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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bill and the Beast: Building Vocabulary

Teaching in Western Sydney has been my passion, particularly in regards to teaching working class and middle class students. One aspect of this process is recognising the children who find it much more difficult to engage with our pedagogy, some of who may be inherently gifted, but many of which who are also simply just not equipped to reach higher stages of education.

Much has been written on this in academia.

One of my favourites is Basil Bernstein's work on elaborated and restricted codes in Class, Codes and Control: Volume 4.
Bernstein is best known for his groundbreaking work in the sociology of education and, to a lesser extent, for his love of knitwear
Bernstein's writing concerns itself with research conducted into the disparity between IQ results when working class children are tested both verbally and non-verbally. The resulting discourse theorises (without getting too much into the research here) that the lack of vocabulary endemic in the working class is a contributing cause to said children being unable to articulate and understand abstract concepts.

To put it simply, the more words that we understand and have at our disposal, the more we are able to name that which we cannot see. A large lexicon allows us to create context where we previously had none - it's our ability to call upon and create new systems of understanding that allows us to assimilate new knowledge and understand abstract concepts. How could we do that if we lacked the words to articulate anything from outside of our immediate, everyday context?

So what do we, as the classroom teacher, do about this?

In some cases, such as teaching a Stage 4 targeted class for students with additional learning needs, I've found that the easiest way forward is to work on vocabulary. My friend and mentor, Kira Bryant, comes back to this a lot under the banner of 'building the field'. I've written more about this aspect of grammar here.

Bill and the Beast
Such students often struggle to access longer or specialised text because they lack both the contextual information and vocabulary to decode it. In order to scaffold a greater capacity to engage with new texts we need to build the field around the text, and this means increasing a student's ability to use unfamiliar words. The resource below, which works as part of a Year 8 unit on the theme of Survival, assists in achieving this end through the following steps:
  1. Students pull words from the word banks at the side of the sheet to complete the story about Bill and his encounter with a monster. There are five word banks: adjectives, verbs, adverbs, nouns, your choice. There are a variety of examples that fit each blank spot in the story, allowing for multiple possible creations. This kind of activity, where kids place new terms in context, is supported by research from the Focus on Reading program developed by the NSW Department of Education. A lot of research on grammar and literacy supports the idea that the best way to learn new words is to try them out in the context of a sentence. Students respond much better to this than copying out definitions. 
  2. Something I've noticed when students do this activity is that they will scan through the available terms and then ask me what a certain one means. I'll tell them and then they'll try it out by slotting it into the sentence. Some students will think I've just given them an answer 'for free' but the point here is that they've just learned and used a new word - and that's what it's really all about.
  3. After finishing the story it's always fun to get some students to read their completed work out. There's a definite sense of accomplishment from these students in that they chose the words from the word banks themselves and - especially for those who have never written a story of this length before - there's a new sense of ownership that builds valuable confidence in writing.
  4. Students should then complete the title at the bottom of the sheet. This is a form of summary, or abstraction, and forces the student to boil the entire text down to its theme or essence - not always as easy for students as we might think!
  5. Included in the resource below are also some follow-up activities that engage further comprehension skills through facilitating visualising, predicting, and creation of symbols. I'm a big fan of getting students to create symbols to represent ideas, it's one of my favourite aspects of the Aboriginal 8 Ways of Learning pedagogy and it works really well for a whole range of kids - not just those with Indigenous backgrounds. The use of visualisation and predicting are from the Super Six framework, and support increased comprehension.
Resource (click to download) - Bill and the Beast

Building the Field: China 1966-1989

Red Guards read from Mao's 'Little Red Book' during the Cultural Revolution

A key aspect of increased capacity for engaging with knowledge is better literacy. If we want to be able to express our thoughts on a specific subject then we need to be equipped with the vocabulary that will allow for full interaction with the topic at hand. In other words, in order to find the nuance in meaning that permits for increasingly sophisticated discussion of an idea the responder needs to have advanced literacy skills.

