Classroom Teaching Guide
Teaching with March
The March Trilogy has won numerous prestigious awards, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Will Eisner Award, and many others. These accolades easily justify its use in our classrooms, and I’m excited to tell you about the impact it has had on my classroom, as well as offer some suggestions as to how you can integrate the March books into your teaching.
More than any other graphic novel resource, this is the one that has had the single biggest impact on my classroom and students’ engagement. I collected data via conversations and several surveys with my students before, during, and after reading these books. Many students self-reported that this was the first book they were truly excited to read, that they came to class and wanted to read, they were highly engaged in research projects and discussions, and they asked for additional time to discuss what they had read. My students most remarked that March was powerful because it made the events personal and allowed them to experience the events through Lewis’ eyes. An additional plus for classroom use is that there are many extension resources available, including current interviews with Lewis, Aydin, and Powell – in this sense, it is not only a history book, but also one that centers on an important historical actor who is still politically active today making it easy to integrate into current event discussions as well. If you are just beginning to integrate graphic novels in the classroom, this is THE book to use.
March allows us to go beyond the usual Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks version of history as we can explore much more of the Civil Rights Movement, disagreements within the movement, many historical characters, and, most importantly, make direct connections to the lives of students today. The very idea of a student led movement in SNCC really impressed my students. They asked what student organizations are involved in making changes today and how they themselves can facilitate change. This amazing story shows students that individuals can change the course of history, even at their age and younger. This can all be done in only a class reading or two, or, as I use it, an anchor through which to examine the Civil Rights Movement, of the 50s-60s and today over the course of weeks. My biggest issue in using March, and it is a positive one, is that students often want to spend even more time discussing the life of John Lewis than I can give!
In large part, it is the stunning visual art of Nate Powell that makes this story come alive and allows more students to become immersed in these historical events in a powerful and memorable way. From the very first page, students are exposed to the tension filled moments when John Lewis and others begin to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Powell’s art makes the reader uneasy and forces students to immediately give attention to small details – a barking dog, gas masks on men, ragged dialogue balloons drawn to portray the anger, fear, and other strong emotions. I use the first three pages as a powerful way to teach about using visual/textual evidence to inform understanding and also how to read a graphic novel. This is a lesson I learned the hard way – many students have never before read a graphic novel and even the most advanced readers can sometimes find themselves lost in this medium, the skill must be taught first. I then stop the students from reading and have them draw what they think will come next. Prediction is also a skill easily developed through graphic novels such as this one, as there is so much going on in the space between panels, called the gutter. This really forces the students to think deeply and to create their own mental images- to make inferences that connect panels.
We occasionally stop reading and complete mini lessons or research projects in order to more completely explore the historical significance of the events in the book, such as crossing the Pettus Bridge, Lewis’ early life, segregation, Jim Crow, Brown VS Board of Ed, the death of Emmett Till, Sit-ins, and so much more. Following all of this skill work and source integration, the students are directed to choose the one panel that stuck out to them and explain why found it to be significant in small group discussions. It is amazing to hear them independently picking-up on the many visual nuances, asking thoughtful questions of one another, and experiencing how students interpret the same panel in different ways.
On the last page of book one, the downtown Nashville stores finally opened to serve food to African-Americans for the first time, a culminating success of so much hard work in the movement. As African-American and White customers are sitting and eating together, one might be lulled into a false sense of safety. However, Powell’s art once again forces the reader to consider alternatives outside of the text. The reader can make out the worried faces on the African-Americans in the store, contrasted with the angry looks from the white employees. This tension leads seamlessly into March Books Two and Three, but, if your budget will not allow, it also completes the story of Book One and allows for a jumping off point for further discussion.
Students of all reading levels are able to grasp so much of this history and come to class eager to learn and discuss every day. My students and I have read these books many times. Each time, I am amazed at how often students surprise me with their own interpretation of the illustrations. When we finish the book(s), I have the students create their own comics. We create groups of four students who choose their own modern civil rights issue for their comics. I allow them to choose and am impressed with the wide variety of topics: LGTBQ+, medical access, poverty, unequal educational opportunities, etc. They are expected to research, include specific data and citations, and pose possible solutions in their comics. Some will choose to hand-draw the comic and others will use a program such as Pixton. This allows students to focus on their strengths – some are great researchers, some writers, others excel in art. All can shine through the use of graphic novels in the classroom.
If you do decide to teach March and want to collaborate, email me firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet me @historycomics and perhaps our classes can do something together. I have created an online google doc with many additional resources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dwm96U7CfvPtRgc6Azd3mO3bF8wy4z4_i9tGh-1D2Ao/edit?usp=sharing
I wish you all the best as you begin the journey of integrating comics and graphic novels in your classroom. Your students really will thank you for the amazing connections, discussions, and experiences that they will have through the use of March. My experiences in teaching with graphic novels has been challenging, exciting, and, perhaps most of all, fun! Remember, you are not alone in your quest and feel free to reach out with any questions.
Suggested Grade Level – 7th and up
Concerns – some violence and use of the N word.