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New writing lesson inspires fifth-graders, their teachers

Graphic novels draw on creativity, hone writing skills

Forest Hills – In the mind of budding graphic novel-writer Spencer Thomas, frenemies Doug and Dave, aka “Crazy Dave,” meet LeBron James. The basketball great’s championship ring turns up stolen, accusations fly and the police get involved. 

Ultimately, justice is served.

In his graphic novel, Jace McKee tells the story of a boy named Caleb who runs away from home after an argument with his parents. Then, “this random creature runs away with” something valuable to Caleb, Jace explains. Caleb wakes up inside the Jurassic period, with dinosaurs and the whole works. 

“He’s very stressed about how to get home, and he’s scared,” Jace said.

Page-turners both, to be sure. And not only in that the writing is imaginative; these fifth-graders at Central Woodlands 5/6 School told their stories in pictures as well as words.

Dylan Priest with his graphic novel

Seeing Kids Soar

Teacher Chris Patrick collaborated with instructional coach Kristin Kemppainen to create the six-week graphic novel-writing unit that hits on fifth-grade learning standards such as narrative, opinion and informational writing.

This is Patrick’s first year back in the classroom after 10 years as a middle school teacher and nearly as long as a librarian in the district.

He reached out to Kemppainen — now in her 33rd year in the district, nearly half of those years as a fifth-grade teacher — because she had created a fifth-grade unit on reading fantasy novels and was planning one on memoir writing.

“Not only was he willing to have me collaborate,” Kemppainen said, “I told him I wanted to come in and co-teach. I wanted to see it in action, to see kids soaring through the medium of graphic novels.”

She said her regular classroom presence and collaboration with Patrick meant the pair could refine the lessons to keep what worked well and adjust what didn’t.

And soar students did.

“They really took to it,” Patrick said. “One of the things we had to say right off the bat was that we’re not all great artists. We found ways to show stick figures doing simple things like running, jumping, and talked about facial expressions and emanatas — symbols such as hearts for affection and a sweat drop for anxiety — that made this achievable for anyone.” 

Added Kemppainen: “I was very pleased to see kids take risks with just their stick figures. Because really, the focus was on building story and using characters to build story.”

Students spent the first week learning about the elements of graphic novels and how to read them. They studied Newbery medalist Jerry Craft’s graphic novel, “New Kid,” as a starting point.

Near the end of the unit, fifth-graders chatted via video with graphic novelist Kevin Minor, author of “The Mega Awesome Notebook,” to learn how he creates his artwork and storylines.

The cover of Kate Fielder’s graphic novel

Plans for Next Fall 

The unit already is on the fall calendar for next year’s fifth-graders. Patrick used this year’s inaugural effort as a basis to apply for a grant he was awarded from the Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation for a collection of graphic novels and more supplies for students to make their own.

“I always look for something challenging, something that’s going to engage me as well as the students,” Patrick said. “I like to try new things, to take risks. I’m looking forward to doing this again.”

Kemppainen said that by moving the unit to the fall next year, graphic novels can be used more often and in more ways to align with other parts of the curriculum such as art, math and science.

As for advice for next year’s graphic novelists, fifth-grader Jace said there are two challenges: “The first would be trying to get your ideas down and figure out what’s going to happen,” he said. “The second is making your rough draft, which is sort of like sketches of what your fantasy is going to be. After that it’s pretty easy from there.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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