It's easy to think of grammar as commas, full stops, and capital letters, but grammar goes well beyond this in terms of structuring our understanding of language. Our command and understanding of grammar is a significant building block for our cognitive ability; it's our ability to organise information into a taxonomy of terms demonstrating relationships between words and concepts that increases the individual's capability for dealing with new concepts and content. 

Getting more specific, there are three extralinguistic features that contribute to our understanding of a context surrounding a new text when we read it. These are:
  • Field: What is being talked about or written about (the content)
  • Mode: The nature of the text and the role language plays within it (how the content is being delivered - spontaneously? planned? written? televised?).
  • Tenor: The relationship between the speaker/listener or reader/writer (does the composer treat the reader as a novice, an equal or an expert? What kind of language is being used to achieve this?)
When we have students engaging with a previously unfamiliar area of knowledge, such as the new Modern History HSC syllabus China option for Change in the Modern World, the students will need to 'build the field'. Arriving at a point where students can communicate sophisticated historical ideas is dependent on their understanding of the history in question. They will need to build a specialised lexicon that includes all the new terms that they will be coming into contact with, and creating this new vocabulary bank will be the base from which they can draw upon when formulating their responses.

There are several ways that the field can be built. One tried-and-true way is a glossary, which I've included below, but reading new words and their definitions isn't a particularly effective way to learn something. The research tends to suggest that students will have a better time with new terms if they put them into practice immediately. This means that new words should be introduced gradually, with students trying them out in sentences of their own construction. 

Another effective method is giving the reader a piece of text that includes several unfamiliar terms and having them monitor the piece with the highlighter. Students locate and highlight the new terms and decode them one by one, with the teacher's assistance, in order to increase their knowledge of the context around the text.

Anyway, here's an overview of the vocabulary a student should become familiar with during the course of their study of Change in the Modern World, Option B. As mentioned, it's best to introduce these gradually and in context.

Anti-Revisionism: The maintenance of communist ideals in China. Those who sought to compromise Marxist ideology were accused of 'revisionism', and anti-revisionism referred to the need for Chinese communists to fight against this.

Bourgeoisie: The middle class. In Marxist theory, the 'bourgeoisie' are the capitalist class who seek to get rich off the labour of the workers. Marxists aimed to remove the bourgeoisie element from society.

Capitalism: A system of government, or society, in which the goal of the individual is to accumulate wealth for themselves. Trade is controlled by the private sector, rather than by the government.

Capitalist Roader: A synonym for 'revisionist'. Those in communist Chinese society seen as taking the easy 'capitalist road' were derogatorily labelled 'capitalist roaders'.

Cold War: The international tension (1947-1991) between the communist East (led by the Soviet Union) and the capitalist West (headed by the United States of America). Although communist, China did not fit neatly into the Soviet Union's side of the conflict as the two neighbouring Marxist countries had their own unresolved tensions during this time.

Counterrevolutionary: Internal enemies of the Chinese communist state were labelled as 'counterrevolutionary' as their actions were interpreted as running contrary to the spirit of the Chinese communist revolution.

This propaganda poster literally depicts Chairman Mao as the sun that lights all of China
Cult of Personality: This occurs when a person in a position of authority (such as Mao Zedong) creates a political atmosphere in which they are worshipped as a godlike figure by the general population. See any of the many artworks produced between 1950 and 1976 that depict Chairman Mao as a benevolent father-figure to the Chinese people (such as that above).

Cultural Revolution: A movement that occurred between 1966 and 1976, in which Mao Zedong encouraged students and workers to rise up and rid China of revisionist and counterrevolutionary elements.

Dazibao: Chinese for 'Big Character Poster'. These are large handwritten posters used to protest, communicate propaganda, and express ideas. These were popular during both the Cultural Revolution and in the late 1970s Democracy Movement.

De-Stalinisation: In 1956 the new Russian Chairman, Nikita Khrushchev, began a process of deconstructing the cult of personality that had surrounded the previous Chairman, Joseph Stalin.

Feudalism: A medieval form of government in which landowners controlled the state, with peasants or serfs working the land in exchange for being allowed to live on said land. Much of China was still a feudal state by the mid-20th century.

