Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Five Graphic Novels You Should Teach

Comics are cool and trendy. Well, wait, not quite. People like comics in theory. They like comic spinoff movies because they're big and flashy and have great personalities and take us away from who we really are. Guardians of the Galaxy has been massively successful and has blitzed box-offices worldwide this year. Days of Future Past likewise. I am happy for comics. I am happy that they are finding success; the industry sure needed it after the big publishers pretty much ravaged it for flea-bitten alternate-cover cash in the early nineties. But, and you have my permission to call my sour here, it makes me sad that the best of the industry is oft-ignored.

Too often, what I see in schools is bad 'graphic novel' versions of Shakespeare plays, or 'difficult' novels given to students so that it can be made easier. My heart sinks, somewhat painfully, into my gut when I see these because it is indicative of the frivolity connected to comics and graphic novels: They are easy. They make things easier. They are a substitute used when things get tough. And so, in light of this, I raise a giant metaphorical banner (what i'm really doing is drinking tea) and I present you with a list of five challenging, engaging and interesting graphic novels or comic sets that you can teach in schools. That is, if anyone takes your idea seriously. One: V for Vendetta

There is no way I couldn't include this on the list. Moore and Gibbons novel is a wonderful indictment of fascism written during the cold war. It gives an (in)human face to terrorism and questions what is right and wrong and, most markedly, the language is beautiful.

Yes, you could watch the film, but it misses a lot of the point. Moore was writing against Thatcherism. He was quite serious when he predicted the rise of militant fascism in Britain and there a lot of tropes in the novel that echo true today. This is a truly exceptional, and eminently readable, novel.

In my opinion this book is a relevant and  powerful as 1984. It is brutal in places but it looks at the human impact of theocratic government. Read it, teach it. Heed its warnings.

Extract: But it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it's all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch we 
are free.
Number Two: Maus

Much has been written about Maus, and that is entirely correct. It is the only graphic novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize, and if there is to be only ever one to win it, then this is surely deserved. Art Spiegelman's biography of his father's time as a Jew in Auschwitz is also an autobiography that explores survivor guilt and the difficulty of growing up under the weight of the need to tell the story of his father. This is an exceptional work. It utilises the jarring effect of anthropomorphised characters living human lives: Jews are mice; Nazis, cats; Poles, pigs. It is like reading the most distressing Mickey Mouse comic ever written and that is quite the point. Stylistic, heartfelt and personal, this is perhaps the most affecting thing that you can read, and therefore it should be read. If we teach students about the holocaust, why don't we show them the experiences of what it was like.

 Extract: Many young Germans have had it up to HERE with  holocaust stories. These things happened before they were evenborn. Why should THEY feel guilty?"
 "Who am I to say." Three: Blankets

 Something a little more tender now. Craig Thompson's Blankets is probably not something you've heard of despite winning so many awards it could open a shop selling them. It is an autobiographical bildungsroman about Thompson's first love and the tensions between his religious upbringing and his own urges. When I bought this I started reading it at ten at night and proceeded to read the entire 582 pages without a break. 

But why teach it? Because it is so relevant. It describes to students exactly how they feel. It doesn't lie about teenage love, or parents, or society. Oh, and it's one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. It is Salinger, Homes and Bloom. It is open and unexpected but it provides a raft of language for students to peer into and consider. It is contemporary, relevant and unusual. It is, and I hesitate, scared a little, to say this, as close to perfect as I can find. 

Extract: Her hair was silky and sprawled across her forehead. I smoothed it back and tucked it behind her ear. She was restful and yet her eyebrows were knit in a worried manner, forming a permanent furrow upon her brow. What was she worried about? Four: When the Wind Blows

Raymond Briggs is well known for being the man behind The Snowman but this very thin volume (it's only 38 pages long) is, in my opinion at least, his magnum opus. Brigg's cartoon style contrasts with his story about a pensioner couple in the wake of a nuclear explosion. This is one of a few books that reset my tear-ducts to 'just dumped teenager'. The impact of it is incredible and indelible. No-one should grow up in a nuclear age without reading it.

The raft of context behind it including the modelling of the protaganist couple on Bigg's own parents, the constant allusion and mis-allusion by the couple to events contemporary to its writing, and the use of quotation from genuine nuclear preparation pamphlets, makes the novel ripe for discussion. These are figures trapped in a situation they have no say in. Stylistically the novel is characterised by its over-A4 size that blends dense conversation in tiny panels with giant double page spreads including, as the centrefold linchpin of the story, a double page that is bright, printer-paper white.

Extract: I saw it last week in a magazine in the public library. I learned it by heart-'Inter-racial harmony in a Multi-ethnic society' Good, isn't it?

Number 5: The Arrival

Now, Shaun Tau's wonderfully illustrated tale of immigration set in a strange and unreal world is a bit of a wildcard on this list because, well, it hasn't got any words in it. At all. But that is the point. 

