United Nations High Commissioner Education Essay

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The United States has always been one of the primary destinations for immigrants and refugees of the world. According The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by the end of 2011 more than 42 million people became "forcibly displaced" because of a war situation and/or political repression in their country. Of these 15.2 million were refugees. Globally this number is the highest in the last two decades and almost half a million more than it was in 2009.

As for the United States, after a sudden drop in 2002 and 2003 following the September 11 events the number of refugees in this country steadily increases. According to the UNHCR report, in 2011 264,800 refugees found a new home in the United States. In fact, the number of the refugee population turned out to be higher in 2009 than in the pre-September 11 years of the decade. (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2012)

The condition of being a refugee can often be characterized as a state of limbo. Persecution or other humanly unbearable circumstances drive them away from their homelands, yet when they arrive in their country of repatriation they are often not received with overly warm welcomes. They are often treated as sub-citizens, although they have legal rights to work and education. No wonder that in spite of their intentions and desires lots of refugees give in and accept their second-class citizenship status. Fairclough (1989) writes: "People internalize what is socially produced and made available to them, and use this … to engage in their social practice" (p.24).

One of the first contextual needs of an adult refugee is the need to learn. All of a sudden they are thrown into a situation where they must learn or relearn many things. Learning a new language is certainly a factor and there is special anxiety in being introduced to a second language at an adult age. Language itself is a big part of one's identity and in this sense a carefully planned and executed English as a Second Language (ESL) course can constitute a stable point in a highly unstable and potentially threatening new life of struggling to find work, physical challenges of potentially racist and abusive hosts, interactions with lawyers and other officials, sudden re-housing or homelessness, refusal or losing of benefits and so forth. (Baynham, 2006)

For many years assimilation - and within it: language assimilation - has been a goal of refugee-specific education. However, it does not seem to be a goal that is consistent with the refugee's needs and desires. Refugees are not necessarily interested in becoming "Americans" without preserving their own culture. They often note that they are interested in adapting the aspects of the American culture that they need for survival or that they view as valuable, yet in doing so they want to maintain as much of their cultural background as they can. Although many of the refugees are interested in becoming an American citizen, they don't believe that it is necessary to sacrifice their original culture, traditions and language. Ricento (2005) writes about Pita and Utakis' 2002 research among the Dominican community in New York City, in which they examined the economic, political, social, cultural, and linguistic dimensions of the community. They argue that old assumptions that refugees come to the United States to assimilate and lose their ancestral culture do not apply. In spite of the fact that refugees actually prefer acculturation to assimilation, conditions of being a refugee often do not encourage the acculturation process, what's more, they often lead to self-initiated (and society-based) assimilation. Ricento (2005) argues:

These sociocultural construction of the 'other' may eventually come to be seen as self-evident not only by the 'outside' group but to varying degrees and in various guises by the culture this described as well. (p.896.)

In education, on the surface, multicultural approaches are widely accepted and very popular nowadays but as a practice they can be highly contested. Multiculturalism should be embraced by focusing on the "subtle workings of racism, class bias, cultural oppression, and homophobia" (Kincheloe, 2005, p.9). Generally, main stream multicultural approaches have also neglected the complexity of notions of identity and differences (Edgerton, 1996; Grossberg, 1994; McLaren 1995) and ultimately have become permeated with the mainstream discourses they once challenged. Canagarajah (2004) writes about an experience with a group of Hindu students:

How could they learn English while also maintaining membership with their vernacular community and culture? While some were obviously prepared to join the new English-speaking community…these students didn't want to lose their local identities. Perhaps they struggled for a way in which they could maintain dual identities - learning English while also remaining Hindus. (p.116.)

There are clear signs that second language acquisition research (together with literacy studies) has taken "the social turn" and there has been a shift from the psychological focus on motivation towards notions of identity. (Norton, 2000). When talking about language learners the focus is not on grammar system, vocabulary and such any more, rather students of any languge are treated as complex social beings. Theorists of second language acquisition, in general, have travelled far from the traditional assumption in language studies that" identities are static, unitary, discrete, and given" (Canagarajah, 2004 p. 117).

In the field of language learning/teaching language is the content and the medium of the course. The problem is, no language is "innocent"; they do not exist independently from a wider semiotic system in which they were permeated with ideological and political relations (Pennycook, 2001). Thus there are several questions here that any ESL educators of the refugee community need to face.

Education itself is a fundamentally political process involving the production and reproduction of social differences. The same people who have the power to make decisions in society at large are the ones who also have the power to design and implement educational systems. However, Giroux (1997) also argues that, at all levels of schooling, teachers "represent a potentially powerful force for social change" (p.28). He explains that in the classroom, teachers should not merely encourage self-reflection and understanding, but must link self-reflection and understanding with "a commitment to change the nature of the larger society" (p.28).Thus language teaching programs should have a fresh new approach; one that unmasks the underlying cultural values and ideologies of the educational settings and the society to create a context where students and their instructors can make their first steps together towards their empowerment and positive social changes. It would be especially important in the field of ESL for adult refugees as this approach would provide the potential for these marginalized groups to explore ways of changing their new society for a better, more democratic and receptive world, and improve their social status and conditions.

Adult ESL classes offered to new refugees should have a way to improve their English language skills while at the same time they should develop a sense of critical consciousness of the world around them.

This statement seemingly contradicts a widely accepted view: for a long time teaching English has been regarded as merely teaching the means of communication which does not have significant ethical issues or much political or critical significance. Thus language has been reduced to a system for transmitting messages rather than considered as a living organism that plays a central role in how we understand ourselves and the world. Also, with this attitude teachers/instructors are reduced to be simply classroom technicians instead of being autonomous intellectuals. (Pennycook, 1990)

One way to change this is, to implement a strong critical pedagogical attitude in teaching English as a second (or third, etc) language to adult refugees who are about to restart their life. Generally speaking, critical pedagogy focuses on questions of social and cultural inequality; it is not merely descriptive, rather, it aims to be transformative. Furthermore a defining feature of critical pedagogy is to change the conditions of inequality that it describes.

Critical pedagogy in second language learning has always been sympathetic to the subjects, the shaping influence of culture and discourse, and it has also considered consciousness on learning activity, the power of classroom to develop resistance to larger political forces very important parts of the educational processs (Cananarajah, 2005). According to Pennycook (1999) the first and foremost rationale for a critical pedagogical approach in the ESL classroom is to locate the field within a broader framework of social, cultural and political relations.

Critical pedagogy has also been around in the ESL/EFL (English as a Foreign Language) fields for a while (Canagarajah, 2005), but its practical consequences have rarely been studied and discussed. Even if it gets in the limelight among ESL professionals it is mostly about its rationale instead of applying it to the actual world of ESL classroom practice.

While materials are generally considered as one of the core resources in language learning practices (Richards, 2010), remarkably little has been done on ESL materials development where the main principles of critical pedagogy are included and applied. Curriculums, course books, and other ESL resources for adult refugees / immigrants are almost never based on the students' real life situations, needs and interests in spite of the fact that prominent researchers have pointed out that by tying the content of materials to the students' existential situation the motivation to learn almost always rises. (Freire, 1970). If education - and within it: ESL education - is considered as a transformative action for creating better life conditions for the students (immigrants and refugees) than it is essential that they have a true understanding of their lives and all the factors that might lead to the perceived inequalities. This understanding could be developed by addressing students' realities in ESL context, in other words, "bringing the outside in". However, Pennycook (1999) warns that it is not enough to simply connect ESL to the practical world in which it occurs; rather, "this connection must focus on questions of power, inequality, discrimination, resistance, and struggle" (p. 332).

The objective of this thesis was to argue that the use of multicultural graphic novels in the critical ESL classroom for adult refugees is beneficial not only for both the students and the educators but also for their macro- and micro-sociocultural environment as well. The thesis' further goal is to provide critical ESL pedagogues with a practical guideline on how to use multicultural graphic novels to empower themselves and their students by training them to "read the word and the world" more critically.

Literature Review

Critical Pedagogy: Definition, History and Key Concepts

Education in the critical sense reveals the connection among knowledge, authority and power (Stevens, 2011). Critical pedagogy emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, though the term itself does not come into use until about two decades ago, in 1983, by Henry Giroux in his influential book, Theory And Resistance in Education.

Critical pedagogy talks about the purpose and the process of education - but it is not easy to give a concise definition of the term because attempts to do so may lead to solidify and discipline this vibrant area of educational work (Ellsworth, 1989).

