Analyzing Literature with Graphic Essays

The Georgia Department of Education English Language Arts division has its very own Twitter account and has been hosting a weekly series this academic school year of “Twitter takeovers” from different schools and educators around the state to showcase and highlight best practices in English Language Arts instruction across K-12.   In late October, I saw several awesome ideas from the Language Arts teachers at North Atlanta High.  Two tweets on graphic essays featuring the work of Casey Christenson immediately got my attention:

I was so excited and impressed by this idea that I emailed Ms. Christenson, and she graciously responded by sharing her handouts and resources with me.  I took her ideas and materials and modified them for them my students by crafting a graphic essay assignment for my 11th ELA Honors students; I used this idea for students to share their interpretations and analysis of transcendentalist themes in excerpts of Walden by Henry David Thoreau that we were reading at the end of the first semester.  In my modified version of the assignment, I framed the content portion with the Schaffer two chunk method we had used in our regular literary essay writing because I knew my students would need some sort of conceptual structure to include textual evidence and an in-depth response/commentary on the textual evidence.

In addition to using the models from Twitter with my students, I created a “steps to success” handout to scaffold my students.

I provided copies of the text excerpts, colored pencils, Sharpies, colored markers, craft and regular scissors, tape and glue, and 11×14 pastel paper as well as plain and colored paper for students to use to craft their project.  Students had approximately two whole days (we are on a modified block, so each class session is 90 minutes) plus the weekend to complete their projects.  Below are some of the exemplary projects completed by students:



While some students expressed a bit of trepidation about the artistic component, most discovered they could create visually interesting anchor images and designs without having to be a gifted artist.  Overall, I think most students did a solid job on their work for their first effort and especially for it to be right at the end of the semester.  I was especially impressed with the way several students really became engaged with their work and dug into the text to think more deeply.  In addition, many students worked together and used each other as sounding boards for their design ideas or their thinking with their concrete details/textual evidence and commentary.  One of my classes in particular really stepped up with a “we can do it” mindset and level of effort I had not seen from them all year, so I am happy this mode of visual writing appealed to them.  The two areas where some students struggled:

  • Choosing a relevant anchor image—this challenge surprised me a little, so we’ll talk a little more this semester about choosing symbols and images for graphic essays.
  • Finding sufficient concrete details and developing appropriate commentary:  these skills have been in progress all year, so every student is at a different place on the spectrum.  We’ll continue modeling exemplars and strategies for growing our skills in this area.

Looking ahead, I am excited to pilot this writing option with my CP level students this semester; we used sketchnoting (a separate post is coming on that soon) as a stepping stone for them in place of the graphic essays in December, but I feel they are now ready to take on this next level of visual writing and thinking.  This option of a graphic essay will also be available to the Honors 11th ELA students in the new choice we are starting next week on Dickinson and Whitman.   In addition, graphic essays will be on our menu of products students can create to show their understandings of their choice/independent reading we’re beginning late next week, too!  Have you done graphic essays with your students?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!

26 thoughts on “Analyzing Literature with Graphic Essays

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your and your students’ work: I find this so inspiring. I was led to your blog via Jennifer Gonzales’ Cult of Pedagogy, where she highlighted your blog post. The fact that Jennifer noticed your work is a testament to its quality, and I absolutely agree with her judgement.


    1. Good evening! Thank you for taking time to read the post, and I am so happy you enjoyed it! I am extremely honored that Jennifer Gonzales highlighted the post, and I have been humbled and happily overwhelmed by the positive response! I am also deeply appreciative by your vote of confidence as well—thank you, thank you, thank you!


  2. Hi! Have you posted or shared your rubric? I’d love to have a look at it as I’m thinking I want to use this assignment with my tenth grade students.
    Thanks so much!


    1. I would LOVE to see what your 7th graders did with this. I am teaching this novel to my 7th graders in March of 2019-and have not taught 7th grade LAbefore- any ideas and help from what she has here would be so appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m going to plan to use this idea this year. I start the novel in February and it usually takes me about six weeks to get through it. I often focus on theme and symbolism with this novel (the phoenix rising from the ashes; what makes a hero?) and I love the way one of the samples has the concrete details on a flap and the commentary underneath. I teach in a collaborative classroom with special ed, so I can modify this as I need to for individual learning styles. 7th graders LOVE this novel!


  3. Hi, I am an 8th and 11th grade English teacher on the island of Puerto Rico, who is always looking for new and different ways of getting my students to analyze literature and writing. Could you send me information on the graphic essay so I can modify it for my students? Thank You


  4. This looks fantastic! Such a unique structure for teaching students the aspects of a strong essay without having them worry about the actual writing of the essay. Did you have a specific rubric that you marked on, or did you use it as a strictly formative assignment?