Four Olds: Mao Zedong ordered the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution to destroy the 'four olds' so that China could be rebuilt anew. These were: old thought, old culture, old customs, old habits. This resulted in much of China's ancient heritage being destroyed to make way for a new and modern communist China.

Four Modernisations: A program launched by Zhou Enlai in 1975 to assist with China's progress towards increased industrialisation. These modernisations were: Agriculture, Industry, National Defense, and Science/Technology.

Fifth Modernisation: A dazibao in 1978 that called upon the Chinese Communist Party to add 'Democracy' as a fifth aspect of the Four Modernisations.

The Gang of Four were blamed for all the horrors of the Cultural Revolution
Gang of Four: A radical faction within the Chinese Communist Party headed by Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong's wife). The Gang of Four opposed efforts to modernise China as they saw it as the 'poisonous road to capitalist restoration'. After Mao's death, the Gang of Four attempted to seize power but instead found themselves denounced and arrested as enemies of the state. 

Gerontocracy: A government ruled by the elderly. Protestors against the Chinese government in the 1980s derogatorily labelled Deng Xiaoping and other senior members of the Chinese Communist Party as a 'gerontocracy'.
Glasnost: A policy promoted by the Soviet Chairman, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the 1980s. This policy loosely translates as 'openness' and was characterised by the loosening of strictness in communist Russian society. 

Industrialisation: Widespread development of modern industries in a country.

Leftism: Political views or policies of the 'left' (those who identify with communism, Marxism, and socialism).

Liberalisation: The process of allowing increased freedom in Chinese society. Many members of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s feared that liberalisation would interfere with socialist progress.

Liberalism: The idea of a society founded on freedom, particular in regards to equality, free trade, and freedom to pursue personal wealth.

Marxism: A political system based on the teachings of Karl Marx, the philosopher who invented the theory of communism.

Maoism / Mao Zedong Thought: Chairman Mao's own interpretation of Marxism could be found in his Little Red Book, and featured several key differences in comparison to the Soviet/Marxist version of communism. One main difference was that Maoism focused on role of the peasants in the maintenance of a communist society.

Modernisation: The process in which countries develop from a traditional or feudal state into something industrialised and up-to-date.

People's Liberation Army: The Chinese army, who assisted Mao in winning the Civil War that led to the creation of communist China in 1949.

Perestroika: Translates as 'restructuring'. Perestroika were the reforms that the Soviet Union underwent in the 1980s before transitioning away from communism.

Permanent Revolution: The idea that communist revolution was an ongoing struggle between the social classes, and would continue until the entire world had become communist. Also links to the idea that Marxist societies, such as China, had to continue revisiting Marxist ideals in order to ensure that they stayed true to the spirit of communism.

Plenum: A political meeting in which all controlling members of the Chinese Communist Party had to be present.

Proletariat: The working / peasant class of a society.

Millions of Red Guards made the pilgrimage to Beijing to see Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution

Red Guards: The students encouraged by Chairman Mao to spearhead the Cultural Revolution were dubbed the 'Red Guards'. These students numbered in the millions and became fanatical devotees of Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book, vowing to fight those who wanted to bring capitalism to China. 

Rehabilitation: Enemies of the Cultural Revolution were sentenced to 'rehabilitation'. This often consisted of several years of forced labour that would teach capitalist roaders and revisionists how to be communist again.

Revisionism: Those who wanted to 'revise' communist society in China and allow increased freedom, or accumulation of personal power. These elements of Chinese society were criticised as 'revisionists'.

Rightist: Political views or policies of the 'right' (those who identify with nationalist and conservative ideologies).

Stalinism: The ideology of Marxism as practised by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Stalinism was extremely totalitarian in its control of Russian society.

Struggle Session: Those identified as enemies of the Cultural Revolution was made to undertake 'struggle sessions', in which they had to denounce and criticise themselves for hours at a time so that they could start afresh as true communists. These sessions also meant humiliation and torture at the hands of the Red Guards and, sometimes, death.

