Maus in the Classroom: Unit One Literature Circles

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Maus in the Classroom: Unit One
Literature Circles (Grades 7 to 10)
Literature circles are a great way to get students talking about books, to improve student skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and to promote critical thinking. Many teachers will be familiar with this teaching method, and many may already have successful models in place in their classrooms. For those unfamiliar with the method, or for those who may use the method but welcome some excellent prepared materials for classroom use, please visit the following websites:
Literature Circles Resource Center

This site includes a general overview of what literature circles are, examples, teacher resources (both web-based and print), extension project ideas, help on ensuring productive discussions, forms, assessments, and much more.
Laura Candler's Literary Lessons

While this excellent site has lots of tips and strategies for using literature circles, one of the best parts is Laura's collection of files with forms of all kinds. These include worksheets, graphic organizers, directions and classroom management tools, journal prompts, question cards, bookmarks, and many more. For use with Maus, the forms for "Nonfiction Response Journal Prompts" and "Character Map Variation" will be particularly helpful.
Reading Language Arts Discussion Groups & Literature Circles

A general overview of literature circles with an excellent section on questioning techniques.
There is much in Maus that makes it a perfect choice for a literature circle discussion. It is rich in literary and artistic devices, meaningful themes, and well-drawn characters, but it is also a work that will motivate even the most reluctant reader and invite enthusiastic discussion. It may be used alone for discussion by an entire class, which has been divided into small groups, or it may be one of several books discussed relating to the graphic novel genre or a specific theme/issue. The following literature circle unit plan assumes the teacher's basic knowledge of the literature circle method and some class experience with literature circles.
Target audience: Grades 7-10 Reading/English/Language Arts classes or interdisciplinary studies classes
Time required: Each teacher will have to determine the amount of time needed for this plan based on student abilities, experience with literature circles, and whether the reading is to be done in class or at home. At least three weeks will probably be necessary for traditional class periods of 45 to 55 minutes; classes with block scheduling will need fewer class periods.
Upon completion of this unit of study students will be able to do the following:
* identify some of the major events of the Holocaust as told by Vladek Spiegelman

* supply the meanings of unfamiliar words used in the book

* identify themes and issues presented in the book

* identify character traits of the major characters

* analyze the use of animals to represent races/nationalities

* analyze the changes in time that occur within each chapter

* analyze the use of graphics in the book and their relationship to the text and the story

* develop focused questions for discussion

* use quotes from the book to stimulate discussion and support statements

* respond to group comments by asking clarifying questions and adding additional information

* respond to writing prompts
Step 1: The teacher introduces the book to the class and talks about the graphic novel genre. Examples of other graphic novels and comic books may be shown. A good list of representative graphic novels may be found at Students are asked to draw on their experiences with comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels to develop characteristics of each; these may be displayed in a graphic organizer or in table form. The teacher gives some background information on Maus and its author. Students are asked about their knowledge of the Holocaust. Students may be asked to complete a journal prompt on what they know about the Holocaust and what they want to learn, or how they think comics can be used to treat a serious topic.
Step 2: Copies of the book (each student will need both volumes) are distributed to students along with a schedule for reading dates and discussion dates (or the class may help to develop a schedule for reading dates and discussion dates). Class sets of this book are available through the Bucks County Intermediate Unit.
Students will need the following materials for this project:
* printed schedule of reading dates and discussion dates

* list of assignments and student responsibilities

* response journals and any journal prompts the teacher wishes to use (see Laura Candler's web site for an example of non-fiction journal prompts )

* sticky notes for recording words to look up, quotes to remember, questions and observations, examples of graphic devices

* any worksheets the teacher wishes the students to complete

* an outline of any culminating or expansion project the teacher may wish the students to complete

Step 3: The entire class reads the prologue and the first chapter of the first volume in class or as a homework assignment. When students have read these sections the teacher initiates a discussion following previously agreed upon rules regarding group discussions. Literature circles are reader response centered, so students should direct the discussion with teacher guidance.
* The teacher might begin the discussion by asking the class what their initial impressions are about the combination of comics and the serious topic of the Holocaust or what they think about Spiegelman's use of animal heads with human bodies as characters. The teacher should encourage students to use specific examples from the book as they draw conclusions and offer observations and opinions.

* Students might add words with which they are unfamiliar to a class list posted on the bulletin board or in their journals and research definitions.

* The teacher should have a list of discussion questions ready in case the discussion bogs down (see a suggested list by chapter near the end of this section).

