Photo Friday: Graphic Essays

I like how graphic essays, in many cases, help students hone their skills with the most crucial parts of a thematic analysis essay.

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks of textual evidence, interpretation, and symbolism. Read this post to see how my juniors creatively demonstrated their knowledge of various themes found in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.”


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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.

The Graphic Essay: A fresh way to discuss theme with evidence, commentary, and a dash of symbolism

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I will definitely try this project again. I see potential.

This spring, I assigned  a graphic essay to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative.  I felt the graphic essay 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 this idea 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.

IMG_8461
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:

IMG_8462
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 artistic talent to discuss and argue theme and symbolism.  Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried graphic essays in your language arts or English classroom? Drop me a comment and share your experience. See you next week!