    1. Thank you for the kind words! We did use the Schaffer two chunk method as our underlying structure, but the visual aspect allows students to be a little more creative with the presentation of their writing and ideas. Because they had a list of guidelines provided, I simply worked off that as my guide to scoring and didn’t use a formal rubric. This particular assignment was their summative assessment of their readings from Thoreau’s Walden. I think this model of rubric would work great for a learning product like this one: .


      1. If you look it up, it’s similar to what you’ve described and all done on one page (hence the name, I think). It is a useful and creative assessment tool I’ve seen used for on-level to AP classes. It’s a good thing.


  5. A very effective way of getting students to delve into a literary work, but it’s not exactly an “essay,” now, is it? I wonder if one could give it a name that would be more fitting to the actual nature of the task in question.


    1. Actually, it is an essay—it has a thesis, it has concrete details, and it has commentary (we used the Schaffer 2 chunk method as our underlying structure). If you were able to handle them in person and read them closely, you would see there is some rather sophisticated analysis and writing about their topic.


    2. I would add that while these works are obviously not all text, they do integrate the major components of a traditional text essay (i.e. ), and they do require cohesion and organization in terms of the content, the writing, and the integration with their visual anchor of the medium. I think essays and other writing pieces that incorporate visual elements are much more commonplace in real world and academic writing than even five years ago, especially those that use platforms like Shorthand. Best, Buffy


  6. I just created my own info sheet for my students. I am going to try this idea with my 8th graders who are reading “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I am so excited; in fact, I just invited my principal to my room to observe while I present this lesson to my students. I absolutely love this idea. Thank you so much for sharing. BTW, here is my info sheet.
    My handout looks so much better than what is below, I used fancy fonts and bullet points to make it more attractive for my students…..
    Graphic Essay Guidelines……
    What is a “graphic essay”? A graphic essay contains all of the components of an essay, except it is not written in true essay form; instead, you use pictures and symbols to help illustrate what you would typically put in an essay response
    Along with the “graphics” of your essay, you need to add the following:
    Quotes and explanation of those quotes
    Three themes that are present in the story along with graphic interpretations of those themes
    Examples to support your themes
    Reflection of what your examples/themes mean to you and how they fit into the story

    Some other aspects to consider…..
    Think about the timeline of the story and the major events that happened to the characters. What themes or life lessons were learned?
    What was the climax or turning point of the story? Is there a theme to go with it?
    What character traits, both physical and personality-wise, did the main characters have? Do they believe in certain values, morals, and obligations?
    Offer concrete or real details with your graphic images. For example, don’t just point out an example of a theme, but add to the example by doing the following:
    Add commentary or your own reflection/thoughts on how this theme fits not only the story but in your own life
    Use examples from other stories that you have read that the audience most likely is already familiar with.
    Add color or shading to your symbols/images and think about some artistic techniques that you have learned
    Research other information that may fit into your commentaries to help the audience understand where you are coming from: for example, “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place during The Great Depression. Tie that event to your theme examples. Or take the fact that Scout is not an “ordinary” girl in the south. What are girls usually supposed to be like during that time period in that area of the country at Scout’s tender age of 8?

    But How Do I Get Started…
    What themes do you want to discuss in your graphic essay? List them.
    What images or pictures do you associate or think of with those themes? List them.
    What scenes in the story demonstrate or play-out those themes?
    Are there any quotes that fall into fitting into those themes? Find ‘em and write ‘em.
    What are your thoughts/reflections/commentary on those events and themes? How do they fit into your essay?
    What do you want your audience to remember most about your essay? How do these themes affect their lives or times today?
    Even if you are not “artistic”, you still can organize, design, implement, and proceed to creating an amazing graphic essay. Don’t let your fear of the unknown squash your creativeness.

    The Grading/Rubric…..
    Let’s decide this right now, as a class. What should we grade and how should we grade it? Effort? Grammar? Presentation? Ideas? Design? We can come up with categories and assign each category a score from least to greatest.


  7. I love this! I am giving this as an alternative to a traditional theme essay. Students are creating “theme maps” as they read A Tale of Cities. I assigned each team a theme and they track their evidence every week and discuss how their theme is developing over the course of the novel as well as identifying characters and symbols related to their theme. They will be able to use their maps as they create their graphic or traditional essay. Thank you for posting!


    1. Ooooh la la! I LOOOOOOOOOVE your idea of the theme maps! Wow! I definitely want to try your theme maps with my students—so cool! Thank you for sharing your awesome ideas, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post–happy to connect with you! Very best, Buffy


    2. Leah Clark, Would you be willing to share that theme map? I teach AToTC, too, and I am thinking of some ways to make it new (for me–I’ve taught it several years in a row, and I need to reinvigorate it). I’d love to see your theme map.


  8. Hello Buffy, I love this!! I am actually adapting this, if that is okay to work with excerpts of Picture of Dorian Gray, but like Oscar Wilde, I want them to create their own argument about beauty and art in our current culture. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

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