . .
And yet, although the poem ends with the death of its hero and the prophecy of extinction for his people, Beowulf is not a gloomy work, and our experience of it does not incite despair. That is because, like Beowulf himself, the poem never backs away but greets what comes with courage. . . . Students respond to the lack of falsifying sweetness that would gloss over a world that they recognize as basically an image of our own.
From start to finish, Beowulf demands our acknowledgment that sorting out the monster from the hero and the coward is a lifetime’s struggle in the dark. Beowulf joins us to our ancestors — whoever they might have been, in whatever far country — at the top of their game, as we would like to imagine them, and as we dearly hope those who come after will someday envision us.And reading Beowulf reminds us of the transcendence of these stories, of these characteristics of humanity, and enables us to trace the arc of courage, the battles of good versus evil. To see how the qualities may be timeless, how they might be recognized in different ages and places. To learn how we can see the world and know that certain things are immutable.
That learning and evidence of that learning does not come from pitiful 25-question multiple guess tests. Evidence of that kind of learning comes from a thoughtful essay or response to a short-answer question.
If students can learn what they need to learn about Beowulf and from Beowulf by reading the graphic novel, then read on because that gives them more time to read more works of literature.
But educators should not waste their students' time with multiple choice tests that prove nothing about what they have learned and nothing about what any teacher might have managed to guide them to learning.