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  • Writer's pictureDani Kachorsky

Teaching 'Maus' for the first time: Challenges, successes, and future directions...


In this episode of Reading in the Gutter, Dani chats with Brooke Feldman-Cryan, a high school English and Theater teacher, about her experiences teaching the graphic novel Maus for the first time. Brooke shares her motivation behind selecting the text as well as some challenges and successes she experienced, and ultimately, what she would require in order to teach the graphic novel in the future.


Portrait of Brooke Feldman-Cryan, a white woman with short dark hair wearing a black button up blouse.

Brooke Feldman-Cryan is a high school English and Theater teacher at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Arizona. She also coaches Speech and Debate.


 

Note: The following transcript has been edited for coherence. Excessive "ums", unnecessary "likes”, and the like, have been removed for your convenience. Fragmented sentences and missing words have been edited to make the podcast transcript more readable.


[Opening Music]


Dani Kachorsky

Hi everyone. Welcome back to Reading in the Gutter, a podcast that tries to bridge the gap between comics and education. Today, I am here with Brooke Cryan.


[00:00:17]


Brooke Feldman-Cryan

Hello. Thanks for having me.


Dani

We are happy to have you. Brooke, you want to tell us a little bit about yourself before we get started?


Brooke

Sure. I am a teacher at Brophy College Preparatory in Arizona. It's a private Jesuit school for all boys. I'm entering my second year and I also run the theater program and help with speech and debate.


Dani

Excellent. Just full disclosure for everybody who is listening, I also work at Brophy College Prep now. When we started this podcast a few years back, I was at TAMUCC. This is how Brooke and I met, and we've had a lot of conversations about teaching and English and stuff like that.


This past year she taught Maus by Art Spiegelman, which was recently--January or February, 2022--banned or challenged, not for the first time, but in Tennessee as part of the epidemic of book banning and challenging that's been going on in the country. So as someone who is kind of boots on the ground, we thought Brooke would be a great person to bring on the show to talk about 1) why she chose to do this text, which has generated some controversy recently, and then 2) just to walk us through it, how to handle this as a teacher. So you want to tell us a little [about] why was it so important for you to teach this book?



Brooke

For sophomores at Brophy, they focus on these Ignatian themes, and one of them is this idea of confronting suffering and rejection. I thought it would be important to talk about a Holocaust story. I remembered as a younger kid actually coming across Maus in my elementary school library, and I found it and I thought it was interesting. But when I was younger, I mean, I didn't really think much about my Jewish identity. It's not until you're an adult and you're doing things with it, or you go through traditions and stuff like that, you're reading things and you're realizing, "Oh, I am connected to this," that you start to have meaning with it. So I thought this would be great. I actually, through talking with you, [that] engaging kids with graphic novels to just break them up from reading a chapter book, I thought would be a great way to do so.


[00:02:46]


Before I got into teaching, one of my career paths in college was photography and the fact that this whole thing was black and white also hones in on these little details that I loved when it come to photography. I think nowadays with kids in social media, color is so much out there, but I always thought it was really interesting that he stuck with black and white. It then reminds me of one of my favorite movies. When Steven Spielberg did Schindler's List, it's all in black and white and there's a purpose behind it. So I thought with my visual background, it might be interesting to kind of show kids that there's not just--There's different ways of reading heavy material, and that's kind of what I wanted to explore with them. Then, the AP level, I wanted to kind of break up what we've been reading and give them a graphic novel that also held some weight to it too. So that was kind of my thought process going into it.


Dani

So at the time when you chose to teach this text, were you aware of the controversy around it? The fact that it had been banned in Tennessee, or historically it's been challenged a few times as being "inappropriate", whatever that means...


Brooke

Yeah, I was aware of it and I looked at those CNN broadcasts again and Spiegelman interviews and things like that too.


I think anyone in the Jewish community when we heard this, you think, "That's ridiculous. Why would educators be, or why would a school board not want this?" And it's sad, but unfortunately it's... 90% of America at school districts--because we're fortunate that we work in a private school and parents are like, "Yes, by all means, let's read this or let's read that. Let's watch this." That's awesome. That's the beauty of the private schools, but not everyone has that luxury. If we want to expand education, I think it's a shame that educators--I keep saying educators--but administrators are like our sheltering kids when if they just took a look at their phones, they're going to see everything that's on there.


[00:05:16]


It reminded me and it made me feel like we were in the dawn age, again, of Holocaust deniers because if you deny kids to read a book that actually has visuals of what happened in the concentration camps, then you're denying a part of history. And I think it's okay for them to see what happened to the Jewish community and also the homosexuals and those that didn't identify as German, blonde and blue eyed, in that way. I mean I taught The Book Thief, which was great, but it didn't bring you inside the concentration camps. The Diary of Anne Frank is great, but it doesn't bring you into the concentration camps. Night by Elie Wiesel is the only other book that's out there that is usually taught that I think brings you into the concentration camps and gives that personal narrative perspective. But here, what's interesting for me when rereading it again, and what I talked about with the kids is that you have a man who's also struggling with his identity and what it means to be Jewish.



If you actually bring that into the forefront of the kids and show them, well, it's not just that, but there are kids that are dealing with this idea of religion. We have it at our school to begin with where we go to Mass and some kids feel like they're forced to be at Mass and they don't know how they feel about religion, that a book like this might make them question or realize certain things even if they're not Jewish. So that's... There's a double-edged sword with it, but I think people are missing and they're only focusing on, "Oh my gosh, there's a naked rat in this," versus what does this mean?


[00:07:02]


Dani

Yeah, when you say it like that, it just sounds so ridiculous. So for those who are not familiar with the recent challenge or ban in Tennessee, the complaints that were leveraged against Maus had nothing to do, on the surface at least, with the content of the Holocaust or the board saying that they didn't believe in the Holocaust or anything like that. The two things that were targeted specifically was there's an image of--


Brooke

Hanging, there's a hanging scene that happened in one of the Polish ghettos.


Dani

But I don't even think that was brought up in the school board meeting. The thing they targeted was, there's a picture of Spiegelman's mother and let's lead this: All the characters are rendered as mice and cats and pigs, so it's not really--


Brooke

Yeah, it's not until-- What's interesting about--so for those that have not read Maus, Maus is broken up into technically two volumes. You can buy them separate. Volume One focuses on pre-concentration camp, the birth of the Nazi regime, and what Art Spiegelman's father goes through. But in the middle--smack dab in the middle there is Art Spiegelman's--I think it's his first comic.


Dani

It's his first comic that he ever drew.


Brooke

His father's now new wife finds it and basically says, "Well, your father found this." And he had no idea that his father found it. It's basically Spiegelman's, I don't want to say grotesque, but some people argue that because it's so different from the rest of it, it's just very obscure.


Dani

It's jarring.


Brooke

It's very jarring. And one of the images that people complained about--


Dani

--is his mom in a bathtub.


Brooke

But if you look at the panel, it is the very bottom little bit of the corner.


[00:09:02]


Dani

It's smaller than a quarter, and it is the back of a woman's head and breasts. That was the big thing that kind of went or drove people a little bit crazy. There is also another image later in the book, which is the mouse version of that scene. And so there's those two, and then the word damn appears in the book. Those were the things that were leveraged at the Tennessee Board meeting about why this book shouldn't be in schools: There was a image of a naked woman having committed suicide in a bathtub, and then, the word damn.


Brooke

Which is absurd because Art Spiegelman's father is clearly racist and says a racist slur, but the parents weren't complaining about that as they haven't in books like To Kill A Mockingbird, having the N-word everywhere for historical context of what the city in Alabama was like, but damn is bad.


Dani

You think about what we get away with Romeo and Juliet, we're talking about 13 and 14-year-olds getting married and teen suicide. So there's a lot of things that are way worse than this that nobody gets upset about. So it's just kind of an interesting space, I think, in which to just know that it is out there [is that] people [are] having a problem with it.


And it is arguably one of the few graphic novels that is considered canonical. You mentioned that Wiesel's Night gets taught a lot and Anne Frank, but there are a ton of Holocaust literature books, but there are certain ones that just get taken up as canon. So I feel like, even though this is probably one of the more canonical graphic novels, it still kind of disrupts the canon in that way.


