The following relates a collaborated pilot study of one teacher’s experiences in teaching Maus to her urban secondary school ESL class.
As an ESL instructor for 16 years, I was a colleague of the teacher, Martha, for 5 years. Together, we designed the class lessons for teaching Maus.
Martha’s advanced level class comprised ELL students from grades 9 to 12, and many were immigrants from countries in Central America, Before plunging into the book with her class, she first surveyed the students on their literacy activities outside of school.
When asked how many books wert in their homes, the overwhelming majority of students responded that their homes had only the school textbooks they were currently using for classes. Most also reported that they never read books for pleasure while the rest read for pleasure sometimes. Outside o school, many students only read the following:
1. Monthly bills to help pay them
2. Mail and flyers
3. English subtitles while watching movies English
4. Downloaded lyrics to favorite songs
5. Messages via texting and instant messaging
6. Websites such as MySpace (only one had heard of Facebook)
Approximately 20%–25% of the class said they occasionally read newspapers, and about the same number of students read comic books.
Teaching Maus to this particular ESL class necessitated a lot of scaffolding and contextualizing: man of the students did not know anything about World War II, the Holocaust, or Judaism; idioms and vocabulary had to be highlighted first; and significantly more than a few had never seen or read a comic book before.
Martha had to show these students how to lead the graphic novel visually, so that the students would be able to follow the sequential but nonlinear paneling of the story. Because “visual images are socially and culturally constructed products which have a culturally specific grammar of their own” (Stenglin & ledema, 2001, p. 194), the students who had never been exposed to the specific visual grammar of a | graphic novel had to adjust to it.
However, once they did, they had little trouble incorporating their own resources of visual literacy (for some, gained from video and online gaming) to help them understand the complex visual metaphors of Maus that further the plot (such as Anja’s inadvertently exposed tail that gives her away as a Jew) and highlight the sinister (the path on which the couple are walking takes the shape of a swastika).
Despite the fact that it is still hard to get Martha’s Students to read independently on their own, and that reading instruction with Maus is the same struggle as with other texts, she reports that the students’ enthusiasm for this graphic novel has been enormous. The novelty of reading a graphic novel in the classroom, its unique modality of visual puns and metaphors, and its compelling narrative all combined to increase the students’ level of reading engagement.
Maus has generated a lot of questions and curiosity about history from the students where none had existed before. Through critical mediation of this text they understand historical concepts in sophisticated ways: “a lot of learning is going on” (M. Atwell, personal communication, July 18, 2008). This demonstrates how mediated multimodal strategies in the critical literacy tool kit engender learner engagement.