Critical pedagogy does not seem to be a solid theory but "a way of doing learning and teaching," (Canagarajah, 2005) or in other words: teaching with attitude (Pennycook, 2001) . As Joan Wink (2011) notes, "Critical pedagogy teaches us to name, to reflect, and to act" (p.46). First Paulo Freire (1970), then later Apple (1982), McLaren (1989), Giroux (1993, 1997) and many others have brought issues of power and social inequality in schooling to the forefront of educational debates, and have offered critical pedagogy as an approach to confront these issues. Pennycook (1999) describes critical pedagogy as work that concretely focuses on issues of class, race, sexuality, or gender, in which the relationship between power and inequality is often obvious in terms of both social or structural inequity (such as pay, job access, education). Critical pedagogy reveals the cultural or ideological frameworks that support such inequity (like discrimination, prejudice, beliefs about what is normal or proper).

Critical pedagogues are after the transformation of society through education (including language teaching). They argue that schooling always involves the privileging of certain forms of knowledge and these forms of knowledge serve to reproduce inequalities. They consider educational systems as reflections of the societal systems in which they operate, and since in all social systems there are discrimination and marginalization in terms of race, social class, or genders, the same biases are reproduced in education. Alastair Pennycook (1990) writes:

Viewing schools as cultural areas where diverse ideological and social forms are in constant struggle, critical pedagogy seeks to understand and critique the historical and sociopolitical context of schooling and to develop pedagogical practices that aim not only to change the nature of schooling, but also the wider society (p 24).

Students and teachers permeated by critical pedagogy are to bring their actual life experiences and needs to the classroom to demystify and reveal power implications in pedagogical activity and try to alter the means and ends of learning in order to create a more ethical, educational, and social environment. In this sense, Akbari (2008) suggests that "the discourse of critical pedagogy is the discourse of liberation and hope" (p. 277). Critical pedagogy recognizes how most of the curriculums and approaches to teaching put forward a perspective on the world that serves to silence certain voices and marginalize certain ways of life. Shor (1987) writes, "to surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so through transforming action they can create a new situation" (p.47). Quite a few theorists claim the social order is unjust because it empowers only the dominant culture of the white western middle or upper class male rather than the various minority cultures of a pluralistic society (Apple, 1982; Giroux, 1997; Kinchelow, 2005). This dominant culture has organized schools, established the basic ground rules for teaching and learning, and developed curriculums, which perpetuates its own power by ignoring and silencing the realities of other cultures.

Kincheloe (2005) describes this schooling context which uniquely promotes the dominant culture as having been shaped by "decisions made previously by people operating with different values and shaped by ideological and cultural assumptions of their own historical contexts" (p.2).

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the pioneering figure of the movement, intitially talked about the issues of power and social justice in the literacy programs and put forward critical pedagogy as an approach to face these issues. Freire, in his most celebrated book Pedagogy of The Oppressed, argues against the banking model of education in favor of a dialogic and problem posing education (Freire, 1970). He objects the traditional way of education (banking model), in which students are considered as "empty vessels to be filled" by the teacher (p. 79). According to Freire the practice of the banking model leads to domination and oppression. As a remedy, he proposes problem posing education which takes place through dialogue in which teachers and students become critical co-learners and all teach and all learn. In problem-posing education instructors challenge students' existential situation by asking simple but stimulating and probing questions concerning the problems of learners' lives.

In fact, one of the distinctive features of critical pedagogy is dialogue. In the dialogical context, individuals in the classroom are considered members of one community in a way that everyone teaches and everyone learns. In this way, a mutual acceptance and trust between the students and the teacher could be (and would be) created (Heaney, 1995).

Diversity must be acknowledged and explored; difference is valued as strength in a true democracy. The understanding and valuing of difference can be seen in a classroom with a curriculum that encourages student questioning and where "the teacher avoids a unilateral transfer of knowledge" (Shor, 1992, p.12) - or in Freire's terminology, in a true democracy problem-posing education is much more preferred to the banking model.

In a sense, critical pedagogy is about the relationship between the word and the world. Taking an overall look at a critical curriculum, Freire and Macedo maintain that an educational program should be much more than learning how to read, and a critical curriculum prepares students to "read the world" while "read the word" (Freire & Macedo, 1987). By "reading the world" they mean helping learners be aware of the differences between the world of nature and the world of culture while the former is made by natural forces and cannot go under change by individuals and the latter is made by humans and can go under change (Sticht, 2006).

The educator's and student's roles in critical pedagogy

Educators have the responsibility to recognize that the curriculum is biased and then they must strive to create a concrete space for every student's reality to be represented in it. Following this, students also have a responsibility to step into a dialogue with other ethnicities, genders, physical abilities, etc, and learn about their reality.

Critical pedagogy is centered on the students, aiming to empower them by training them to read the world more critically, to engage in the world around them and ultimately, to change it. However, the instructor/teacher plays a fundamental role in the critical classroom (Giroux, 1997; Kincheloe, 2005). Giroux (1997) affirms that, at all levels of schooling, teachers "represent a potential powerful force for social change" (p.28). It is through the real-life applicability of the topics included by the teacher that students can develop an understanding of the world around them, a desire to engage in this world and finally "to exercise the kind of courage needed to change the wider social reality when necessary" (Kincheloe, 2005, p.107). Critical peadagogues must teach students how to identify and how to critically appropriate the codes of different cultural, social, and collective histories and traditions by including, in the curriculum, the various voices of marginalized groups. The hope is that this awareness will lead to valuing of the richness that is rooted in multiple perspectives (Kincheloe, 2005).

If educators do not teach in opposition to the existing inequalities in races and classes, then they are teaching to support such inequalities. When teachers do not teach critically against injustice in society they are actively allowing injustice to reign, both in school and out (Shor, 1992).

Critical Pedagogy in ESL Programs

Pennycook (1994) writes:

The teaching practices themselves represent particular visions of the world and thus make the English language classroom a site of cultural politics, a place where different versions of how the world is and should be are struggled over (p. 146).

For a long time teaching ESL has been regarded merely as teaching a means of communication in a "clean and safe" way with few ethical issues. Today, however, there is a realization that teaching English involves complex moral implications. "[O]ne of the problems facing the proponents of an ethical approach to English teaching is that no one is sure where the moral high ground lies when it comes to the export of ELT goods and services" (Graddol, 2001, pp. 35-36). Critical advocates argue that such apolitical principles are certainly stimulated by sociopolitical issues (Canagarajah, 2005).

Canagarajah's perspective (2005) is similar to Pillipson (cited in Baladi, 2007) who was one of the pioneers in paying attention to the ethical problems of ESL. He argues that for a long time English language has been perceived as a very effective medium of hegemony. In line with them, Pennycook (1990) also states that governing linguistic principles are masks to hide the controversial materials and ideological goals of ESL courses. Canagarajah (2005) encourages teachers to "critically interrogate the hidden curriculums of their courses, relate learning to the larger socio-political realities, and encourage students to make pedagogical choices that offer sounder alternatives to their learning conditions" (p. 14).

Trying to define critical pedagogy in ESL, Canagarajah (2005) views critical pedagogy as a practice-oriented process where critical pedagogy "is not a set of ideas, but a way of doing learning and teaching. It is a practice motivated by a distinct attitude toward classrooms and society" (p 932). Critical pedagogues in second language teaching are interested in exploring the ways how social relationships and issues of power are settled in language (Norton & Toohey, 2004). Norton and Toohey (2004) claim that from this point of view language is not just a means of communication rather it is "a practice that constructs, and is constructed by the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future" (p 1).

As early as 1978 Linda Crawford listed twenty principles as a basis for critical pedagogy in ESL/EFL. (Crawford, 1978) Among them she states: " [8] dialogue forms the context of the educational situation; [9] …the organization of curriculum recognizes the class as a social entity and resource; [10] …the teacher participates as a learner among learners [11] …teachers contribute their ideas, experiences, opinions, and perception to the dialogical process."