Was this the first time you had ever taught a graphic novel?


Brooke

Yeah, yeah. I've traditionally just done books, but again, coming from public schools, we were only given what we were told we were allowed to do. Every now and then, I would have a student come in who was a graphic novel enthusiast and show me what he or she was reading, and that was cool to see. Growing up, I read a little bit of graphic novels, but not extensively. It became kind of like a little hobby of my dad and I would, as a birthday present, when I lived in Indiana, there was this old comic book shop, and I would find an old comic and get it for him. And my brother had a few, but in terms of in the classroom, this was the very first time.


[00:11:38]


Dani

So what was it like? How did it go?


Brooke

I tailored the piece with an assignment that challenged the kids to write a speech on whether or not they believed that this book should be banned. One of the things that I ended up putting a spin on it too was I selected a few students whose writing I believed was a little bit more higher level than others and said, "You are writing to ban it," when a majority of them were against banning it.


Dani

Sure.


Brooke

But I wanted to challenge those students. The whole idea was to introduce the sophomores to research, get them to research what was out there, find sources to help support what they were saying, and also present them to a panel of teachers, that some of them have had and some of them [hadn't], and practice their speaking skills too. And it was interesting.


I mean, I think I would've structured it a little bit more like how I do with speeches on the competitive side versus I had them follow a very essay based structure, which is not a speech, but some of them did follow speeches where they would ask rhetorical questions. Some of them were compelling. Others I think just didn't do enough research into why would this be important or why should this be banned, type of thing.


A couple of the faculty that challenged them was really interesting. The faculty that came in, that I asked really took on the role and left the kids in uncomfortable situations, I thought, and I thought that was cool. So they're going to do a school board speech again, but I'm pivoting to Night, just because it's a little shorter. I wanted to move into speech writing with them just to change it up a bit. But the whole challenge, I think, is whether or not Holocaust should be taught in schools. I think that's where the book banning issue comes from is that, well, if you're banning stuff like this, then you're technically wanting to change the curriculum of history in itself too.


[00:13:41]


I would definitely do it again, I think, at the AP level. I like the fact that AP Lit and Comp is supposed to be a pre-college course, and if it's a pre-college English course, then you should be exploring multiple genres of literature, not just the classics. And I think now that every AP exam feels as if they are updating their list per se, then maybe they'll pivot a little bit to accepting it. I don't know. I still think that there's a lot of people out there that are very conservative with how they look at English and literature, and it's not until college, if a kid is actually majoring in English, that they decide to explore it. So I don't know. I feel maybe in the next 10, 15 years we'll see a difference of it. But, I mean, they definitely are still important. I think this is important. I think it's, as an educator, it's how you use a book like this that makes the difference of it.


Dani

Yeah. So there's a couple things that you said that I think are really important. One is that if you are banning these books, you are essentially rewriting history. And I think given the current disinformation age that we live in, these kinds of stories, these testimonies of people who lived through atrocities, whether it's the Holocaust or anything else, are super important because history gets pretty, for lack of a better term, whitewashed anyway, where the atrocities get pushed under the rug or made to seem like that was the past, it's all over now. Let's move on. And I think there's a lot of people reckoning with that these days in the United States.


[00:15:33]


Brooke

And I mean, if you look at the summer blockbusters, you got Barbie, but you got Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was a New York Jew, and one of the things that him and his other colleagues said to the general was that "It's not your people, it's mine." So they knew what they were doing. This is now the second most recent thing that's in pop culture that I was like, "Oh wow, we're actually talking about this again." I think that's really cool and important. I mean, antisemitism is still a thing. We've seen a rise of it.



Dani

The rise of the kind of neo-Nazi party in the United States is very obvious.


Brooke

I mean, Parade that opened on Broadway back in February or March had a neo-Nazi group protests the opening night. I mean, it still exists. It still exists, and we need to pull that into racism and homophobia and all of it into it. And if we're not acknowledging it as educators or a country or anything, then we're limiting the types of books that are out there that really tell these true stories.


Dani

The other thing you said that I thought was kind of interesting, you mentioned you're going to do Night this year. It was shorter.


Brooke

Yeah.


