Using graphic novels in special needs settings

Want to enthuse your learners with a new way to express themselves? Creating comics can generate some inspiring results, as John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs from Metaphrog explain below.

In March 2012 we went to spend a whole day at Kaimes school in Edinburgh to talk to some of the pupils and teachers about graphic novels and about our work as comic creators.

All the pupils were boys with special needs on the autistic spectrum and although there are some girls at the school, autism is much more common in males.

The idea was to provide something enjoyable, a different kind of day for the pupils, but also to use visual stimulus to open up to them the possibility of developing through comics. 

The day started with an introductory session to more than 30 pupils from S2 to S5: we delivered a highly interactive illustrated talk centred on character design, which went down really well. At several points the pupils were shaking with laughter (and so were we!). This was a great group, and they were certainly not afraid to say what was on their minds (“What’s your diagnosis?” was one question John was asked).

Seventeen pupils then stayed on to work with us in smaller groups, and we divided the rest of the day into several workshop sessions, each concentrating on various aspects of creating narratives with comics: from character design, with sidekicks and worlds, to synopsis and story ideas, right through to actually drawing a finished comic page. We illustrated each step, and regularly went around the tables throughout the day to help and encourage each participant. Finally, we also demonstrated how we work on our own Louis graphic novels and other projects.

The autistic spectrum is extremely broad, and every child has unique talents and needs. Some pupils had no reading or writing skills, and we emphasised to them that this didn’t matter and that they could still draw more ideas instead of writing them. Comics can be silent: you don’t necessarily need words to tell a story.

Others had limited writing skills, but we were really pleased to see that through the day they managed to develop their ideas in words. A teacher commented that one pupil had written more that day than in the entire year! In fact, he kept on writing and writing and adding to his story.

The day was just fantastic, and when we went home and finally had the chance to look in more depth at the work produced, we were astounded at the quality of ideas, drawings and writing. Some children came up with really great character names, like Gene Black. They also found adjectives and made notes to describe their creations.

(You can see some of the pupils' work below, and read an interview with John and Sandra about the pedagogy and learning which took place on the day by clicking here.)

A pupil had already been making his own comics (even though he can’t write or read), and for him, coming up with characters and creating his comic pages seemed effortless and communicating in this way was even almost a relief, a way of getting things out of his system (“Tell me about it!” he agreed.)

His drawing of aliens just amazed us.

Another child’s work was an astonishing Lovecraftian story (his current interest) involving parallel worlds.

Many of the drawings were not only really expressive but also highly skilled, and not just for children their age.

Some of the drawings were downright hilarious!

Never before had we seen such a concentration of brilliant work.

Find out more about Metaphrog at their website! 

We also have three CPD videos from John and Sandra to help you introduce comic creation in your lessons.

Kaimes is a Scottish Book Trust Flagship school, showcasing best practice around our Authors Live programme. Click here to find out more about the great work from Kaimes and three other Flagship schools around the project.