 The story follows a lone character who moves to a new city where he understands very little of what is going on. It is strange to describe a book as quiet, but this is eminently so. The very real tale of disconnection to the surrounding world uses surrealism to provide its momentum but it is intriguingly followable. this is a very modern story told in the sepia of memory and the lavishness of beautiful pencil-work. 

So that is my list. Please, even if you don't think you have an opportunity to teach one of these, go an order one off amazon or, even better get it from a bookshop or, if you are pressing for an A* then find a comic shop and support it. There are hundreds and thousands of graphic novels that could be on this list, but I tried to provide some variety in style and substance. I could have easily put on Watchmen, Ghost World, Bone, Akira, The Killing Joke or any other 'stalwarts' of the medium but I chose things that I thought had genuine educational benefit. 


Friday, 12 September 2014

Was Geneva Wrong?

 Was Geneva Wrong? The Positive Effects of Cruel and Unusual Punishment in School Children. 

Dr Callum Mittie III, MA PGCE Kitekat BAGA 4

IT HAS LONG BEEN ASSUMED that part of the role of the teacher is to be an ethical guiding light and a pastoral carer towards the children in their charge, but what if this so called 'nurturing instinct' is, in fact, totally wrong?

The first difficulty of this study is defining what actually constitutes a child. What is a child? I ask, and it is a difficult question, because no-one really knows (Serafinowicz 2002). The latest edition of the Wandsworth English Dictionary defines 'A Child' as being a creature between 3"2' and 5"6' in height and with a Geiger counter reading of (+/- 2%) 10x108 (Wandsworth 2014). All of this is, of course, the sort of mundanity that is well known in the teacher profession, for what sort of teacher, in these days of accountability and data-obsession, enters the classroom without their handy personal Geiger counter? So the real question here is what makes a child a child outside of just their physical attributes. This, of course, is where Serafinowicz falls short, and not just literally.

If you were to dissect a child, and I'm sure most of you have, you would find a confused jumble of string-like organs, each of which contains an individual 'emotional trail' of hormones. It is now well-understood that only one of these 'emotional trails' can be connected to the organ loosely described as a brain (or 'think-box' in popular Daily Mail nomenclature) and so the trails consistently vie for sustenance from the think-box housed above it, thereby causing the child's infamous mood-swings. Of course, during the cocoon stage, the child's body chemistry will change dramatically into the well-ordered innards of the average human. Some, of course, will not experience this transition and it is for these anomalies the process known as the 'X-factor' was developed to screen them quickly and efficiently into the care and support of the affectionately-named Big Brother house, where caring older 'Siblings' would look after them.

But how do we make sure that our children grow into their cocoon stage in the most productive way, both for them and for society? It has been the way for a number of years now that they should be nurtured and encouraged, but is this really working? Freedom is only causing a spiral of increasingly negative social interaction and aspirations (Bragg 1984). Students no longer aspire to the top of society, instead relying on the quick-fix-comfort of instant celebrity. In fact, the whole X-factor process has changed from being a sad indictment of our failings as a society to a lauded process with a viewership that, I can only surmise, challenges Autumnwatch as the country's favourite programme. And so, where is nuturing getting us but further and further into our own troubles. To borrow a phrase from the educational pyschologists Belle and Sebastian; There is too much love to go around these days.(Belle, Sebastian et al 2000)

There has been significant movement in this new 'Cruel to be Kind' teaching movement already. For example the popular programme 'Mr. Drew's Last Chance School' where students are given a final chance to succeed before they are terminated, has been met with riotous applause. In America, where they are always at the forefront of sensible and effective educational reform, the 'Hunger Games' has promoted creativity amongst selected underachievers in order to facilitate active learning. The 'Hunger Games' is reminiscent of Montessori's dogma of learning through play and experience. (Collins 2008) The Japanese system entitled Battle Royal is less well known, possibly due to its tumultuous beginnings, but must also be considered as it is very much the spiritual predecessor of the American system.(Takami 2007)

In short, this study will focus on a number of the so-called 'Free' schools, which are of course the schools were student behavior has degraded to the point where students are 'free' to do as they please. In charge of each of these will be placed an overseer, or games-master, who will be responsible solely for discipline. It will be their job to set difficult tasks that should foster competition, creativity and ingenuity in order for students to succeed and then to prosper in the difficult adult climate because, after all, aren't children just little adults after all?


Belle Sebastian et al., Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant; The Fallacy of Nuturing in Secondary Schools, Jeepster Press, Glasgow 2000

Bragg B, The Saturday Boy; A Cross-Cultural Study of Teenage Attachment and Workplace Aspiration, Godiscs Press, Barking 1984

Collins S, The Hunger Games Theory; An Exercise In Learning Through Action, District 12 press, The Seam 2008 (Vol.2 2009, Vol.3 2010)

Serafinowicz P, Look Around You, Volume 1 Issue 3, BBC Press, London 2002

Takami K, Battle Royale, Gollancz, London 2007 (first published 1999 in Japanese) 

ed. Tolkein J R R, The Wandsworth English Dictionary for Schools and Outhouses Sixth Edition, Wandsworth University Press, Wandsworth 2014

Appendix A: Premise

So this happened: