Monday, March 19, 2018

Marvel Classics Comics #15 "TREASURE ISLAND"

(Graded Reader)

Why I Used This Book In Class
Recently, I've been experimenting with using authentic comic books in my "Story Time" section of class.
These comics aren't technically "Graded Readers" (they were created for a native-audience), but the pictures carry the story so effectively that I think they can work for an ESL audience.  (When I was learning Japanese, I found Manga to be very useful for precisely that reason.  If I didn't understand a word, I could often infer it from the illustration.)

I started out with old Donald Duck - andUncle Scrooge - comics.  But after the 4th Uncle Scrooge story, I felt that the students were beginning to get a bit tired of it, and it was time to move on to something else. 

When I posted my book review of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I referenced back to my first exposure to the story--the 1984 Fisher-Price Comic Book version. And having that comic book brought back to mind made me think about my Story Time project. 

...but the more I thought about it, the more Frankenstein  probably wasn't the best choice.  Children love scary stories, but Frankenstein wasn't a horror story so much as it was tragedy.  And I think this comes through even in the Fisher-Price Comic Book version.  It's just a long list of bad things happening to Dr Frankenstein, but with very little suspense or build-up.

Of the old 1984 Fisher Price Comic Book series, the one that really thrilled me had always been Treasure Island.
As a child, I had always found the story beats in Treasure Island to be more scary and memorable than Frankenstein.  (Scary in a good way.  In the sense that children like to have the thrill of a slight shiver.)
For example ***SPOILERS***

the mysterious stranger who comes to the inn and terrorizes Jim and his family.  The even more scary pirates who come to attack him. 
I had always found "The Black Spot" and the way it seemed to bring instant death to Billy Bones to be scary. 
Plus Pew's macabre ending--getting trampled by the constables' horses.
Then there's Alan's mysterious death cries on the island. Followed by John Silver suddenly killing Tom, as soon as Tom turns his back on him.
Or, Flint's ghost (real or imagined) which haunts the pirates on the island.  And the macabre story of how Flint killed all the other men on the island, and then drank himself to death in Savannah.

....there were just tons of really creepy dramatic moments in Treasure Island.  Much more so than Frankenstein.  (1)   

Finding a Copy
....For better or for worse, I couldn't track down online a copy of the 1984 Fisher-Price version that I grew up with.
I could, however, find the 1976 Marvel Classic Comic on which the 1984 version was based.  [Online HERE.]
The illustrations are mostly the same, but the 1976 version uses a lot more complicated language.  (The 1984 version was aimed at much younger children, so it used much simpler language.)

Adapting for Class
Even though I'm a big fan of letting the visuals carry the story (as I mentioned above), I decided that in order to make this intelligible for my students, I would have to spend a lot of time simplifying the language. 
Which I did.  When preparing the slideshow, I copied and pasted the original comic on the slide, and then re-wrote the dialogue in simplified English.  (Except for cases when Robert Louis Stevenson's original dialogue was so memorable that I didn't want to lose it.  And in those cases, I just left it in.)

I searched the Internet for a lot of clipart and visual aid to explain the words.

In class, I showed the students the slides while I read the story.
The Fisher-Price version, that I had grown up with, had an audio tape where all the dialogue was read by voice actors.  And I tried to imitate that as best I could--doing my best dramatic voices, or growing pirate voices.
Voice acting is a funny thing though--it sounds so easy when you listen to it.  "Oh, I could do that," you think to yourself.  But when you actually try and read the voices yourself, you find you have a much less dramatic voice range than you thought.
I did my best, nonetheless.
I think, especially for reading in a second language, having someone read through the book with you and guide you through all the appropriate intonations and sentence stresses.  Reading it in a dramatic way can help even more with this.

I aimed to do about 50 new slides for every class.  Partly because the slideshows took me so long to make that I couldn't do much more than 50 at a time.  And partly because I judged that's about where my student's attention span was at.
But I under-estimated their attention span.  Because once they got hooked on the story, the students started complaining about how each section was too short.  They really wanted to hear more of the story.

If I ever do this story again (and I hope to be able to use these slides again at some point in the future), I'm going to combine the slides into larger parts.  I'm thinking combine every 2 sets of slides, and make it about 100 new slides a class instead of 50.

Student Engagement
As I mentioned above, student engagement was high.
I did this with a class of students aged roughly 9-11 in two classes.
In the morning class, all the students were engaged with the story.
In the afternoon class, it was primarily only the boys who got into the story.  Some of the girls would just sit in the back and get distracted by other things.  (Sometimes I worry that in my selection of Graded Readers and Movies, I'm often guilty of selecting things that interest boys more than girls.  Maybe I should try to balance this more in the future?)  But even in the afternoon class, the girls would get interested for the more dramatic parts.

Some of the students told me that had already read this story as part of their literature class in Vietnamese school.  I was worried this would make them bored with the story, but actually it seemed to increase their enjoyment.  (They were excited to encounter a story they were already familiar with).  And it later turned out that they had only read the first chapter in Vietnamese school. 
(A Vietnamese friend told me this was common practice at Vietnamese school.  The students only read the first few chapters of famous books in school, and then discuss what they think the rest of the story is going to be about.  I imagine the theory is to expose the students to a lot of different books, and hope to have them go on and read a couple more on their own.)

One student got so hooked on the story that he went and read the whole thing at home, and then for the rest of the duration of the story, he had to be prevented from giving spoilers to the rest of the class.

A few of the students asked me some interesting questions--about whether Long John Silver was a good person, or a bad person.  But since this is left ambiguous in the original story itself, there was no clear answer to this.

Other Notes
In 2016, on my list of best fiction books, I wrote of Treasure Island:
Perhaps judged simply as a story, this isn't the best book in the world.  But as a creator of a sort of modern mythology, Robert Louis Stevenson is brilliant.  He fully creates this whole world of pirate lore and pirate mythology. 
I was at least half correct.  The pirate lore aspect of this book is brilliant.  (Robert Louis Stevenson single-handedly created the whole pirate story genre). 
But why did I downplay the story?
Going through this story again with my students made me realize that there are so many brilliant moments in here.  So many great twists and turns and surprises.  It's an amazing story!  One of the best.
To be fair to myself, in my 2014 review of the book, I was much more complimentary to the story. I think when I did that 2016 list, perhaps the story wasn't as fresh in my mind, and I forgot how good it really was. 

(1) Although at my old school, I did actually do a Graded Reader version of Frankenstein with a class of 11-14 year olds, and they reacted very positively to it. 

Link of the Day
Neocon David Frum Schooled By Noam Chomsky

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