Seniors and juniors at Linden High School created graphic novels to help explain different events in the American civil rights movement. Their work was on display recently for younger students and TV cameras. 

page from graphic novel showing brown v. board of ed  page from graphic novel showing martin luther king

By Gary Miller

History is usually thought of as something read in a textbook or viewed on a screen.

But a recent months-long assignment for Linden High School students allowed them to take the history of the American civil rights struggle and make it their own through the creation of graphic novels.

“There’s no better way of learning or teaching, than to have someone create something that will live beyond them,” said history teacher Monica Goncalves, who gave the assignment to three of her U.S. history classes made up of juniors and seniors.

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Students began in mid-January working on the assignment, which culminated with them putting their work on display in the school’s media center on April 12. The graphic novels, which are similar to comic books but cover a much wider range of topics both fiction and non-fiction, covered such landmark events and groups as the Tuskegee Airmen, the NAACP, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Jim Crow laws, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Freedom Riders, desegregation, and the March on Washington.

“I’m there to guide the students and help the students on this journey, but it’s their responsibility and their ownership of this graphic novel,” Goncalves said. “They take this learning experience and they truly appreciate those historical events they are researching.

The April 12 event had two key groups of visitors. The NJTV show “Classroom Close-up NJ” covered the presentation, allowing the students to explain on camera how they developed the project and what they learned from the experience. The segment will air in the fall.

Sophomore students also came in to learn from their older peers, using scavenger-hunt sheets of questions that they needed to answer by looking over the graphic novels. The juniors and seniors, who created the question sheets, were there to explain what was happening in their narratives.

“The students who were not involved in this got a chance to see an event that they might read about in a different way,” Goncalves said. “Most history is not usually done in a graphic novel form, so this gives them a different appreciation. It’s a different format that may be more appealing.”

Students who created the graphic novels worked in small groups and had to take into account the division of work and the talents of group members.

“This was something that was going to rely heavily on artistic abilities,” Goncalves said. “But I also explained to them that there was a research aspect, that there would be coming up with a script for the dialogue. So different people had different roles.

“The students took an event and really dived into it – researched it, processed it, and turned it into something that they’ve created.”

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The graphic novels have been compiled into a hardcover book of more than 200 pages that can be purchased for $29.99 by emailing mgoncalves@lindenps.org.

book compiling students' graphic novels  page from graphic novel