The trouble with ESL materials from the point of view of critical pedagogy

ESL materials, as one of the most important elements of the ESL educational settings have gone under critical assessment. Researchers and theorists question the content of mainstream materials in the ESL world. ESL students may find it difficult or impossible to challenge the hidden agenda in the materials provided (sold to them) for their English classes. Achebe (1975) points out that although many ESL students are critically engaged with their text, for many others English language has been "forced down their throats" through socioeconomic circumstances because students often live in economic realities that suggest that everything Western is somehow connected with success. Brown (1990) argues that "best sellers are increasingly marketed to westernized young adult" (p. 13). He adds that there is an evident specific socioeconomic norm in today's ESL materials: work is the primary focus, specifically, making money, followed by the use of that money for consumption and diversion. These texts "assume a materialistic set of values … international travel, not being bored, positively being entertained, having leisure, and, above all, spending money casually" (Brown, 1990, p.13). In a critical image analysis for identifying of trends in mass-market ESL materials, Giaschi (2000) found that "the increasingly predominant images used in ESL texts convey a particular vision of … a wider-reaching [hidden] agenda" (p.32) and "cultural propaganda is being disseminated today through ESL teaching materials" (p33). He also concludes that it is possible that this hidden agenda could be reinforced by ESL teachers through the use and dissemination of lots of current ESL materials - not that such reinforcement must definitely occur, but that it could.

Ellis (1990) argues that Western-produced textbooks are ethnocentric and points out the ways that ESL materials manage to offend Muslim sensibilities. Rinvolucri (1999) has also been bitterly opposed to the content of ESL course books where the ESL world stays away from the dark side of the life with no mention of death, poverty or war. Wide variety of human discourses are left outside this closed ESL circle because they are not deemed worth of culture. The propagation of this definition of culture has been the hidden (and not so hidden) agenda in the ESL materials. As Apple (1982) has suggested and as Giroux (1997) has also argued, the choice of classroom subject matter and materials cannot be neutral; inclusions and omissions of subject matter both point to a political agenda. Shor (1992) illustrates this point:

Whose history and literature is taught and whose is ignored? Which groups are included and which left out of the reading list or text? From whose point of view is the past and present examined? Which themes are emphasized and which not? Is the curriculum balanced and multicultural, giving equal attention to men, women, minorities, and nonelite groups, or is it traditionally male-oriented and Eurocentric? (p.14)

Crawford (1978) claims that many ESL materials detach the student from responsibility and opportunity to be creative and active in the language process. It is through the real-life applicability included by both the teacher and the students that students can develop an understanding of the world around them, a desire to engage in this world, and ultimately "to exercise the kind of courage needed to change the wider social reality when necessary (Kincheloe, 2005, p.107).

One of the main arguments against the critical approach in education is, that it exists more as a theory of pedagogy than as a practical specification. Gore (1993) is concerned about the inclination of some critical educators to create abstracted theories that lack applicability. Buckingham (1998) writes:

Despite their apparent address to teachers, the critical pedagogues have consistently refused to consider the ways in which their theoretical perspectives might be implemented, or to clarify their notoriously opaque syle of writing.

Ellsworth (1989) brings up a slightly different but very important point. She suggests that while theorists of critical pedagogy do emphasize relations of domination, sometimes its concrete political intensions, such as antiracism, antisexism, antielitism, etc., are being diluted. She adds that applicable critical pedagogy should be less theoretically critical and should more clearly and directly create its objectives for fighting against specific social inequalities and injustices.

Crookes (2009) suggests that the practicality of critical second language pedagogy would be improved by more accessibility and variety of "fully worked out sample materials." (p. 9). Garcia-Gonzales (2000 ) closely studied the efforts of teachers from two California Bay area schools who had attempted to use critical pedagogical approaches in their ESL classrooms. According to her the drawbacks came mainly from a lack of direction, and a lack of resources and material designed for a critical type of pedagogy.

As a result, there is an implicit call out there for greater collaboration between critical theorists and practicing teachers for the creation of a practical guide for teachers. Creating concrete ESL materials (textbooks, lesson plans, visuals) that can be used effectively in a critical classroom would be a very convincing and practical evidence that critical approach to ESL is valid and can be implemented.

Visuals

In the 1970s a revolution has taken place in the ESL materials industry. As Prodromou (1988) puts it, in the 1970s "the texts went Technicolor." Increasingly, focus was placed on the visual representation of the ESL textbook, as opposed to the grammatical or textual content. Gradually images have become an integral component of the presentation of the language and not only the language, but also the culture.

Studies by many researchers and theorists from Jung to the present day have demonstrated that images are able to communicate beyond the expressive ability of oral or written language. But Fairclough (1989) warns: "Not all photographs are equal: any photograph gives one image of a scene or person from among the many possible images. The choice is important, because different images convey different meanings" (p.52). Pinker (1997) demonstrates how this interior communication may occur in the mind, and Berger (1972) has shown how this 'super-expression' can be used to position and manipulate the viewer: a picture often really is worth a thousand words.