Westernisation: The increased adoption of Western (American/European) and capitalist culture in China.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ten Things We Should Say Everyday (and Why They're Important)

Sydney Church of England Grammar is also known as the 'Shore School'
Earlier this year I attended the Project Zero conference at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School. It was ace, and I've already written about some of the other professional learning I did there on feedback processes and pushing for depth in student thinking. The conference itself was a great opportunity and saw over 500 people in attendance from the full gamut of Australian schools - state schools, independent schools, religious schools, and other educational sectors - and I recommend checking it out the next time it comes around.

One of the keynote lectures drew on the concept of a culture of thinking, with Dr Ron Ritchhart speaking quite passionately about the joy of 'learning together' and defining a culture as a shared language that represents a collective way of thinking. In the case of a learning culture, Dr Ritchhart identified several cultural forces that can shape this shared language:
  • Routines
  • Opportunity
  • Modelling
  • Time
  • Interactions
  • Environment
  • Language
  • Expectations
In the specific case of modelling, Dr Ritchhart elaborated further by describing this as demonstrating good practice and thinking aloud. More particularly, modelling of exemplar responses allows students to explicitly see how teacher cognition works, and - in the words of the great educator Vygotsky - lets "Children grow into the intellectual life around them". 

And that brings us to the title of this post, the ten things that Dr Ritchhart says we should say to students everyday. I've jotted them down here with his explanations of why they're important.

Dr Ron Ritchhart's presentation ^
  1. Hello and Goodbye - all students need to feel known and acknowledged. Disruptive behaviour decreases, learning and engagement increases. Try not to be busy during this transition time while students are entering and leaving the class. 
  2. WMYST?: What Makes You Say That? - make this an integral part of the classroom. Ask students this question so that they are forced to become more independent in terms of responding to class activities, providing their own thoughts rather than relying on the teacher's.
  3. Talk to me about what you're doing - with this prompt, students are also being asked to make their metacognitive process more visible. Leave it open-ended, let the student find their own way to articulate what they're doing.
  4. Here's where we're going with this - purpose is important. When people have a sense of purpose their learning increases dramatically. There is no research supporting 'learning intentions', the research tends to centre around 'purpose' instead, and this is because they aren't the same thing - stating a learning intention may not be as effective or the same thing as the broader purpose of something.
  5. Here's the thinking you'll need to do... - when teachers explain an assignment or project to students we tend to get into the logistics by default. Then students fulfill these logistics and are surprised when they do get an A, and some aren't even sure how it happened or how it can be replicated. As teachers we need to keep in mind that i's the thinking that needs to be striven for, not the result.  
  6. Let's debrief - new learning is incredibly fragile, so it's important to go over it to help reinforce/consolidate what students have just learned. Students in a high school setting are most often about to move on to another class or activity with completely different demands (for example, once the student finishes English they may be about to move on to their Mathematics or Geography class). One way that Dr Ritchhart highlighted was the 'IQ routine' in which students are invited to give insights and ask further questions at the end of each lesson.
  7. I've noticed... - contrast this with 'I liked', which flips attention back onto the teacher. The language of 'I've noticed' is that it's less about turning students into people-pleasers and more about them considering what they've just done as learners. 
  8. We - this creates a sense of community with the students.
  9. I'm sorry - teachers need to be willing to admit mistakes, rather than seeing apology as a sign of weakness. 
  10. Wow! - give students an opportunity to surprise us. Delight in their learning. If there are no 'wow' moments then you're playing too safe. 
More on this can be found on Dr Ron Ritchhart's website here.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Twenty Great Graphic Novels: Literacy, Multimodal Narratives, and Celebrating Free Comic Book Day

