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.

Teaching students to write essays that answer the question: So what?!

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Image by Image by dragonkim29 from Pixabay

Asking “So what?” makes the difference

My juniors finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Instead of taking an objective culminating exam, they will show their learning by writing a literary analysis essay. However, each student will choose the content and the focus of their essays instead of selecting a topic from a list.

With this essay, I wanted to provide an assignment that would be individualized to reflect the lessons and insights they took personally from the novel.

To accomplish this in their essays, I asked students:

  • What do you want for us to see in the text that we might not have seen otherwise?
  • Even better, what does seeing such a thing DO to our reading and understanding of The Old Man and the Sea, or of Hemingway, or the time period, society at the time the books was published, society today, etc?

Based on their first drafts that they turned in a few days ago, I can tell that students have written on a variety of topics. Some have written about the theme of masculinity in the book, some have written about the correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago, some have written about perseverance, and some have focused on the benefits of experience and wisdom.

But here’s another thing I can tell: most students haven’t explained the significance of those discussions. Another way to put it: they still need to explore their claims in the hopes of uncovering the greater significance of those claims.

In short, they need to ask themselves “So what?”

  • For example, it’s great that one student thinks that Hemingway wrote about a man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed,” as one student wrote. But so what? What was Hemingway trying to help readers understand by writing about that man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed?
  • It’s great to claim that Hemingway uses many examples of masculinity in the novella. But what was Hemingway’s point in doing that? So what? What does that DO to our understanding of the novel?
  • It’s great that you see a correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago. But what’s the purpose? So what? What does seeing that symbolism do for our lives?

Read this explanation from the blog, Writing Power.net, which I think does a good job of explaining the importance of answering the So What question. For example…

“Three other ways to phrase the So What question are as follows:

  • What is significant about your claim?
  • How does this enrich my understanding?
  • What are the implications of your claim?

In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders…

The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.”

On my assignment sheet for the culminating essay, I included a rubric of sorts. It contains a list of needed items in the essay: three pages, MLA formatting, two sources, in-text parenthetical citations, two direct quotes, a counter-argument.

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Image by S K from Pixabay 

But really, I also have another purpose — a much greater purpose — to the assignment: I would like to challenge my students to answer the question, So what?

I want them to go further than writing a claim that shows they noticed something in the book. I want them to explain why it’s important to notice that thing in the book. How does noticing that thing affect our lives? What does it teach us? Basically, tell us why it matters. Answer the question, So what?!

And to be truthful, the meaning is more important than the rubric. If a student expounds on their claim, but is short a few paragraphs in length, that’s okay. It’s more important to answer the SO WHAT question than it is to cross off all the boxes.

My juniors will read and revise their first drafts during peer review groups later this week. Hopefully, reading and discussing their essays with their classmates will give them the opportunity to see the importance of  answering the So What? question.


Thanks for reading again this week! Meaning is more important than a rubric. That’s a really hard idea to teach. It’s always easier to focus on mechanics and grammar; it’s harder to help kids think on paper and then communicate their thinking clearly. Have you taught the So What question? If so, please leave a comment with your ideas and experiences.

Five articles to pair with The Old Man and the Sea

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Image by skeeze on pixabay.com.

These articles are intended to round out the ideas presented by the novella

This winter, my junior English students have just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and are beginning to develop their cumulative essays on the novella. To prepare for that, and to build more background knowledge about the novel and Ernest Hemingway, last week students broke into groups and read one article.

After reading the article as a group (however they wanted to accomplish the reading — whether one person read the entire article or each took turns — was fine with me), they gave a short presentation to the rest of their class and discussed the four to five major points or ideas their respective article discussed.

It was a “jigsaw” style of reading the articles. My hope is that students will find the articles helpful as they determine and then develop their individual topics for their essays, which require the novel plus one other source to reference.

Here are links to the articles I gave to each group:

This article, the shortest one of the five, discusses common (almost stereotypical???) themes of masculinity and how those are woven into the book.

This article finds that hope and perseverance to attain that hope is the primary theme Hemingway addressed in the novel.

Fassler focuses on the recurring motif of the lions on the beach laced throughout the book. What do these memories mean to Santiago? This article interestingly dwells on the idea of memory and how our earliest memories never really leave us throughout our lives.

Reimann brings up five points of discussion in this article. The most intriguing one to me was that “some things are meant to remain a mystery.” In the book, Santiago debates the idea of whether killing the marlin was a sin or not. In fact, Hemingway never resolves this issue for the reader and this question is one that remains with the reader long after finishing the book. I like how Reimann gives validity to the idea that authors aren’t required to tie up all the loose ends in their work. Sometimes bringing these questions to light is enough.

This is actually Chapter 14 from the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, a fun read that examines literary techniques and quandaries (such as the prevalence of implied symbolism) in an easy-to-read style.  This is the longest article; give it to your most advanced readers. The book discusses scenes from the book that are highly symbolic. Students will get the author’s point that symbolism, while highly subjective can also be quite obviously implied by authors. What readers do with those symbols is what makes reading fun, spiritually challenging, and most of all, an individualized experience.

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Our presentations on these articles were informal and I required that listeners take notes on the four to five major points that each group discussed about their article. I wanted them to write enough notes to be familiar with each text in, so the articles could be accessed later as students delve into their chosen topics more deeply.


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll keep you posted on their The Old Man and the Sea culminating essays. With all the recent snow days, it has taken us longer than I initially planned to finish this short novella. Up next: more Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Frost.

Do you have any ideas for other articles to pair with The Old Man and the Sea? If so, please leave a comment and share your ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New Units: Beowulf and The Old Man and the Sea

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The British Lit textbook my school uses alongside Hemingway’s book.

Lots of planning comin’ up!

Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.

My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday  and my senior classes will start Beowulf on the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)

 

These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop.  We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.

Until now.

I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.

I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.

For me, tackling anything new in teaching requires patience, planning, and an expectation that for these first attempts, I’ll be learning right alongside my students. I’ll be…

  • exploring new vocabulary
  • answering study questions
  • designing writing projects
  • creating summative assessments, and
  • planning cumulative activities.

It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors.  That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.

As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.

I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.


Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.