I’m a big fan of multi-modal approaches to reading comprehension — I’ve written before about having students draw a poem, and I’ve adapted Barclay Barrios’s idea about IKEA directions for my freshman orientation group. Most recently, I borrowed an idea from my colleague — a Germanist who teaches a course on fairy tales — for my day on Charles Dickens in my survey course: create a comic highlighting the main points of the story.
On this particular day, my students read “The Story of Little Dombey” and “Sikes and Nancy,” which are Dickens’ own adaptations of his work for his public speaking tour — essentially, they are selections from two novels that he performed for his audience, giving only the central parts of these two particular episodes.
So, to prep my students, I showed them a few examples from Hark, a vagrant. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the artist takes literature and history as a subject matter for 6 or 9 paneled comics. They’re funny, they’re spot on, and they can show students how it’s important — even in making jokes — that we have something to hang on to from the literature. (My favorite is “Dude Watching With the Brontes”.) For me it established a tone for the class — we’re serious here in our study of literature, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This is supposed to be fun — but reflective of the text in front of us.
From here, I provided groups of three a sheet with six panels on it, and had students select one of the two stories. The directions from this point on were to pick the 6 most important moments, and illustrate them as best as they could. This work got students talking about the plots, and particularly identifying the plots that didn’t quite work out of the context of their respective novels. But they also talked a great deal about the central themes of the stories.
What the students came up with was amazing. In general, students approached the topic differently. We had lol-speak. We had serious attempts at illustrating the important moments. We had references to contemporary pop-culture — and one group even explained that the last moment of “Sikes and Nancy” would be saved for the post-credit sequence.
After students worked on their comics, I had the groups explain their choices, which allowed us to look at what they saw as not only central moments in the stories, but also the themes of the stories. What was remarkable about the effort was that students gravitated towards similar moments in the two stories. For example, the groups that chose “Little Dombey” all focused on the little boy’s complaint that money (his father’s highest concern) could not bring back his dead mother.
In all, the students were able to sort out the plot, the characters, the themes without my intervention — and that goal is certainly a huge part of working on their ability to read literature.