Graphic essays for high school students: A creative way to teach theme

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Here’s how I’ve used graphic essays and what I’ll tweak for next time.

My junior English classes recently read the short story, “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway as a follow-up to reading “The Old Man and the Sea.” Because they had just completed a traditional written thematic analysis of the novel, I opted to have them produce a graphic essay instead focused again on a theme revealed in the text.

It's worth knowing -- as a side note -- that I decided to do back-to-back thematic analysis projects during third quarter for a specific reason. Last fall, after reading Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," I could quickly tell that students were struggling with identifying and commenting on story themes in their essays. At the time, I had intended to have students generate third drafts of those essays, but after the second, I quickly drew the assignment to a close. Too many students just weren't ready to write extensively on a theme in Jackson's story. It seemed they were struggling to even identify a theme. Maybe it was the text, maybe it was me, maybe... who knows, but it just wasn't working. I quickly had students turn in their second drafts and we moved on to a month-long writer's workshop project, which allowed them to get more comfortable with writing in general, and more creative pieces in particular. And honestly, that was a nice change, especially since I was a new teacher at the school and was still getting to know the students.

I’ve assigned graphic essays before at my last school where I asked my eighth-graders to create these at the conclusion of a study of Frederick Douglass’ narrative. Click here for a post about that graphic essay assignment. It was a successful project; however, since it was the first time I had tackled the graphic essay, it left room for improvement. And by the way, that need for improvement always happens, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a new assignment or a tried-and-true one, I always discover things I want to “fix” for next time.

And, of course, our “In Another Country” graphic essays followed that trusty pattern.

Regardless, I’ve decided to write this post about this project based on a short story I wasn’t even sure I wanted to approach with students. In my view, there are other more interesting pieces by Hemingway (think “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” but now in retrospect, I am SO GLAD I plowed ahead and experienced “In Another Country” with my students because this story is rich with themes and historical context and it paves the way for good discussions about World War I (and by extension World War II), the Lost Generation, the birth of modernism, and even more specifically the influence of avant garde art on writers.

This graphic essay used three quotes from the text when the assignment requested one. I actually see more value in students using and interpreting one piece of evidence (especially when the text is short to begin with). This student’s work shows a thorough thought process, creativity, and neatness.

To culminate our reading of “In Another Country,” the graphic essay project was intended to:

  1. offer my students a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help them 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 graphic essay idea a little over a year ago in a post by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her blog, 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.

Last year, I modified my Frederick Douglass graphic essay project to conform itself to a shorter work. Douglass’ narrative runs 175 pages or so depending on the edition you read, and can support a more extensive graphic essay. “In Another Country” is quite short. It covered four pages in our Glencoe Literature textbook.

The only change I did make, however, was to have students use one piece of textual evidence to support their chosen theme instead of three. I like this modification; it compels students to find the absolute best passage from the story instead.

This isn’t an art project, and I get that. Clear commentary and interpretation take precedence.

I also allowed students to look outside the story for their symbols, which were to symbolize in some way their chosen theme. This is one detail of the project I may modify next time, but the jury is still out on that one. In short, due to the brevity of the story, there really aren’t that many possibilities for symbols used within the text; however, maybe I need to read the story more closely with that precise need in mind for the next time I plan for this project.

Even so, for this graphic essay, I did scaffold the theme identification process and provided five specific themes from the story that students could explore.

Here are the five specific themes:

  • loss
  • isolation
  • dislocation/being a foreigner
  • self-doubt
  • the technology dilemma (For example, technological progress can both help and harm mankind; the machines of war can be destructive (as in weapons and artillery) but they can also heal (as in the physical therapy “machines” in the story).

Maybe I made this project too easy by providing students with predetermined themes. After all, in our recent essays written for “The Old Man and the Sea,” we read articles that addressed specific themes in that novel. Those articles (here’s my post about those five articles) assisted students in identifying themes within the book to write about. It will be interesting to see how well students are able to notice and discuss themes next year when I have them as seniors. Perhaps at that time I’ll have them recall these two thematic essay projects to jog their memories.

Anyway, I provided them with these five choices for themes and then let them run with it, following the guidelines provided on a printed handout. Here’s a screenshot of the assignment sheet. Here’s a link to the Google doc of this handout.

This project took my students two to three work sessions of thirty to forty minutes each.

I assigned this project on a Friday with about twenty minutes of work time available and scheduled it to be due at the end of class the following Tuesday. After vocabulary bell work and a mini-lesson, students had about thirty to forty minutes on Monday and Tuesday. Looking back on it, two and half class periods were just about right. Most students were able to finish without needing time outside of class; some were finished by the beginning of class Tuesday, which fortunately just happened to be our last day of school before closing for COVID-19.

Overall, I’m satisfied with this project.

Am I happy with the final products? Mostly.

Many of my students are more concerned with getting the project finished quickly, and so could have spent more time on their graphic essays.

Here’s what I would change for next time:

  • Have students spend more time developing thesis statements. I provided an example on the sheet as a guide, but many students basically copied it, swapping out the theme provided for theirs, if needed.
  • Stipulate that symbols need to be objects and not illustrations. For example, a stick figure drawing is an illustration, not a symbol. I might need to explain the difference: a symbol represents something; an illustration shows something.
  • Call for students to add a sentence or two near their symbols that explains the symbol and how it represents the theme discussed.
  • Require color and lots of it. While this isn’t an art project, I would still like them to create an interesting, eye-catching layout.
  • Require that handwriting be done in pen, i.e. no pencil.

Without further ado, here are the rest of the graphic essays I’ve chosen to include in this post. I’ve included two photos for each of the five themes discussed. These graphic essays below tended to be a representative sample of the quality of work my juniors turned in. See the captions for more thoughts.

Note to self for the future: remind students that symbols are objects or concepts. A thought bubble with words could be improved upon. For example, a family photo the soldier carries with him be a symbol of his desire to please his family and his lack of confidence to do so.
I’m not sure that I like how this student has labelled each part of her project. But then again, if that helps her organize it, I guess that’s okay.
I’m not a fan of pencil for this type of project. Next time, I’ll ask students to use pen if they handwrite.
Italy was the symbol for this one. An explanation of Italy at the time the story was written would have been helpful near the country cutout, but I’m glad this student included the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
I thought this student did an exceptional job with interpreting the theme of isolation as found in the quote used. Noting that being “guinea pigs” with a medical procedure is isolating in itself demonstrates deeper thinking.
This graphic essay needs much more interpretation of the evidence. This student could explain the dilemma she is addressing. She discusses the doubt in the technology, but not the dilemma that modern technology brought during World War I.
This essay has a thesis question, but not a thesis statement. Some students really struggle with writing thesis statements, although generally, if they can write a question, with a little work they can turn it into a statement. Also, this graphic essay would have been more effective with more color and an explanation of the symbols.

Thanks for reading! I haven’t seen students since the day these projects were turned in and, as of the latest, we will be out of school until Tuesday, April 28. This project will seem so far in the past at that time that I doubt if many constructive comments will arise. But that’s one of the downsides of distance learning and the passage of time.

Regardless, have you tried graphic essays with your students? Let me know of your experience. And follow my blog for a future post about my lack of success — so far, anyway — with the popular One-Pager.

Author: marilynyung

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

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