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.

Classic Krakauer: an escape to the rugged outdoors for couch-bound students

Yesterday, I flipped through the newest book from Jon Krakauer, Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk. Once again, I was transported to the far reaches of possibility. With Krakauer as my guide, I rappelled down 1,000 feet into Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico; I walked along the sulfur-scented volcanic rim of Mt. Rainier; I climbed beneath an overhanging “bulge of glacial ice” in Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Icefall.

In short, I was taken far away from my couch on yet another day at home during the month-long break my school is taking to control the spread of COVID-19. True, since I teach in a rural school, many of my students are fortunately able to get outside. Social distancing is easy to do out in the country. Still, Krakauer’s adventures allow readers to experience exotic sights and destinations they might never expect to see beyond their local environs.

I wish each of my students had a copy of this book to read at home during the break.

I’ve been a fan of Jon Krakauer ever since I read Into Thin Air, his eyewitness account of the 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy where eight climbers were killed in an unexpected snowstorm on their descent from the summit. Since then, I’ve read Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless and his fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness; Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith; and Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Krakauer’s latest book, Classic Krakauer, is a 181-page compilation of ten essays and articles that he wrote early in his career as a freelancer for The New Yorker, Outside and Smithsonian magazines, and New Age Journal. I haven’t read them all yet, but here are those I have read so far:

  • Descent to Mars, the story of NASA research in Lechuguilla Cave
  • Death and Anger on Everest, an account of the 2014 tragedy that highlighted the dangers sherpas endure
  • Living Under the Volcano, a story about the prospects of living beneath Mt. Rainier
  • After the Fall, an account of the liability issues that have arisen with the rising popularity of mountain sports

Any one of these pieces would be excellent — and I mean EXCELLENT — readings for my junior and senior English students. Each is a riveting mix of narrative and expository prose that’s packed with compelling digressions that build thick, meaty tales that can be consumed in one — okay, maybe two — sittings.

Even studying Krakauer’s vocabulary would be beneficial for my students. While much of the book’s vocab is domain specific to, for example, mountaineering (such as belay) or geology (such as lahar), Krakauer also employs a healthy dose of rich Tier 2 words that my students need to read and hear (such as discombobulated or pique). Many of my students think writers use “big words” just to confuse readers; Krakauer’s sophisticated semantics are an essential and useful component to his prose.

I’m thinking about requisitioning a classroom set of this book for next year.

Any one of the writings within it would spark robust discussions not only about the subject matter, but also about the writing moves Krakauer makes. Yes, I see great potential in Krakauer’s latest offering.


Thanks for reading! Do you use any Krakauer books in your classroom? What has been your experience? Placed any orders for next year? It seems so far in the future to be thinking about next fall, but once the corona virus chaos is over, it will be back to normal before we know it. Leave a comment with your thoughts about your wish list for 2020-21.

Students should write about their lives right now: Life in the Time of Corona

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I made this writing assignment last weekend. Here’s the link.

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our world in so many ways. It’s disrupting normal life routines including school and employment, and social activities such as weddings, prom, and graduations. In fact, the county next to mine just announced a thirty-day shelter-in-place order.

Nearly every aspect of American life has changed. It is truly a historic event.

So when California high school English educator Kelly Gallagher tweeted last week that students “should write daily about this time history,” I thought Yes, of course! What an awesome idea!

So I got busy creating an assignment sheet for students to use to capture this moment in time. (Full disclosure: In the end, actually, I summarized this sheet and made it part of a larger “distance learning packet” that students took home with them at the end of the day on Tuesday, March 17.)

Here’s the link to a Google Doc of my handout. You should be able to edit it to suit your needs and/or students. Get the link here: LIFE IN THE TIME OF CORONA writing assignment.

Again, credit goes to Gallagher for the inspiration for this assignment, which I have named “Life in the Time of Corona,” a play on words mimicking Love in the Time of Cholera, the 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

My assignment is a journaling and scrapbook project that encourages students to document their experiences, activities, and thoughts about the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

It also asks them to collect some artifacts… news stories, screenshots, a few squares of toilet paper (ha!), a list of cancelled events.

