This past summer one of my Teacher Education professors assigned us a graphic novel project. Being from a science background, and having zero drawing experience or talent, one can imagine how cringe-inducing this announcement was. My group members experienced similar feelings of awkwardness, but we grappled with this initial discomfort and began to brainstorm potential themes for our graphic novel.
As individuals passionate about the environment and sustainability, we started with the idea of focusing on declining bee populations (I mean, bees are pretty easy to draw.) We stumbled on the idea of a displaced bee colony and their search to find a new place to live. A moment of reflection led us to realize this could be the beginning of a metaphor for refugee populations – then we came up with the title “Refubee” and ran with the idea.
Refubee is the story of a bee colony that is in need of a home, but continues to be rejected by various animals. The animals draw their assumptions that the bees will do harm based on stereotypical ideas of bees and their stingers. Eventually, the wise old owl accepts the bee colony and offers a place to live in his tree. The environment begins to flourish with the efforts of the pollinators and the animals regret their discussion to quickly discard the bees’ plea to live among them. They realize that the bees contribute to the environment in meaningful ways, similar to the ways in which refugees bring in a range of experiences, languages, cultural backgrounds, perspectives and ideas that can enrich our communities. The goal is for students to have an appreciation for diversity and send the message that inclusion makes us stronger.
Graphic novels are a great way to get kids interested in a topic. They provide a medium of exploration with few parameters and optimal opportunity for creative expression. In this way, students can share their thoughts and opinions on relevant curricular topics, which can be an empowering and more personally-engaging experience. This can especially lend itself well to English Language Learners, or students who find written text challenging as knowledge and understanding can instead be demonstrated by use of pictures. As a result, graphic novels can provide opportunities for accommodating diverse student needs and interests.
In this example, we were able to explore a social justice issue through a graphic novel. Although we initially had some uncertainty about this project, we found ways to collaborate and work through any setbacks. In particular, we combatted our lack of drawing experience by selecting images of animals from the internet to use as a starting point. This was another discovered benefit of graphic novels; they promote teamwork and communication among group members.
Importantly, this graphic novel lent itself to creating a metaphor-infused storyline that can initiate conversations around displacement in a way younger students can grasp. Furthermore, following the bee colony through their journey can provoke feelings of empathy and connect in students, making the graphic novel a powerful pedagogical tool. My colleagues and I hope to bring graphic novels into our future classrooms, and hope that other teachers feel inspired to experiment with them too.
The graphic novel, Refubee, presented in this article was made in collaboration with Hurya Bakbak, Andrea Carvalho, Terrilyn Digout, Angelica Hessing & Devan Singh