A two page spread from Dark Rain by Mat Johnson
Happy Free Comic Book Day! The first Saturday in May has been the international day for free comic consumption since 2002, making this the 16th such yearly event. In an era of increased concerns over literacy, and the ongoing proliferation of information consumption solely through digital means (IE. The Internet), the humble comic book stands tall as the perfect gateway to reading for reluctant readers. The unique combination of visual and written storytelling in comics creates its own set of narrative conventions that force the responder to engage with several significant aspects of literacy, such as:
  • Increasing vocabulary
  • Recognising generic conventions (thus allowing the reader to build internal taxonomies of understanding that allow for different kinds of texts to be intellectually categorised according to style, taste, modes, etc.)
  • Reading pathways (comics are great for this as they often challenge the reader to engage with different graphic representations that encourage a whole page understanding of the direction the narrative is physically flowing in)
  • Multimodal understanding (where the pictures or the text are not able to be understood on their own, in a vacuum, but must instead be brought together for the reader to gleam the full meaning).
In a more holistic sense, comics are said to act as a bridging point between picture books and longer forms of text as far as struggling readers are concerned. The combination of dynamic visual storytelling and easily digested portions of writing allow those with reading difficulties to improve their ability to decode text. Blending the visual and written to negotiate a combined meaning allows the reader to pick up on literacy cues, grammar conventions, narrative structure, and many other aspects of reading that will set them up for increased literacy later in life.

But anyway, putting all this educational medicine aside, there are a lot of comics out there (particularly graphic novels - the longer, self-contained version of the genre) that happen to tell amazing stories in a way that can't be matched in other mediums of communication. Here are 20 great examples of graphic novels for anyone looking to dip a toe in the water (please note that not all would be suitable for teaching - read them first to check):

1. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
Absurdist with shades of The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs; Collins' debut uses a high concept (a man in an island community whose beard refuses to stop growing) and spins it way out of control to explore concepts of individuality, conformity, authority, and expression of self. 

If you did want to teach this text with a class, it would be interesting to get students to look at the function of panel design in exploring the text's ideas. For example, the long and vertical right hand panel depicts the beard spilling onto the floor as if from offscreen. What is Collins trying to say here?


2. Blankets by Craig Thompson
Thompson's memoir is heartbreaking and heartfelt, exploring his first experience of love whilst juxtaposing this relationship with a troubled and impoverished upbringing. I challenge you to read this and not shed a tear!

Thompson is a master of the close-up, mise-en-scene, and selection of detail.

3. Dark Rain by Mat Johnson
Full of action and relating to a real life tragedy (the wake of Hurricane Katrina's visit upon New Orleans), Dark Rain would be perfect reading for those wanting to engage reluctant teenage boys with a text that deals with relevant political issues. Relatively short, fast-paced, and featuring vivid characters straight out of an action-thriller film.

4. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Luen Yang uses three thematically-interrelated stories in three very different genres (coming of age memoir, Chinese folk tale, and politically-incorrect sitcom) to explore notions of race and identity. This one has potential for English teachers to use as a text that explores the Asian perspective.


5. Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs
Weird, haunting, funny, and gothic. Whilst Jacobs has a background as an animator on Adventure Time, this one probably isn't suitable for class study. Still worth checking out though!

The mundane and the fantastical intertwine in Jacobs' ecological fairytale.

6. Watchmen by Alan Moore
When most people think of comics they probably think of superheroes. The majority of this list hopefully showcases some of the other genres explored by graphic novels, however, if there's one comic title that uses superheroes to move well beyond the stereotypical in a way that outflanks its peers then Watchmen would be that title. Alan Moore distinguished himself in the 1980s with various stories that pushed the superhero paradigm to its absolute limits (V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but it's Watchmen that perhaps remains unsurpassed in its exploration of how these sorts of characters might have interacted with a real world context - in this case, the Reagan-era Cold War context.

Pictured here is Walter Kovacs, whose alter-ego Rorschach represents right wing ideology driven to the most extreme point of moral absolutism. In traditional comics, Rorschach would be a heroic avenger figure, in Watchmen he is both disturbed and disturbing.


7. Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
Lovingly crafted by Brazilian identical twins Fabio and Gabriel, Daytripper explores the entirety of a life in non-linear vignettes. There would be few readers who aren't impressed by the use here of the episodic narrative to build a succession of twists and details worthy of any example of great art, no matter the format.


8. Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus is probably the most famous non-superhero comic ever written. Spiegelman uses narrative and metanarrative to explore his father's experiences as a European Jew during the Holocaust, beautifully capturing an authentic voice and managing quite an achievement in depicting an event that often defies our understanding.

The horror and intensity of the Holocaust is conveyed in Maus primarily through the use of light, shade, metanarrative, and zoomorphism.