Here’s a snapshot of what the assignment asks students to do:

Over the next week, keep a journal of your activities, thoughts, and experiences in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write about what you do know about the virus.
  • Write about what you don’t know.
  • Is it business as usual? (Describe business as usual… your normal routine.)
  • Are you going out? Where?
  • What have you cancelled?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your life so far?
  • Have you tried to shop for supplies in case of a lockdown? How did that go?
  • Do you know what to do if we are restricted?
  • Write about the contradictions or confusion that exists in the media.
  • Reflect on the memes that seem to be multiplying faster than the virus itself.
  • What news stories have you heard, read, or watched?
  • Has anything or anyone inspired you in the midst of the coronavirus?
  • In short, write about whatever you want to write about as it relates to the pandemic.

At the end of our break (or at some other time yet to be determined), turn in:

Five journal entries of at least one paragraph each, typed or handwritten.

–A media report, story, or timeline. Print out a news article or take a screenshot of an article about the virus and its spread.

One artifact of the epidemic…In twenty years, for example, when you’re nearing forty years of age, what item would remind you of today? A photo of empty store shelves? The label from a hand sanitizer bottle? A listing of cancelled events? Some squares of toilet paper?

Audience: Yourself, your future children??? Think of this as a scrapbook of sorts, or an entry in a memory book.

Again, get the link here: Life in the Time of Corona

If you try this assignment, please let me know how it goes. And, by the way, this is NOT road-tested, obviously. This is all new territory, so if I’ve left anything out, please let me know!


Thanks for reading again this week! Also, I will likely post again in a few days as the pandemic situation seems to change daily. If your school has cancelled and you’re busy writing up online instruction, share your thoughts in the comments. Here’s a link to a good book when students have to be inside: “A River Runs Through It: A fresh walk outside for students staying inside”

A River Runs Through It: a fresh walk outside for students staying at home

The movie adaptation (at left) is just that: an adaptation. It follows the book with a few minor changes. In the middle is a mass market paperback I’ve had forever; at right is the class set hardcover my students are reading.

My Novels class is reading this over the break

My Novels class is currently reading (or supposed to be reading — wink wink) this classic novel by Norman Maclean. I’m reading it again alongside them and this morning I arrived at page forty. It’s only 110 pages long, so it’s a quick read.

If you haven’t read this novella, do; it’s a breath of fresh air in this time of social distancing. (And sidenote: If you’re not into fly-fishing, push through the long, tedious paragraphs about casting, fish psychology and other specific aspects of the sport; however, don’t dismiss these purposeful passages either. Maclean uses fly-fishing metaphorically to tell his story.)

Based between Helena and Missoula, Montana, much of the action takes place on the Big Blackfoot and the smaller Elkhorn. The story shows the struggles of a young Montanan named Paul Maclean through the eyes of his older brother, Norman. The brothers share idyllic childhoods as the sons of a Presbyterian minister. In telling about his brother’s adult life that revolves around journalism, betting, alcohol, and fly-fishing, Norman shares his own struggle to take care of those we love but don’t ever quite understand.

Don’t miss the 1992 PG-rated movie adaptation. It’s also an escape into the great outdoors and the depths of family compassion. Directed by Robert Redford (read my post on Robert Redford Dessert here), the 1992 movie stars Craig Scheffer as Norman Maclean, a very young Brad Pitt in the role of Paul, Tom Skerritt as the boys’ father, and Brenda Blethyn, as their mother.

That’s all I’ll say for now, but know that this novel takes you out on great northern rivers, along Montana roads, into dark and dusty speak-easies, and into Presbyterian church pews where a message of love and forgiveness is extolled.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if you’ve taught this book before.

Something there is that doesn’t love a Coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Evgeny Dzhumaev on Unsplash

The coronavirus and Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Holed up at home at my dining room table, I’m continuing with my lesson planning as scheduled during our two-week school closing. After our recent Ernest Hemingway unit concluded last week, my plan was to introduce my juniors to Robert Frost.

Lucky them.

Frost’s poetry is poignant, honest, and direct and comments beautifully on personal wonderings, human relationships, and living in general. I always find Frost’s work to be rejuvenating and clarifying.

My plans call for students to first read Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and then “Birches,” and finally, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Once we return to school, we’ll tackle “The Road Not Taken.”

On my distance learning plan for today, I scheduled my juniors to read some short biographical background articles on Frost in our textbook.

Robert Frost in 1910 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then, they were to freewrite in response to a prompt designed to prepare them for reading “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most well-known poems. It’s about the barriers that people use (and often work darn hard to maintain, by the way) to keep others at a distance. Here’s the freewriting prompt my students have for today:

“Think about the people who live near you. Do you see them often? Are you good friends, or do you barely speak? What activities, if any, bring you together? What things keep you apart?”

