Incarcerated Teens Write Graphic Novels

Students at Birchwood High School, a South Carolina juvenile justice facility, wrote "AIDS in the End Zone" and "Shootout: A Tale from the Streets."
Several male students gathered in a classroom at Birchwood High School (BHS), a juvenile justice facility for incarcerated youth in Columbia, SC. They were let out of class early to attend an author celebration—for themselves. Paging through a copy of their graphic novel AIDS in the End Zone, a student writer looked up and said, “I can’t believe we did this!” “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said another. AIDS in the End Zone (AIEZ),  published by Young Palmetto Press, was the first of two graphic novel writing projects at BHS. Kendra Albright and I, faculty members in the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at the University of South Carolina, collaborated on the initiative. Our goal for the first project was to have these teens create a graphic novel about HIV/AIDS that would be used as an education and prevention resource for other youth. For six weeks, the two of us, a graphic illustrator, and the students’ English Language Arts teacher watched the young men develop their story about high school students dealing with HIV/AIDS. Low literacy rates are not uncommon among incarcerated youth, and only 34 percent of the students at BHS read at grade level. Creating the book helped them improve writing skills by developing characters, plot, and dialogue in a unique, engaging way. “(It) helped us brush up on writing skills because it was a different genre [and] different way to express yourself--not full sentences,” one student said. The artist drew illustrations based on their requests. “You are learning a lot of different things, including social and communication skills,” another teen said of the process. The students enjoyed their creative role—and saw their stories come to life and also learned about HIV/AIDS and helped raise awareness. “It is a fun way to develop writing skills while learning about the topic,” one student said. After the book published in 2014, Kendra and I examined the impact from reading AIEZ by conducting teen focus groups at South Carolina public libraries. Often, the teens learned more about HIV/AIDS from reading AIEZ than the teen-oriented HIV/AIDS materials from the Centers for Disease Control. The graphic novel was “informational,” “realistic,” and “creative,” participants said. SHOOTOUT: A TALE FROM THE STREETS

BHS students working on "Shootout: A Tale from the Streets." Photos courtesy of Karen Gavigan

A second project developed after a large gang riot at BHS. The first graphic novel project was so successful, faculty wanted to replicate it with new students—this time, focusing on an anti-gang message. In 2016, I began collaborating with BHS librarian Susan McNair, English Language Arts teacher Rebeccah Calloway, and students. As with the AIEZ project, we used funds from grants to hire illustrators. The students, members of gangs themselves, shared their hope that the publication would prevent other kids and teens from joining gangs. They’ve finished writing Shootout: a Tale from the Streets. Two artists are working on illustrations with the goal of publishing the book later this year. Like the AIEZ authors, the Shootout creators developed literacy skills and gained confidence while working on the project. “I never thought I could write something good,” one student told a visiting reporter. The students who created AIEZ and Shootout were at BHS at different times, but their comments illustrate the transformative effect this process had on participants. Regardless of whether students are at-risk or skilled readers and writers, they can benefit from similar projects. Suggestions for developing graphic novel writing project with students:
  • Break the students into groups and assign them roles, or let them determine their own roles (writers, illustrators, scribe).
  • Have the groups choose a theme for the book (a curriculum-related topic or a theme pertaining to social issues).
  • Provide the students with a character development sheet (several are available online) that will help them flesh out details.
  • Teach them how to storyboard to develop characters and plot for their graphic novel:
    • Step-by-step plans for each scene/page
    • Describe how the illustrations should look
    • Write the dialog for each page
    • Create a title that will engage readers
  • If funding is available to hire illustrators, try to include them in the storyboarding process.
Funds for the two BHS projects were provided through the following sources:
  • Carnegie Foundation Community Initiative Grant administered through the University of South Carolina
  • 2013 Association of Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE) Research Grant Award
  • 2016 Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grant for Libraries
  • 2017 ALISE Community conn@CT Mini-Grant

Karen Gavigan is an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina.

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