9. Y The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
The first title listed here to not be a stand-alone graphic novel, this series takes place across ten volumes and charts the journey of Yorick (reference intentional) as he negotiates his way through the landscape of a post-apocalyptic world where every other man has been killed by a mysterious plague. Brian K. Vaughan manages to take a tired, familiar, and somewhat hokey science fiction trope (a female-led society) and turn it into a genuinely thought-provoking discussion of gender and patriarchy.

One of many fascinating ideas that arise in a world suddenly devoid of men is the question of who would become President of the United States of America. In Y The Last Man, the highest ranking surviving politician is the (Democrat) Secretary of Agriculture - a fact that demonstrates the lack of men in the U.S. Cabinet at the time of the comic's publication. In blackly-humourous contrast, the appalling and complete lack of female politicians in the Republican Party leads to an insurgence led by the wives of the now-dead Republican politicians!

10. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel is probably most famous for devising the 'Bechdel test', a way of assessing the inherent sexism of fictional texts by counting the number of speaking female characters who don't reflect on their romantic statuses during the course of said texts. It's worth noting here that Bechdel is an accomplished writer in her own right, and her memoir Fun Home (whilst inappropriate for the classroom) is expertly constructed and devastating in its bittersweet remembrance of a complicated father. If the graphic novel memoir is a genre on its own standing (and it is) then Bechdel's Fun Home would undoubtedly be one of its key examples.

Bechdel's intelligence shines through in her articulate use of intertextuality to add depth to the family dynamics that shaped her upbringing.

11. Virgil by Steve Orlando and J. D. Faith
Alas, another graphic novel not suitable for minors, Virgil is a violent portmanteau of queer theory and '70s exploitation films. The resulting one-shot Jamaican revenge opus has been christened 'queersploitation' by its authors, leading readers down a lurid path of pink and green as the eponymous gay cop battles Caribbean corruption and homophobia in his quest to save his boyfriend.

One of the few panels in Virgil that doesn't confront its reader with an unnatural palette of clashing colours or the intense discrimination that propels the action.

12. Building Stories by Chris Ware
Chris Ware spent years working on this ambitious project; a multi-layered narrative that comes in a box rather than a bound booklet. In a somewhat metafictional move to extend its commentary on the digitally-driven dehumanisation of our society, Building Stories defies attempts to consume the comic via a PDF scan or even just by sitting and reading it on a lounge. This non-linear and flexible narrative comes via a collection of booklets, posters, broadsheets, and pull-outs; and with instructions that each part should be read in a specific part of the house. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seem gimmicky, however Ware's depiction of suburban life and lifestyle is so simultaneously epic and small that it feels fitting that it should be experienced in a wholly unique way.

Even these images don't do it justice. Building Stories is the Sistine Chapel of the comic book medium.

13. DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
This 12 volume series does for comics as The Wire did for television. Wood's vision of a new American civil war is partially inspired by the volatile post-9/11 political landscape of the U.S.A., and centres on Manhattan; a 'demilitarised zone' between the government-run United States of America and the grass roots militia movement that dubs itself the Free States of America. Wood focuses his story on Matty, an journalism intern who finds himself suddenly stranded at ground zero as the only correspondent reporting from the DMZ. The result is a sharply cynical portrait of a potential future to come.

Amongst the themes explored by DMZ are freedom of speech, integrity, corruption, surveillance, terrorism, political appearances, and the inherent difficulties in maintaining neutrality.

14. Little White Duck by Na Liu and Andre Vera Martinez
Like American Born Chinese, the Chinese memoir Little White Duck is another great text for teachers looking to explore the Asian perspective in the English classroom. Na Liu's remembrances of Cultural Revolution China are beautifully rendered by evocatively emotive and attractive artwork. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of growing up under the reign of cultural 'grandpa' Mao Zedong, with Na Liu managing to depict historical detail whilst remaining focused on her own very personal stories, thus grounding a difficult period of history in a real context that should make this tale of Mao's China very accessible for all readers.

This panel is especially representative of the looming presence of Chairman Mao in the background of Liu's autobiographical graphic novel.