Why to use graphic novels?

If educators ever find out what constitutes the fantastic motivating power of comic books, I hope they bottle it and sprinkle it around classrooms. (Haugaard, 1973)

Kay Haugaard wrote this sentence almost 40 years ago, but her plea for research on comic books is no less relevant today than it was then. Contemporary and engaging, comic books, also known as graphic novels, are a natural form of literature, tackling a wide area of topics ranging from war through immigrant/refugee experiences to everyday prejudices against the 'other'. EXAMPLES

There are several misconceptions and confusion about the terms "cartoons", "comic strips", "comic books", and "graphic novels".

Cartoons offer a slice of life in a single, stand-alone panel, almost always in a humorous form. The panel (frame) is the basic building block of all comics. EXAMPLES

Comic Strips is a series of pictures in sequenced, horizontally arranged block of usually three to five panels that tell a story. Among visual genres, comic strips catch many researchers' attention because they combine aesthetic perception with intellectual pursuit (Swain, 1978; Inge, 1990). Comic strips communicate using two major media - text and images, although the separation is somewhat superficial because the expressive potential of comic strips lies in skillfully employing words and images together. Comic strips are published in thousands of newspapers around the world; the dailies in black and white, and the Sunday strips in color. EXAMPLES

Although 'graphic novel' is perhaps the popular term these days in the United States (possibly to provide legitimacy), 'comic book' can be used as well to name this literary and art genre. They take the strip format and stretch it to 20-50 pages. In Great Britain and other countries the term 'comic book' does not imply something juvenile, so the term 'graphic novel' is not as popular. As narratives originating in the 20th century, by now graphic novels/comic books are considered to be a legitimate art and literary form or genre (Overstreet, 2005). Some titles are full-length books containing complete stories, many others feature 'continuity plots'. EXAMPLES

One of the more well-known comic books in academic circles is the graphic novel Maus (Spiegelman, 1986; 1991), for which writer and illustrator Art Spiegelman received a Pulitzer Prize (Sturm, 2002). Sometimes classified as fiction and sometimes as nonfiction, Maus tells the story of Spiegleman's parents' struggle and survival in World War II. In the story, the Nazis were portrayed as cats and Jews as mice. According to Yang (2003), Maus brought the public's attention to "a decades-long movement within the comics community towards artistically mature, literate work…comics had finally 'grown up'" (no page given).

Comic book writers and artists draw from their own creativity as well as folklore, religion, and culture. They develop their narrative in the context of their culture, reflecting their concerns, desires, and norms. While the stories may occur in the past, present, or various futures or realities, the tales are part of today's culture, reflecting problems and desires in the current world. They also inform; many graphic novels provide information and expect their readers to stay current in world events and social issues; they reveal information about society in general, norms and expectations of social, political and economic institutions. EXAMPLES

Representing contemporary cultures, comic books have been the source of many academic studies (e.g., Brown, 1997; Edwardson, 2003; Shaheen, 1994; Skidmore and Skidmore, 1983). University educators also use comic books to teach science, sociology and other academic subjects (Kakalios, 2002; Hall and Lucal, 1999; Belk, 1987).

The value of using graphic novels in the classroom can be discussed in terms of what the medium provides for the students. Yang (2003) identifies five attributes of comic books that add to the learning experience: they are motivating, visual, permanent, intermediary, and popular.

Comic books also bridge socio-economic, generational and cultural gaps. Norton (2003) became interested in the popularity of Archie comics among middle and high school students. During her research she experienced that reading the Archie stories cut across ethnic and linguistic boundaries and it was an activity shared by speakers of diverse backgrounds and could provide a common link among them. It is also important to note that common links are important, not only for the development of community relationships but also for the perceptions that target language speakers have of the language learners. Here is a student talking about these perceptions:

"…I know that one reason most of the kids with English problems and kids with good English don't relate is because the English kids seem to think that either they are stupid because they can't speak English, which is totally a misconception, or they're not like them, and they're kind of pushed away by that…it [comic books] would give them something to realize that these kids like some things that they like, that they are kids who like things that other kids like, which is a way of bringing them together (Norton, 2003 p. 144).

