Graphic essays add variety and visual creativity

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A fresh way to reflect on Douglass’ experience, themes and symbolism

During spring 2019, I assigned graphic essays to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. This incredible book, which provides Douglass’ first-hand account of the horrors and traumas of American slavery, provides a reading experience that is both sobering and inspiring.

In short, Douglass’ narrative is a lot to take in.

For my students, I felt graphic essays would:

  1. offer a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help students discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found the idea for a graphic essay on a blog by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her website, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Usually in my classes after we finish reading a book, students write a traditional essay on a specific topic or question from the book. However, at the conclusion of reading Douglass, my eighth graders were already writing another essay on Douglass  to be included in their human rights dissertations.  So instead of writing another essay, I decided to provide some variety and offer an alternative… the graphic essay.

When I explained the assignment to them, they were eager to be my “guinea pigs” (yet again!) for this new-to-me project.  I’ve never had students not want to experiment with a new idea and I let them know that I appreciate their flexibility.

To introduce the project, I gave each student a copy of the assignment sheet. My sheet was based on Hamilton’s, which was based on Christenson’s. (Don’t you love how teachers borrow from each other?!?) Below you’ll find a photo of the assignment sheet I made and here’s a link to it as a Google Doc.

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Here’s a link to this handout that explains the procedure I designed for my class.

In class, we read through the steps and the requirements for the project. We also discussed the three theme options from which they could choose. Deciding on one of these themes was the first part of the process, as shown in step number one in the photo above.

They then were to develop a thesis statement that would argue the theme they chose. Following this, they were to cite three quotations from the book that supported their theme, and then provide a commentary or explanation of how each quote supported or related to the theme.

Students then were to select a symbol that would connect to and unify  the theme. Finally, they were to compose all these elements on an 11″ x 17″ sheet of construction paper.

They could use any art materials I had in my room (markers, colored pencils, crayons, stickers).

We also decided to sacrifice an older copy of Douglass to use in the essays. Students could use the pages of the actual text in their compositions. Some cut shapes out of the pages, while others used the pages that contained their quotes used to support their chosen themes.

I also had printed off some photos from Christenson’s blog post. These photos showed some examples of graphic essays. This was very helpful as it showed my students the level of detail that was expected.

Here are pictures of those mentor texts:

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Graphic essays created for Walden Pond by students at North Atlanta High School. See Living in the Layers for more.

Overall, the project went well, considering it was my first attempt. When all the essays were finished, I posted them in the room in “gallery walk” style, so students could vote for their top six. I projected the requirements on the Smartboard during the “gallery walk” so students could choose those that best met the criteria. This was needed so students wouldn’t focus too much attention on the artwork at the expense of the theme, evidence, commentary, and symbolism.

How well each essay met the criteria was an important distinction for them to make, too. One student with excellent creative execution didn’t cite any quotations. Despite the visual appearance of this student’s project, it didn’t accomplish the other goals, and as a result, students wisely did not give this student’s essay”Top 6″ status .

Here are more graphic essays made by my students:

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As you can see, some essays were more involved than others. One contained flaps that were to be lifted to reveal the commentary below, while another contained a safe with a door that opened as its symbol. One that was artistically well-executed didn’t contain textual evidence; students didn’t award it “Top 6” status.

I’ll try this project again next year at my new high school position. I really like how it capitalizes on students’ learning differences and creativity to discuss and argue theme and symbolism. Another — and perhaps more important — bonus: students further explore and reflect on Douglass’ sobering testimony and inspiring life and career. Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration.


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Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried graphic essays in your language arts or English classroom? Feel free to leave a comment below to share your experience with this project idea.

Published by marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

4 thoughts on “Graphic essays add variety and visual creativity

      1. Hello! I just placed a link in the post. Look for the photo of the assignment sheet and in the caption there’s a link to a Google Doc. Also, in the text right above the photo, there’s another link to the same doc. Thank you again for reading and requesting!

        Liked by 1 person

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