When I first read this prompt, I thought of the coronavirus.

What brings us together? Coronavirus. What keeps us apart? Coronavirus.

Yes, the coronavirus is literally keeping us apart. Social distancing is the new buzzword and best practice.

However, we can also say that the coronavirus pandemic and school closings are bringing us together. For example, I’m emailing regularly with one of our neighbors, an elderly woman who lives across the street. Before the social distancing began, even though she lives just across the way, our busy schedules prevented us from seeing her outside of our weekly meet-up at church (which is now cancelled indefinitely, of course). However, now, due to the coronavirus, we’ve had more contact with her this week than we usually do.

Bottom line: the walls that keep us from more regular contact with our neighbor — busy schedules — don’t have to exist. And that’s what Frost is getting at with “Mending Wall,” his little poem that questions why humans erect and then maintain barriers that distance themselves from those nearby.

And that brings me back (yet again) to another reason why I love Robert Frost. His work, and “Mending Wall” in particular, is as relevant today — possibly more so — than it was when it was written in 1914.

And that’s a good reason to stick to my regularly scheduled lesson plans during this two-week school closure.

My daughter took this picture of me visiting Robert Frost’s grave in Bennington, Vermont in 2002.

Thanks for reading! I’m writing daily about my Life in the Time of Corona along with my students. We are journaling and keeping artifacts from this time of school closings and social distancing to document this history. Since I think a great deal about school and lesson planning, my daily journaling about the pandemic and this blog naturally coincide.

Feel free to leave a comment about the lessons you have planned for the school closing.

Prepping for the Coronavirus break

Yes, I use technology in class, but I’m also an old-school fan of paper. Scroll down for a photo of what I sent home with students yesterday for the coronavirus break.

Paper paper everywhere. Distance learning doesn’t mean high-tech for me.

Yesterday at 3:35 pm, my school released until April 1st in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. The night before, I was sitting at my dining room table preparing plans for students to accomplish over the break. Just because we’re not in school doesn’t mean we’re not learning.

My plans involve students creating a journal/scrapbook that will document their experience in this once-in-a-lifetime global event. About every other day, they will write a half-page to one page journal entry on what’s happening in their life, this local area, the nation, and world. They are also to collect some kind of artifact or memento each day they write… a photograph, a newspaper clipping, sheets of toilet paper???

I also sent them home with an AOW (article of the week) assignment on recent advances in bionic prosthetic limbs. No, it’s not pandemic-related, but that’s probably a good thing; we don’t need to dwell on the coronavirus 24/7.

My plans also call for good, old-fashioned textbook reading and response. Juniors are reading three classic Robert Frost poems, “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Birches.” When we return, we’ll read the ultra-popular and oft-quoted “The Road Not Taken.” Seniors are beginning a study of Medieval Period literature. They’ll be reading “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Barbara Allen.” When we return, we’ll tackle some Chaucer. My Composition students are reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It over the break.

Taking a slightly different route, my Novels class is writing a Southern Gothic short story, the culminating activity in our study of this genre.

My school administrators encouraged teachers to send paper assignments home with students as 47.8% of our students do not have internet access at home using a computer, laptop,or Chromebook.

Here are some handouts I prepared at my dining room table Monday night. I arrived at school early enough Tuesday morning to make copies for my classes. I checked out textbooks “just in case” to students last Friday and gave them class codes for Remind messages on Monday.

I also like the idea of putting learning materials, a ten-day schedule, and instructions in their hot little hands instead of assuming all electronic messages will be received and/or acknowledged. I’m also keeping in touch with students via Remind, a messaging app that feels like a private Twitter for groups.


Thanks for reading! How are your “coronavirus break” distance learning plans going? Feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll be doing some writing alongside my students, so stay tuned for future posts about our journal/scrapbook activities.

Watch this TED Talk about coronavirus

Photo by L N on Unsplash

…especially if you’re still in school

Thanks to educator Kelly Gallagher for tweeting a link to this video. Global health specialist Alanna Shaikh speaks candidly about the coronavirus and COVID-19 with honesty and practical insight. I showed it on Friday to one of my high school classes (mostly juniors). They listened intently and left my room calm and collected. It had been a hectic Friday and this TED Talk added some clarity to the situation. Take a look-see during your plan time today if possible.

Thanks for stopping by during this busy time! Chime in with how your school is dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19. My school is still in session and no adjustments are in the works at the current time. I have been told, however, to begin planning two weeks of lessons that can be supplied to students either online or by mail.