Dani

I think it's an interesting one because on the surface, if you look at Maus, they're very thin books and there are graphic novels that are massive. I'm thinking, I've got The Walking Dead compendium on my shelf right now, and it's so big, it's hard to even open. There's so many pieces of paper in there. So it looks like it's a fairly simple, straightforward, short read, and I think they can be. We've talked about this with a couple other guests on the show where people will just kind of read the words and blaze through them really quickly, but that means that you're not attending to the images.


Brooke

Right, yeah.


[00:17:29]


Dani

I don't know if this was your experience, but I've found that sometimes the graphic novel actually takes a little bit longer to teach because you need to slow down and really spend time looking, which is not what our kids are necessarily prepared to do.


Brooke

I really wanted to focus on image analysis, and I did that once, but I don't know, it was hard for them to kind of grasp the concept. I didn't prepare them, I think, enough to analyze it, or they just maybe felt uncomfortable with the images. They were very closed off. I think if I want to do it again, I want to re-explore that when I feel I have the time. I mean, our spring semester goes by so quickly, and then my worry is, because there's this always this big looming sophomore project, not spending enough time on that. So that's why I'm pivoting a little bit.


I was grappling with it. I will say that. I really had parents tell me that they really liked that we were doing this and stuff, and that was cool. I had a great group of parents and whatnot. So I don't think it'll be my last time. I think I'd come back to it, but it's definitely something that I unfortunately am pivoting, not because it didn't go well, because... I think just because of time and really, yeah, the image analysis just didn't go as well as I thought it would, and that's really what this needs. I feel like if I did this--I am teaching contemporary cinema. If this also had a movie attached to it, then it would make sense to introduce this and then go through the images, the choices that they were making type of thing.


[00:19:13]


Dani

Sure. So it sounds like there's a gap in your own knowledge and experience that you need support for.


Brooke

Yeah.


Dani

And that has been, again, my experience working with teachers in a professional level, asking them to do stuff that involves visual literacy and multimodality. When you're not trained to do that at the college level in teacher preparation, typically, there are certainly some places where it does happen.


Any other adjustments or changes you would make or are making?


Brooke

I still like the speech aspect. I think in an English class, in particular at the high school level, they need projects. I think giving them a project that involves research there in the second semester, so they should be comfortable writing, and it gets them to think outside the boxes is what I wanted to do. So I like the idea of giving them a challenge and say, "What if a school board said, 'we're not teaching the Holocaust?'" What if? And have them think about it.


I'm hoping that by doing that and showing them that this is a conversation that actually is going on in the US and makes them think a little bit outside the box and teach them real proper speech writing, I think that's my goal. I never want an English class to be, we read, you write an essay, you read, you write an essay. You need those little projects. So I think something like this, especially at a school where we're focusing on social justice... It's around the time where we do at our school, this big summit where they're thinking outside the box. I think that's important. So having that will be great. And then maybe in a year or so I'll reintroduce it with the same topic, not so much maybe banning this book, but...


[00:21:11]


Dani

Banning in general?


Brooke

Banning or no, just banning the Holocaust in general, that whole thing type of thing.


Dani

So we're coming pretty close I think here to time, but are there other graphic novels you're interested in teaching or ones that you've read recently that you think are maybe good fits for curriculum?


Brooke

So I read last year, American Born Chinese. I was thinking of doing it.



Dani

It's another banned book.


Brooke

I actually liked it. I thought it was a great representation. I thought it had a good undertone. My concern now is because they opened up this whole new Disney series, what does that do to the book itself? I'm not sure how well that pertains to what the graphic novel is all about, but I definitely liked that and would be interested potentially of teaching it.


I think the title is, I think it's a graphic novel. I've seen scenes from it. This Book is Gay, that one, I think it's called . I had a student in a speech, he was talking about book banning, but it came to L-G-B-T-Q ones and he referenced an op-ed that the author wrote about it. And when I was researching it, I think it was a graphic novel.


Dani

It looks like it's... I haven't read the book personally. I have heard of it, and I am familiar with it because it is on a banned and challenge list. I recognize the cover and looking at the Amazon preview, it does look like it has at least graphic elements. There's a lot of tables and charts, but there certainly is prose as well. So this might be characterized more as a multimodal novel, for those of you who have read the work of Stephanie Reid, it looks like it's kind of in that family.