15. Aama by Frederik Peeters and Edward Gauvin
Peeters is a surrealist master of the graphic novel and his four-volume epic Aama is a great example of the delightful 'otherness' that permeates European science fiction. Aama combines two familiar science fiction settings (Earth's distant future, and an alien world undergoing rapid and violent change) with the trope of technology run amok, and leaves the reader bewildered by an arresting and dazzling display of visual inventiveness.

Verloc Nim, the protagonist of Aama, is bereft of both wit and physical prowess. His only true weapons are his cynicism and refusal to conform - which make him somewhat vulnerable in situations such as the one depicted above.

16. The Divine by Boaz Lavie, Tomer Hanuka, and Asuf Hanuka
Similar to Black Rain, which I mentioned earlier in this post, The Divine uses filmic narrative conventions to portray a fast-moving story that explores serious subject matter. Set in a fictional South-East Asian country left broken by its colonialist past, The Divine combines Asian folklore with commentary on Western exploitation of the developing world. Content warning: quite violent!
The Divine explores the contradictory dichotomy in the Western world purporting to provide aid to undeveloped countries whilst simultaneously exploiting them.

17. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
In This One Summer the Tamaki cousins have created a wonderfully subtle and moving story of growing up, adolescent angst, and all the things that colour a beach-side family summer holiday. Even though this story focuses on Rose and her family, my favourite character would have to be Windy - Rose's awkward and freewheeling 'tomboy' best friend, who is undoubtedly gay and wrestling with her own coming-of-age alongside Rose's more immediate emergence into teenage-hood. This One Summer is naturalistic in its use of the graphic novel format, with panels that sequentially build on one another in a fairly straight-forward fashion, thus allowing the characters and their experiences to take centre-stage. 
The nostalgia of the 'tween' years is lovingly portrayed through tiny details.

18. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Second only to Maus, Satrapi's personal account of Iran's Islamic Revolution offers a unique window into experiences that are at once identifiable but also wholly alien to the majority of Western audiences. The simplistic and cartoonish illustrations lull one into a sense of familiarity that allows Satrapi to treat the reader as a confidante, telling a culturally complex story anchored in compassion and loss.

19. Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann, Kerascoet, and Helge Dascher
What Beautiful Darkness lacks in narrative depth it more than makes up in tone, combining the gothic and the cute to create a fairytale that becomes increasingly creepy as it unfolds before the reader. I felt kind of blindsided and gobsmacked by the end.

The premise concerns a collection of strange little creatures that emerge from the body of a dead girl to explore the world around them.

20. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, and Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour
I've included these two together because, unlike everything else mentioned in this list, these two series are unfinished and still in the process of being published. Saga is currently in its 7th volume, whilst Southern Bastards will see a 4th volume later this year. Neither of these last two examples will be suitable for classroom use but they're worth checking out just to demonstrate the way that the Image comics brand is exploring a wide scope of genres with various quality titles.

A meeting of lovers in Saga, demonstrating Brian K. Vaughan's eye for darkly witty juxtaposition of imagery and ideas.
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have collaborated on Saga to create one of the breakout comic hits of recent years. The concept focuses on the daughter of two star-crossed lovers from opposing sides in an intergalactic war, and it moves out from there to encompass a range of memorable characters, themes and subplots: bounty hunters, talking seal pups, romance novelists, TV soaps, drug addiction, pacifism, and a royal family of robots with TV sets for heads. It sounds bizarre, and it is, but it's also very entertaining and you'll no doubt fall in love with the many visually inventive aspects of Staples' character designs.

Euless Boss: One mean sonuvabitch!
Southern Bastards, on the other hand, couldn't be more different - telling a small-town tale of deception and greed where the local football coach, Euless Boss, rules over his corner of the Alabama backwoods with violent and unquestionable power. With only three volumes to its name thus far, it's perhaps too early to talk extensively about themes or where its heading, but nonetheless it stands tall as a great example of the 'rural noir' subgenre and the effectiveness of the comic book format in telling richly layered stories such as this in a memorable and idiosyncratic fashion.