Re-imagining the experience of migration through graphic novels

By Kimberly Young with Adam Strom

Introducing migration into your classroom, through a historic or current event lens can feel overwhelming.  Where do you start? One possible resource is graphic novels.* Mirroring the continued historic increases of people on the move worldwide, growing numbers of graphic texts (memoirs, journalism histories, and fiction) are centered on migration-related topics.  Three examples of the burgeoning canon are Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, a work of fiction based on primary sources accounts, Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman, a mix of fiction and lived experience and Drawn to Berlin by Ali Fitzgerald, a work of comics journalism embedded with memoirs. 

At its most basic level, a graphic novel is made up of sequential art images that intentionally co-mix text and visuals to communicate meaning.  This complexity of meaning creation makes graphic novels an ideal tool for teaching topics like migration through a globally competent lens. In reading graphic novels, students use twenty-first-century skills of media and visual literacy overlayed with perspective-taking to investigate deeper understanding.  While the use of graphic novels in the classroom has become commonplace over the last decade, there still exists a gap in knowledge in how graphic novels function within learning and what are effective pedagogies for using these resources with students.  

To get you started, here are some ideas on how graphic novels engage with Asia Societies and Project Zero’s four domains of global competence. These ideas line up well with the Re-imagining Migration framework.:  


  • Communicating Ideas


         All of the types of media and sources (video, documents, literature, art, etc.) involve an attempt of one person to communicate an idea from their brain to someone else’s.  In this process, we as “readers” attempt to translate the clues the author has left us about their message. Graphic novels help students’ metacognition about the communication of ideas because this process is more transparent, as authors and artists of graphic novels intentionally use both text and visuals.  As students read a graphic novel they must decode by investigating the interplay of text and visuals by framing questions, analyzing and synthesizing relevant evidence, and drawing reasonable conclusions that lead to further inquiry, and then they have to find a way to share their understandings with peers who might have other interpretations. 

“Graphic novels” by Alex Talamba is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0


  • Recognize Perspectives


“Pigs Might Fly, graphic novel.” by JEREL DYE is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Two visual devices, dialogue balloons and the gutter emphasize the role of perspective-taking in reading a graphic novel.  The use of dialogue balloons emphasizes a particular character’s perspective on a situation while the “gutter” — a space between two panels which is intentionally left blank by an author — requires a reader to actively participate in constructing the story by filling in what happens between the panels.  As each reader fills in the gutter, infinite possibilities of realities within the same story are created.  

When reading a graphic novel, students must read critically from multiple points of view; their own, the authors, and characters/people the author portrays.  Graphic novels, when used as primary sources, are often criticized for their subjectivity and lack of validity. However, graphic novels are no less subjective than traditional primary sources; it is just their perspective is often easier for students decode because of the combined visual and textual literacy.  Interpreting and understanding multiple layers of point-of-view allow students to open up to new ideas and ways of thinking, question their prevailing assumptions, and develop self-awareness about identity and culture.


  • Investigate the World


In graphic novels, time travel is possible; meaning, time is both simultaneous and sequential in a graphic novel.  As a reader, you can view the panels in a sequential order (1, 2, 3, etc…) focusing on a single panel at a time, or multiple panels (1, 4) at the same time.  This duality of viewing and time allows students to engage in compare/contrast and change over time thinking. Within a history classroom, students can also consider the work within a larger historical context given the sequential and simultaneous nature of time on a page, leading to an understanding that world events and global issues are complex and interdependent.

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  • Take Action


After working with engaging texts that will help them to better empathize and understand the experience of migration, students are better prepared to think about how what can seem like a huge global issue, plays out in the lives of ordinary people.  While the challenges of mass migration and humanitarianism might feel overwhelming, educators can help students bridge from the global to the local, by helping young people connect what they have read to their own spheres of influence. The Re-imagining Migration website has wonderful examples of how others have taken action in issues of migration and while they are terrific models, as educators our job isn’t to tell our students what to do, but instead to help them learn the skills they need to be civically engaged. That said, here are a couple of things that they might consider: 

  1. Create a migration poster campaign for the school community 
  2. Initiative a migration stories campaign to surface the migration stories in your school community. One tool you might consider is Re-imagining Migration’s Moving Stories study guide and mobile app.
  3. Use the Democratic Knowledge Project’s 10 Questions for Changemakers to help students develop their own ideas.

    Join us!

         Reading a graphic novel in an academic context to engage in globally competent thinking is a skill students need to be taught.  While graphic novels usually have less text than traditional primary and secondary sources, they take just as much time to “read.”  Join us on Wednesday, October 23rd from 7-8pm for a more detailed discussion on the use of graphic novels within the framework of Reimagining Migraiton’s learning arc, specific best-practices for classroom use, and exemplar panels from recently published works.  

*Note: Teachers should not feel graphic novels can only be incorporated into the classroom in their entirety.  Class sets of graphic novels are expensive and curriculum time is limited due to the expanding scope of standards.  In the same way a teacher would excerpt a long primary source for relevant passages, graphic novels can be used in panels/sections.

Kimberly Young is a World History teacher at Weston High School in Weston, Massachusetts.  She cultivates her students’ identities as explorers by bringing the world into her classroom through artifacts, technology and experimentation.   Expanding students’ global competence and inspiring them to become engaged global stewards is her core source of passion in teaching.  Her classrooms regularly participate in the Out of Eden Learn platform communicating with students from around the world about migration issues.   She is currently completing the Qatar Foundation International Teacher Leadership Program and administering a National Geographic Society grant aimed at improving the teaching of migration in schools.  Follow her on twitter and instagram @9thWorldHistory.

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-imagining Migration