[00:23:13]


Brooke

So that one was interesting just to learn the history of it and just to know about the author since the speech student was quoting that. So that was cool. But yeah, I think either come back to Maus. I did The Odyssey one, the big graphic novel. I've done that before and I mean, that's kind of cool. It's just a big one to get through. So I broke it up where it was a group thing, so the kids didn't necessarily... You can read one section and have another student tell you what happened in another to understand what's happening. So that one worked out well, but because they were only doing one section of The Odyssey, I felt like it might've been not the best expense for them because it was a big graphic novel.



Dani

That's something we always need to be cognizant of, too, is what we're asking kids to spend money on. Again, our context at a private school, they will either buy it themselves or we have an office that will purchase it for them, but not every teacher is in that position. So we do recognize that this isn't going to work for everybody.


I just wanted to throw a couple of titles out here for anyone who's interested in really bringing graphic novels into their teaching of the Holocaust, specifically. We just recently interviewed an author on this show who wrote the book, We Survived the Holocaust, which is a graphic novel. You were talking about not all of these books will take you into the concentration camps, and it's a story of a couple--they aren't married at the time; they meet after in one of the places where they're trying to...



Brooke

The ghettos?


Dani

No, it is like when you have a refugee and you're trying to place them somewhere new after... I'm just blanking on the word right now. But, both of them separately--Their stories are told in the book, and they both are in different concentration camps, so you see these kind of different experiences. That was, I think an interesting one.


[00:25:28]


There is the Resistance and Defiance series and the Victory series, but that definitely does not get them into the concentration camp. So that's more of like, it's in France and it's about engaging in resistance.



There is a university, I believe it's the University of Iowa or Idaho*, I should have looked it up before I sat down, but that they have a Holocaust department** that has book lists of all of these things for anyone who is interested. There's a surprising number of graphic novels related to the Holocaust in particular. White Bird just came out, which is sort of an Anne Frank story in the sense that it's like they're hiding--one girl's being hidden so that she isn't taken to a concentration camp. There is Hidden, which is more for elementary school, but again, it's sort of the hiding story. I think you're right that a lot of people are afraid to touch on that source material.



Brooke

Well, when everyone thinks of concentration camps, the images that came out of there. No one wants to look at it, but at the same time, you need to, that's the whole thing. There's great stories about what happened in the ghettos because the ghettos were kind of like the pre-concentration camps and just what they went through there. And don't get me wrong, similar to what happened with Anne Frank and in Schindler's List and stuff like that, with these real stories of people who were fighting against the Nazi regime to help these individuals and families. That is important. But I still firmly believe you still need to talk about what happened in those concentration camps, same as what the vice president said recently about slavery and what's been going on in Florida. I mean, you can't sugarcoat these things or else you're just taking away a part of history.


[00:27:41]


Dani

And denying someone's lived experience.


Brooke

And we're now at the point where I don't even know how many Holocaust survivors are out there.


Dani

It's not a lot.


Brooke

No, and that's the problem, unfortunately. So it's up to the next generation to keep those stories open and available or else we're going to forget.


Dani

I know. I don't think that there is a better way to wrap this episode than with what you just said. That was really powerful and really important. So thank you so much for being on the show.


Brooke

Thanks for having me.


Dani

It was a delight to have you.


*It was the University of Denver, not the University of Iowa or Idaho that has a department with researchers collecting resources for Holocaust and graphic novel curriculum.


**The department was not the Holocaust Department, but rather the Department of Judaic Studies.

 

[End Credits]


For information about Reading in the Gutter and resources related to comics and education, visit our website www.readinginthegutter.com, or follow us on Instagram @readinginthegutter.


Special thanks to our guests for their contributions to this show. For information about or to contact our guests and contributors, please visit the episode transcript on our website.


Reading in the Gutter is a podcast that is produced in a personal capacity. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent those of their affiliated institutions.


Post-production for this podcast is provided by Dan Perrine. Our intro and outro music are provided by the Alibi Music Library and licensed through PodcastMusic.com.


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