Mentor Text: WE by Nick Sousanis
- Expressing Opinion
- Visual Thinking
As I write this, I’m beginning the multigenre project with my Grade 11 class. They’ve done some research around a topic that falls into the realm of global issues that interests them, and will use the multigenre project to present their learning and ideas.
I haven’t done the MGP, as I call it, in a few years. It can be a pretty frustrating project with a class who isn’t willing to take risks as writers, and my last swing through left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.
However, this year, I have a class that rolls with just about anything. They’re open to the idea of me throwing random genres at them, and trying them out.
And, as is often the case, a golden piece pops up in my feed.
I’ve been drawn to Nick Sousanis’ work for about a year now. His book, Unflattening, is his dissertation, presented in graphic novel form. For some reason, I haven’t bought it, but the aspects of it that I’ve seen blow my mind. He is an fantastic Twitter follow, because the exercises and examples of his work he shows have such inspiring potential for our classrooms.
So, on Monday morning, when his election comic for 2016, “WE” came across my feed, I knew I had something that would achieve numerous goals. I had a mentor text for something I would love to have my students try, and I also had something to share with you this week.
How We Might Use This Text:
Expressing Opinion – At the core of Sousanis’ piece is his opinion. This is, for all intents and purposes a personal essay, presented visually.
My students have been researching some pretty big topics in the social justice realm. I’m very open with them that part of what they’re doing is exploring these issues, playing with the ideas. I want them to follow that exploration by expression. I want them to express their opinions.
The beauty of this mentor text is that it breaks the formula that students may have become accustomed to for sharing their opinion. It is brief and it is simple. If we look solely at the text, this piece shares a pretty basic idea, and lets us know what the writer thinks. He shares his thinking (“Like many of us, this election cycle…”, talks about a big truth (“The founders began with an inspired idea…”) and gives it personal resonance by sharing his grandfather’s story.
I like that it does all this without becoming overwrought. It is simply the sharing of an opinion, coupled with a pair of straightforward arguments. I’m confident that many students have the arguments formed in their minds, the evidence in their research when they sit down to write the traditional opinion essay piece. We could talk that out, but if this is going to be used in a multigenre project, the reality is that it may show up elsewhere. This piece becomes about the expression of the opinion, not the defense of that opinion. I like that.
Visual Thinking – Obviously, the layout of this piece is an exercise in visual thinking. When I’ve worked with students creating more visually oriented texts like this in the past, much of the dialogue is the same as it traditionally is when we discuss organization. Where do we put things to maximize impact and draw the reader through? What can we do to hook a reader?
However, there are some differences when we talk about creating a text like this one. How do we augment the words with visuals? What is the impact we want to make with the visuals? Are there symbols that will resonate that we should use?
One of the reasons I love this piece as a mentor text is the layout. Look at the top panel. In it Sousanis lays out so many things. He establishes tone, by including words that have been crossed out, showing an evolution of thought, a struggle to find the right word. Huge for our writers, especially when expressing opinion, because often, finding that right word is challenging. Also, filling that top panel with so many drawn words adds to the expression of confusion. Allowing for this kind of expression in an opinion based piece could be quite powerful for our writers.
Continue reading the piece – Sousanis writes, “Sifting through it all, one thing stands out:” He follows that with a panel that sticks out. This would be a great choice to discuss with our writers, considering how you want to use attention grabby visual features in their pieces. This panel draws our eye, and we expect that that panel will hold his core message. The fact that it doesn’t is key to the message of the piece. It should seem simple, but isn’t. The blatant block shouting NO! at us makes that clear. Sousanis uses a visual trick that mirrors what his text does, driving it home further.
Sousanis makes use of symbolism in this piece. The “We” that anchors the piece is meant, and if I’m wrong here, I’ll apologize for my Canadian ignorance, to evoke the Constitution of the United States. The visual stylization of that “We” reminds the reader that voting is protected by the Constitution, and is meant to honour that. It also connects the kind of civic responsibility he advocates to that important document, and set of ideals. Also, we should note the imagery that evokes the Boston Tea Party, and the relevance of that in a discussion of an American vote.
There’s a divergence in the piece. The left side, moving to the bottom right, has Sousanis expanding upon the importance of the “we.” He explains why he thinks it’s important, and breaking it up into tiny chunks, using the visual norms of the comic book page is effective, allowing each morsel of his rationale sit with the reader while they move to the next one.
Impactful in the sense that it is visually different is the smaller, more personal reason Sousanis has for believing in “we.” His grandfather, and immigrant who believed so strongly in what America meant. The juxtaposition of these two pieces is wonderful, especially in the visual sense. The lower case, more personal looking writing on the right highlights the personal nature of that reason. I love the idea that we can validate those reasons through their inclusion in a piece.
Visually, Sousanis does a really cool thing for us as teachers. Elements of this piece, including almost all of the people, are a bit more abstract. The piece is not about the accuracy of the drawings, but more about creating a visual impression. This is pretty important in this particular mentor text. Encouraging students to create visually is daunting for some. Drawing is one of those things where we divide into “can” and “can’t” camps early on. It can be frustrating, but I advocate the importance of the attempt, tempered with the assurance that it’s not an art competition that I’m judging. (In an earlier post here, I shared some material that I show my more reluctant artists.)
I’ve been toying with this idea for awhile. Perhaps it was something that was too far back in a notebook, but WE popping into my feed this week struck a chord. It’s a timely piece obviously, and whichever way this goes, might give our writers a way to explore and express their ideas.
(Sousanis has other really cool examples of this kind of essay on his site, but the resonance of this one, at this time, seems important.)
What other forms do you use to have students express themselves? Can you see other applications for this visual essay style?