TROY– Leah Hampshire didn’t want to force her students to read.
The Troy High School English teacher wanted them to discover that love for reading on their own.
“The important thing is that we get kids reading more,” Hampshire said. “Kids have so many options these days that I don’t know how often they actually choose to read on their own. I wanted to do something that could get kids excited about reading.”
Hampshire found that spark in graphic novels, which are like comic books in that art panels accompany the written word in the book, but are generally longer and more in depth than their super hero or cartoon character predecessors.
“Lori Fultz, our librarian, has worked hard over the last few years to build a truly amazing graphic novel section,” Hampshire said. “Because of this, I started seeing a lot of students reading them during our independent reading time — and I noticed that all types of students were voraciously reading them —reluctant readers, honors-level students, boys, girls, every race, every grade level.”
And that’s how the graphic novels class, new to Troy High School this year, was born. It is an elective class for students and does not take the place of traditional English classes. It is available for students in grades 10-12. Roughly 20 students are taking the class this semester, with another 20 scheduled to take the class next semester, as well.
Students will be both reading and creating graphic novels during the semester. Being a talented artist is not a requirement for the class, although learning the illustration process and producing a finished graphic novel will be a part of the class.
“Any English teacher will tell you that having a student sign up for a reading and writing elective is exciting,” Hampshire said. “They don’t have to take this class. They are here because they want to be, and that makes me so happy. The students I have in this first class are proving themselves to be fearless. Most of them are not artists. Most of them are not creative writers. Some of them are even reluctant readers. But each and every day, they have come in ready to go and try creative writing or sketching. It has been great. And they are teaching me so much as well.”
Troy student Katie Lord said she’s been enjoying the class through the first few weeks of school.
“I like the artistic aspect of graphic novels,” Lord said. “It brings imagery to life. I enjoy the class; it helps me get a break from the main subjects. I had read comics before, but not recently.”
While the class does look at graphic novels containing more “traditional” comic book characters, it also will read a variety of “classic” literature, just in graphic novel form. The class will read both fiction and non-fiction graphic novels. One of the class texts is “Maus I” (Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for “Maus II,” the book that follows “Maus I”) and “Stitches,” by David Small, a memoir about his childhood life, illness and eventual cancer diagnoses.
Fultz said some of the most popular graphic novels she sees checked out of the school library are titles that would be familiar to those who love classic literature.
“I was amazed at how popular the manga version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was,’” Fultz said. “We had students recommending it to each other. I try to include as many of the manga/graphic novel versions of classic works that I can because I think it helps students who may be struggling with the traditional reading of the story. In addition to ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ we have other classics, like ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘Beowulf,’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘Macbeth,’ for example. We also have manga series, comics and graphic memoirs.
“I’ve heard people sort of denigrate graphic novels as ‘not real books’ or ‘not real reading.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth. The artwork and the writing in some of our graphic novels is just as enriching as any unillustrated book. Students who are reluctant to devote time to a full-length novel or who struggle to finish a traditional book don’t have to look very far to find something to interest them. And students aren’t the only ones enjoying materials from our graphic novels collection, we have a number of staff members who check them out, as well.”
So far, the class appears to be a hit for the students taking it.
“I took it because I have liked comic books since I was little,” Carl Crabtree said. “I thought it would make an English class much more enjoyable. It has been good. It’s what I expected, with some storytelling and some drawing.”
Like Crabtree, Sierra Gross also grew up a fan of the genre.
“I decided to take this class because I enjoy comics and graphic novels,” she said. “This class has been fun so far and is exactly what I expected.”
Not every student in the class came into the class with a deep knowledge of graphic novels, however.
“I had only read one graphic novel before this class,” Samantha Mascarella said. “I actually really like it. It’s interesting and fun to learn about.”
Elaina McNamara also decided to take the class despite her limited previous exposure to graphic novels.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but so far I like it,” she said.