'Zombie graphic novels can engage students scared off by the classics'

3rd December 2017 at 08:03
We must save our GCSE resit students from the onslaught of an undead curriculum by offering them a more graphic alternative, Andrew Otty writes

Zombies can help to reanimate your English-resit lessons. In fact, resit leaners are a lot like a group of survivors in the zombie apocalypse: They retreat from a relentless tide of festering, unimaginative nineteenth-century text choices. They relive traumas of past experiences and can easily give up hope. They live in fear of ranks of pale exam papers ghoulishly awaiting them in abattoir-like exam halls.

Very early on in my career, I know I snobbishly raised an eyebrow at colleagues using graphic novels to teach English. I felt, and still feel, that one of the most crucial things we do as English teachers is to expose students to texts they would otherwise not experience. However, after years of working with those who do not voluntarily pick up books, I accept now that we need to warm them up to reading. It’s just the same as if I had to suddenly flee a herd of flesh eaters at my current level of physical fitness; I wouldn’t get far before collapsing and giving up. When the apocalypse comes, I’ll need a training routine that builds up from a very low starting point.

Sections of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead graphic novels are great for showing learners that they already know how to make inferences and interpret actions and events. Once they understand what those skills mean when applied to a visual source, they are less fearful of being asked to apply them to written texts.

It helps that zombies are so infectiously popular right now, not just with my learners but with my colleagues, too. Spotting the macabre volumes on my desk as I began this project, a vocational teacher and fellow WD fan struck up a conversation on this shared interest. Soon, my English GCSE students in her level-2 make-up artistry group were gleefully turning each other into zombies.

Meanwhile, in my lesson I asked them to each select a frame from very early on in Kirkman’s Walking Dead, as the protagonist, Rick, wakes from a coma in a now-abandoned hospital. There is little speech, so it allowed imaginative mind-mapping around the images: considering all the senses and what Rick might be thinking and feeling. Alongside this, I introduced some appropriately-themed vocabulary, such as “fluorescent”, “decomposing”, “abhorrent”, and ran a quick revision activity on using ellipses effectively. They surprised themselves with the quality of creative writing they then produced to describe their chosen frames.

'Reading can release the dreamers in us'

This accessible start gave them the confidence to venture further into other sources. Weeks later, after running through the bloodied streets of Manhattan alongside lonely Jesse, in James Phelan’s gripping YA-novel Chasers, and exploring the dark corners of the iconic Spencer Mansion from 90s console game Resident Evil… and becoming increasingly impatient with me continually playing the soundtrack from The Last of Us in the background… they were ready to take on HP Lovecraft’s Reanimator. Written in 1921, it was an adequately-challenging penultimate step before their first mock of the Edexcel English language paper 1, where they will face a nineteenth-century-fiction extract.

One of the most destructive barriers we see in our learners is the tendency to shut down immediately, as though fatally bitten, upon encountering unfamiliar vocabulary. Even with them engaged in this popular and exciting genre, it was vital not to lose momentum as soon as the language of the texts became more difficult. Therefore, I introduced a few lines from Lovecraft with numerous words blanked. They could suggest their own substitutes, which I often found were much better choices, or they just worked around them to discern meaning. The “silent figure beneath the dazzling arc-light” became the figure beneath the “dazzling fluorescent”.

I began to feel more reassured that the dense and complex extract from 1890s horror The Beetle, that I had chosen for the mock, would not cause the same paralysing panic in the students as experienced by its unfortunate subject.

Looking back, my favourite of the zombie texts I’ve covered this term was the unlikely genre-bending YA novel Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion. Most students felt the same. Julie, the heroine, is saved from a gruesome death by a sympathetic zombie. As they spend time together he seems more and more human to her and they fall in love. Julie’s struggle is in convincing the other survivors that there’s more to the zombies, that they’re worth a second look and the risk that entails. Her father, the General, is so intent upon the zombies’ destruction that he can see neither their humanity nor Julie’s idea that they represent “this dry corpse of a world” that has forgotten love and beauty.

“You are a dreamer. You are a child,” he tells her. Tragically, he sees it as a failing.

I believe that reading can release the dreamers, the eternal children, in all of us. We need to help our English-resit learners see past the shuffling, grey preconceptions of literature and connect with the hearts of novels that have so much to offer us. The viscera and adrenaline of zombie narratives can help us to achieve this, and their common theme of Change resonates very strongly with young people. So, help your students to pull down their barricades, drop their shotguns, and throw open the classroom doors…

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720

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