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Teaching graphic novels as literature: The Complete Maus enters the curriculum

Next year, senior students in Victoria will be able to study a graphic novel, The Complete Maus, as part of the prescribed English curriculum. As a literary and artistic form, graphic novels combine the…

A graphic novel has been added to the year 12 English curriculum. Graphic novel image from www.shutterstock.com

Next year, senior students in Victoria will be able to study a graphic novel, The Complete Maus, as part of the prescribed English curriculum.

As a literary and artistic form, graphic novels combine the visual with text to create rich and complex narratives. But they also require a different kind of “reading” than the school texts students might be used to.

Setting this text as part of a high stakes, centrally examined curriculum invites a new examination of kinds of literacy and its demands on teachers, students and examiners.

Choosing texts for study

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) provides a list of approved texts for study as part of English and English as an Additional Language. The text list includes a selection of texts in a range of categories - novels, short stories, poetry or songs, plays, non fiction texts and, from 2014, “multimodal” formerly the “film” category.

Next year, this category includes two films, but teachers are also able to select the graphic narrative if they chose.

Texts selected for inclusion on the VCE English/EAL text list, published annually by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, have to meet a number of criteria. These include the need to have literary merit, to be an excellent example of form and genre, and to be able to sustain intensive study, raising interesting issues and providing challenging ideas.

The Complete Maus by Art Spigelman. Flickr/Chiva Congelado

All texts chosen for study must be taken from this list. Teachers chose texts from the list according to a set of guidelines that include the need to strike a balance between different forms – at least one needs to be “an imaginative text”, and at least one must be Australian.

Texts are chosen that will enable teachers to create a course that meets common curriculum priorities and examination requirements, and the needs and interests of their students.

A shift from the norm

The move to expand the category “film” to “multimodal”, and to provide teachers and students with the opportunity to study a graphic novel, is significant. For some time now, teachers and education bodies in Australia have been conscious of the changing nature of literacy, and the need for students to be confident and competent users of traditional and more contemporary forms.

At lower levels in the school, from the Foundation year through to year 10, schools have increasingly incorporated multimodal texts into the curriculum, in response to state and national guidelines. Policy documents for English and literacy, such as the Australian Curriculum: English, recognise the diversity of ways in which meaning is made in the twenty first century.

The decision to set The Complete Maus as a VCE English/EAL text suggests two significant shifts in thinking. First, the graphic narrative now stands alongside plays, poetry and novels as a sophisticated and complex text form worthy of study and close analysis; meeting the common criteria for all texts on the list.

The Complete Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, surviving in Hitler’s Europe. The Complete Maus by Art Spigelman p133-4, Penguin Books

Second, graphic novels are recognised as unique forms in their own right, with their own forms of logic and organisation which differ significantly from both print based genres and from film. This means that teachers and students will have the opportunity to explore and analyse the text, but also recognise the importance of the visual elements of the story.

The distinctiveness of graphic novels

Pages in graphic novels and graphic narratives are made up of words, images and panels. To read them effectively, and to understand their complex and subtle meanings, requires attention to the ways in which both images and words work independently and together. Each has its own logic and way of organising meaning.

In writing, one thing usually follows another. Theorist Gunther Kress describes the “logic” of writing as about time and sequence. With images, on the other hand, lots of information is presented at once. The “logic” of the image is of “space and simultaneity”.

Graphic narratives are quintessentially multimodal, and require new ways of reading that call on both visual and verbal modes. As the field has matured, a canon of sophisticated, multilayered graphic novels and narratives has developed. They are well worthy of study at senior secondary English alongside other forms of literature in more familiar print and multimedia genres.

In setting The Complete Maus, the VCAA has broken into new territory in providing students with the opportunity to study an outstanding text at the most senior level, and to take on the challenge of embracing both contemporary and more traditional forms of literacy.