Although not aimed at adult population Ujiie and Krashen (1996) findings also confirm the bridging role of graphic novels. The researchers surveyed 571 seventh graders at two schools in Southern California regarding comic book reading. One school was middle class; the other was a Chapter 1 school where a little over 80 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. 28 percent of the students at the Chapter 1 school were classified LEP (Limited English Proficient). Ujiie and Krashen found no significant difference between schools in how often student read comics. They were also surprised by the fact that despite the high cost of comics, middle-class and far less affluent students read comics at the same frequency.

While students from varied backgrounds find common ground or shared experience, students and educators can also share common reference points across racial, economic, and age differences. Graphic novels, coming from different cultural environments and thus bridging cultural gaps, can prove the existence of the "universal human" albeit in a way most fitting for any given culture. Thus comic books may serve as important bridges to tolerance and community building.

As Yang (2003) pointed out the pictures in graphic novels are not only engaging but also an aid to learning and meaning making by improving vocabulary and comprehension for students of lower reading ability due to the comic books' popular and easily accessible format. Norton (2003) quotes one English-language learner, Guofang: "Well, they got picture, can help them, colorful pictures to help the readers to understand like how, what is happening, going on" (p. 143). Another participant in the same study similarly explained that the pictures helped her in the construction of meaning: "The stuff that I did was that I first looked at the pictures and then I made up my own words" (p. 143). Williams (1995) investigated how comic books can be used as instructional materials for ESL students with low intermediate level English language skills, and with limited discourse and interactive competence. He found that using comic books in second language classrooms can guide students to hypothesize about the language, raise awareness of pragmatics, and emphasize language's underlying regularity. Wright and Sherman (1994) argue that educators can accomplish the task of stimulating students' thinking about explicit and implicit meanings by using comic books as both a method and medium of instruction. Although we seek for meaning through multimodality, Kress (2000) points out that the transport of information is seen as more efficient in the visual rather than verbal mode. Comic books appeal to people's feelings beyond the rational, objective meanings of the written words. Pictures and words combined can be powerful: they literally 'put a human face' on a given subject' (Versaci, 2001, p.61). In this sense, it is possible to argue that graphic novels offer innovative ways in conveying meaning because the notion of 'text' is not confined to the written word, and readers are encouraged to construct meaning with reference to a wide range of representations.

The combination of art and dialog reach out to students of different learning styles too, notably to the visual learner. Early education studies showed that the additional visual component increases learning; subsequent studies focused on the audio(verbal)-visual dimension of learning (Mayer & Massa, 2003). As well as providing opportunities for the expansion of students' linguistic intelligence, comic books allow students to explore and expand their visual-spatial intelligence (Gardner H. , 1999). In this way students are able to reveal their understanding in several ways and they are not limited by the traditional forms of expression. Graphic novels address both the visual and verbal learner and provide a medium, which students can experience at their own pace.

Dyson (1996) suggests that the social events through which artifacts are produced and used are central in the construction of meaning. At a given time and place, a text does not exist independently of different readers and communities. Many of the contemporary graphic novels are being created by artists coming from the same countries as lots of the refugee population are from (Bosnia, African countries, Asia), so they give the refugee-students a sense of text-ownership: they have added value to them beyond the simple act of reading because they carry familiar and meaningful exchanges the refugee-students can identify with. Among other factors it is this sense of ownership that gives these readers the confidence to engage with comic books critically and that's why it would be very important if this genre received recognition or/and validation from educators.

Using Yang (2003) term, comic books also serve as an intermediary; students can address emotionally charged topics, such as discrimination, sorrow, depression, home sickness, loss, death, in a unique environment, one that is removed from them. In a way, graphic novels provide alternative universes in which alternative consequences, moral and ethical dilemmas can be explored and discussed in removed, theoretical terms without the attached emotional and political weight and then in specific applications or examples of their own life. In this process students can draw on their own previous knowledge and experiences to reflect, engage and defend.

Additionally, comic books can encourage critical thinking in analyzing either the story itself or the presentation of the material (the written and the visual form) and the combination of the two. Students can identify an ethical dilemma or social issue and determine how to solve it. This could be a criticism of the resolution presented in the comic book, suggestions for alternative resolutions, or an original idea for the presented situation.

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