Graphic Novel Writing: A Breather Unit

A few posts ago, I wrote about what Beth Rimer calls “Breather Units.” A Breather Unit is a 2-3 week mini-unit in which a teacher engages in something lighter–or perhaps does a bit of review–after a deep and intense unit of study.

Inspired by a Graphic Novel Writing unit Rebekah posted to the Moving Writers Community (Rebekah O’Dell’s Substack in which she provides exclusive content straight from her classroom), I decided to try this kind of writing out with students. I figured it would be fun and engaging, but I didn’t realize it would take off the way it has.

3 minute Primer and a Deep Dive into Mentor Texts

Because of my school’s prime location, we go on monthly walking trips to the city’s central library branch. On the most recent trip, I asked students to pick out at least one graphic novel that they could bring to Writing the next day. If they preferred, they could bring one from the school library, my class library, or from home.

The next day, mentor texts in hand, we went over a brief primer. If you are a member of the Moving Writers Community Substack, Rebekah provides a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Graphic Novel basics. It provides key terms, layout strategies, and more. If you aren’t, you could find something online with a quick Google search.

As we covered some of the basics, I invited students to point out certain features in their own graphic novels and show their examples on our document camera…

“Point to a ‘gutter!'”

“Can you find an example of ‘bleed?'”

“Find a character in the ‘mid ground!'”

Then, we took a few minutes to scroll through our graphic novels to see if we could notice any nifty writing moves that we might try. Students used sticky notes to mark their pages. After a few minutes, I called on 3 students to share. For each share, I invited students to comment on anything else they noticed about the writing move, and then we came up with our own name for it. Later that day, I wrote it out neatly on a big sticky note and slapped it onto our new anchor chart. Every day thereafter, each mini-lesson would open with students teaching and naming different mentor text moves.

It recently hit me that students were surprisingly good at this kind of mentor text work. Maybe it was, in part, due to the fact that we’ve been studying mentor texts all year–but the jump in engagement and quality of work has been steep. In talking with a friend from my weekly writing group, I’ve started to wonder if it’s because many students have more experience–and more background knowledge–with graphic novels…

Using the New (and Old) Anchor Chart(s)

The first week of mini-lessons consisted of just looking for writing moves and playing with them. Students could come up with their own ideas, use the writing territories they’d created in their notebooks, or use a prompt; however, there wasn’t any actual assignment yet. Some wrote as if there were, and others played around.

Looking back, this play period may have been more important that I realized at the time. Students were having fun without the pressure of a looming due date…or a rubric that waitied in the shadows. Quite a few planted seeds of ideas they might develop the in upcoming week, and others just practiced without worrying about lackluster art skills (it helped that I modeled using badly drawn stick figures). Either way, I’ve never seen a more excited group of writers.

Flipping Writing Lessons into Graphic Novel Writing Lessons

The next week, we started drafting. For this part, we used two anchor charts. One old, and one new.

The “Old” Anchor Chart

The old one was an anchor chart we’d used in a previous story-telling unit. The new one was the the one I shared in the last section. I taught mini-lessons (after the student led mentor text lessons) from the old anchor chart, with the simple twist of flipping the lesson into a graphic novel story-telling lesson. For example, in the past, I’d taught students a TCRWP-inspired move called writing “Twin Sentences.” A Twin Sentence is basically where you add another sentence to what you already have in order to elaborate on the previous sentence. For this lesson, I flipped our familiar Twin Sentence strategy into using “Twin Panels”–students would add another panel to elaborate on the previous one.

As students worked during their writing time, I’d sit next to them for a writing conference and ask about how they were using the day’s mini-lesson…and then I’d ask them to look at our “New” anchor chart. Were there any revision opportunities in this draft where they might try out one of these moves?

At the end of graphic novel writing workshop, we’d share and debrief. In our debriefs, we’d talk about how we were trying out moves from the old and new anchor charts, and we’d also talk about similarities and differences between graphic novel writing and “regular” writing. It was cool because we weren’t just learning how to write in one specific modality. We were learning moves that work across modalities.

How are you using graphic novels with students? Have you tried out Rebekah’s graphic memoir unit from the Moving Writers Community? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @MrWteach!

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