Wireman: A graphic novel series for inner-city students
During my time teaching first and second grade English language learners (ELLs), I was very frustrated that all of the written texts that they were able to successfully independently read Graphic Novel Series were also texts that were written for much younger students. These texts tended to be simplistic pictures books with limited, if any, storyline and were of little interest to my students. The written text provided students with a simpler, fragmented, and often awkward example of the English language.
To make matters worse, these ‘baby’ books—as they were thought of by my students—carried with them the negative stigmatization of being for struggling readers. My ELLs needed books with exciting, age-appropriate storylines that were also accessible for their reading level. Unfortunately, I struggled to find texts meeting that criterion.
Three years ago I became familiar with graphic novels—a new, invigorating genre of children’s literature that provides ELLs with accessible texts that are rich in meaning. Graphic novels look like more advanced chapter books and their complex storylines match those found in higher quality children’s literature. They are an ideal solution for teachers looking for quality texts for their ELLs.
Reading graphic novels has the potential to help ELLs avoid the negative stigmatization connected with traditional ELLs’ texts and provide an opening for them to experience the types of texts that lead to vigorous conversation and comprehension. The text in graphic novels also tends to be rich in authentic, interactional English thus helping to model to ELLs the appropriate use of English in a variety of social settings.
While quality graphic novels provide accessible and engaging texts for ELLs, few graphic novels are written specifically for ELLs living in inner cities. This is not unique to the graphic novel genre—elementary teachers often struggle to find books in any genre that are personally relevant for students in their culturally diverse inner-city schools.
For this reason, I was ecstatic when I came across Sue Stauffacher’s Wireman series. Stauffacher created Wireman with the goal of creating a story—within a familiar urban setting—that would help inner-city students ‘see’ themselves reflected within the literature. To achieve this objective, she had inner-city teens assist her in developing the different storylines in order to ensure the authenticity of her writing. She also uses appealing, black and white images that help to create a gritty and mysterious tone to the novel.
The result of Stauffacher’s work is an engaging, complex story that is steeped in mystery and supported by well-developed and relatable characters. The multiple mysteries that are weaved together throughout the series help motivate students to read more.
These mysteries also provide an excellent opportunity for students to practice important reading comprehension strategies such as making inferences, asking questions, and predicting. Each edition in the series leaves room for students to discuss with each other what is actually happening and how the different pieces of the mysteries might fit together.
In terms of characters, the hero of the Wireman series is Andre –a likable high school student who is a bit unsure of himself as he struggles to fit into his new school. Andre is very relatable in the way that he handles difficult situations and the everyday struggles of inner-city youth. For Andre, the mystery begins when he meets a strange artist in an abandoned factory who places an odd wire around his ankle.
The other characters in the story—including a mute artist, a talented boxer who expresses herself through violence and intimidations, and a teacher—are all unique yet extremely relatable. Stauffacher does a superb job creating characters very similar to people young students might come across in their own lives. The realistic dialogue adds to this familiarity.
While the main mysteries in Wireman are fun and intriguing, Stauffacher does not back away from tough subject matter throughout her series. She brings in topics such as bullying, teen shootings, the death of a sibling, parental fighting, and metal detectors at school.
Along with these serious topics, Wireman also portrays more minor daily realities in the lives of youth: stealing notes in class, detention, where to sit in the cafeteria, and how to best fit in. The combination of serious subjects and every day realities adds to the overall authenticity of Wireman and creates a vast array of class discussion starters.
While the engaging storyline, relatable characters, and detailed black and white drawings are more than enough to recommend using this graphic novel with your ELLs, Wireman includes two additional features that really make this graphic novel series a must-have in your classroom. Stauffacher helps to ensure that Wireman will help build vocabulary and reading fluency in ELLs by focusing on the 100 most common words in the English language to write her storyline.
What is so impressive about this is that Stauffacher is able to rely on these words without losing any quality in the storyline and keeping the dialogue authentic. While there are many texts for ELLs that focus on these important English words, these texts all tend to be without a storyline and are written in an awkward and often fragmented way. Wireman is certainly an exception in this case. Additionally, Wireman offers an extensive 95-page curriculum that corresponds with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association’s (IRA) standards.
They include extension information related to the series and engaging writing prompts and activities. Wireman is a complex and deep text, and teachers must scaffold and monitor student reading to ensure that they are getting the most out of the series.
If you are new to using graphic novels with students, these lessons are a perfect starting place. Even if your students have been reading comics and graphic novels on their own, it is important to remember that many of our students have never had any instruction on how to read graphic novels or how to interpret visual images.
You will have to do some groundwork on the conventions of graphic novels (for example, speech bubbles, where to start reading, gutters, paneling) as well as the more general conventions of reading visual images (color, spacing, lines, facial expressions, point of view). To learn more about this try Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6, by Terry Thompson, and Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom by Stephen Cary.
I would highly recommend Wireman for any grade four and higher teacher—especially if you are looking for a text that is meaningful and appropriate for your ELLs. In fact, I plan to use Wireman in my upcoming research project examining the use of graphic novels with ELLs.
Reading Graphic Novel Series (and comic books) have been shown to encourage the reading of ALL types, not just those with visual images. Getting students hooked on Wireman could lead to increased interest in reading overall.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Wireman series, click here to visit the official website.