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?!?) Here is a photo of the assignment sheet I made:

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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 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!

My one and only complaint with the Missouri Learning Standards

They just seem a little vague.

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Photo: Pexels

Last week, one of my students came across the term “hyperbole” on a vocabulary assignment. “What does hyperbole mean?” he asked.

Wow, I thought. Five years ago, my students knew that term. Why? Because I taught it to them, along with other common figurative language techniques. Why? Because they were specifically listed in the standards, which at the time were known as Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs) and were in place when I began teaching in 2011.

But hyperbole isn’t even mentioned today in the Missouri Learning Standards (MLS), the educational standards adopted by Missouri legislators in 2016 and modeled on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Also not mentioned are these: simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, and oxymoron.

And this illustrates my one and only complaint with the MLS for English Language Arts: They just seem a little vague, when compared to the old GLEs, which were clear, specific, and practically a checklist even, of the techniques and academic language terms Missouri kids were expected to know. Heck, I even remember printing out the figurative language section of the GLEs for each grade that I taught (6th, 7th, and 8th), and crossing off each device as I covered it in my classes.

In general, I’m a fan of the Missouri Learning Standards, and their progenitor, the Common Core. I can support the various standards and the modifications made.

Yes, at first, I questioned the subjugation of grammar, mechanics, and conventions (known as language standards) under various subsections of the writing standards; however, as a teacher in my third year of implementation of the MLS, I have reconciled what some may perceive as a dismissal of grammar with what I believe is a more authentic approach that 1) stresses an initial emphasis in the writing process on ideas, and 2) leaves the grammar checks and editing for later. In the words of the late writing instructor Gary Provost, “Good grammar does not guarantee good writing any more than a good referee guarantees a good basketball game.”

Still, my support for this aspect of the MLS is tempered by a desire for greater specificity within those standards, especially when those specifics include literary techniques that I know my students will be expected to know during standardized testing in the spring.

In effect, the CCSS and MLS have left it up to the educators to pinpoint the devices they will teach. And, yes, it’s excellent that educators are allowed the freedom to teach the devices they choose, but how am I supposed to help my students do well on a standardized test (that ultimately determines federal funding of my school district, by the way) if I am unaware of the items to be tested?

So, even though I support the CCSS and the MLS, holes do exist in them. I’ve attended standard setting meetings with other educators where we’ve pored over the standards line by line.  And true, one could say the standards reflect overall what educators have deemed necessary; however, those needs do not always match up with the tests that students undergo every spring.

To remedy that, my ideal standards would be a melding of the old GLEs into the MLS that would precisely include the specific skills, techniques, and terminology that students need to know not only to express themselves accurately but also to successfully complete a standardized test.


Thanks for reading my blog again this week! I’m sharing this activity below from Education.com even though I’m receiving no compensation for doing so. This puzzle, which you could use as a bell-ringer, exit ticket or simply as a discussion starter, will help your students learn the seven most common figurative language techniques: simile, hyperbole, alliteration, metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, and oxymoron.

Click here for puzzle PDF: figurativelanguage_crossword_boat (1)

Click here for puzzle key PDF: figurativelanguage_crossword_boat_answers (1) (1)

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This figurative language crossword puzzle is perfect for students who are working toward more colorful and interesting writing assignments! Be sure to check out more reading and writing activities at Education.com!