* The discussion should take no longer than about fifteen to twenty minutes and should provide a model for discussions that will take place later in small groups.

At the end of the discussion, the teacher divides the class into literature circles of four to six students, grouping students heterogeneously where possible. These groups will meet as scheduled to discuss the remaining chapters of the book.
Step 4: Over the period of the scheduled reading dates and discussion dates, students read the chapters of the books and meet to discuss them. Each meeting will focus on a specific chapter (or chapters). During these small group discussions, the teacher may observe in order to keep students focused and for purposes of assessment, but the discussion should be student centered. After every few discussion sessions students journal their responses to the work and to the discussion process. Journal prompts may be keyed to specific chapters to focus student thinking if necessary.
Step 5: Students may be asked to complete worksheets that allow them to visualize key elements of the book:
* Character maps (see an example at

* Table showing parallels between the public events of the Holocaust and the private life of the Spiegelmans

* Table or graphic organizer showing examples (with page references and/or quotes) of the themes of irony, intergenerational conflict, depression and suicide, guilt, dominance, racism, etc. Templates of graphic organizers may be found at graphicorganizer/ and at, or the students can use Inspiration or Kidspiration software if available.

* Graphic organizer with the animal figures used in the books, the racial/national groups they represent, and why Spiegelman might have chosen each animal to represent that racial/national group.

If time permits, students can research comic format in order to learn about the techniques and vocabulary necessary to better understand and discuss the comic artist's work. Most public libraries and secondary school libraries will have resources on comic art and the history of comics. At the very least, a knowledge of words like "panel," "frame," "gutter," "balloon," and "bleed," will give students a common vocabulary. A wealth of information on comic art can be found at the web site of the National Association of Comics Art Educators ( ). At this site, "The Creation of a Page Tutorial and Guide" by Tom Hart is a good introduction to the process of creating comic panels.
Step 6: The teacher may want students to complete a culminating activity. Some ideas for this are listed here:
* Individuals or groups can create their own story in graphic novel format. The story might be based on one of the themes used in Maus. Brainstorming, researching, prewriting activities, storyboarding, rough drafts, etc. as outlined in Tom Hart's web tutorial (listed above) should be employed to insure a carefully structured product.

* Students can complete an extension activity such as those suggested at

* Students can create works written by the characters -- a will for Vladek, a suicide note for Anja, a resume for Vladek, a letter from Art to his dead brother Richieu, a list of problems Mala and Vladek might take with them to a marriage counselor.

* Students can engage in a formal debate on Spiegelman's use of the graphic novel format to treat a horrific topic like the Holocaust.

Assessment: Assessment of a literature circle unit may be both formal and informal. The teacher's observation of each student in discussion groups can be used as an informal assessment. Student journals, self-reflection, and performance on worksheets and projects provide more formal forms of assessment.
Supplementary material for teacher use:
* Chapter-based discussion prompts to jump start groups who are losing focus or having trouble reacting to a chapter:
Maus I: Chapter One:
1. I was wondering why Art Spiegelman called his first chapter "The Sheik."

2. Did you think about why the picture of Vladek riding his exercise bicycle takes up so many panels on the page? What is that number on his arm?

3. What conflict will Art have in writing this book?
Maus I: Chapter Two:
1. What do you think about the characters speaking instead of the story being narrated? How does this affect the story?

2. We're seeing new animal characters in this chapter -- pigs and cats. Do you think Mr. Spiegelman wants us to see each individual in a race or nationality as like all the others? How can you identify a specific character's picture?

3. What have you learned so far about treatment of the Jewish people at the beginning of World War II?

4. Can you find some contrasts in this chapter?

Maus I: Chapter Three:
1. Look at the story about Vladek's father's efforts to keep his sons out of the army on pages 45 and 46. What irony can you find in this story?

2. It's interesting to see some of the ways the author separates Vladek telling his story in the present from the actual story in the past. Can you find some examples of these techniques in this chapter?

3. Do you think that the diagram on page 56 and the map on page 60 help to tell the story? Why?

4. Mr. Spiegelman has characters wear masks at different times in the book. Vladek wears one on page 64. Why does the author use this device?

Maus I: Chapter Four:
1. Did you think about some of the choices that had to be made in this chapter? What would you have decided in the same situations?

2. We see some Jews who have been hanged by the Germans. What other "noose" is tightening in this chapter?

3. I'm wondering why Art's mother's diaries are so important to him. Why do you think he might want them?
Maus I: Chapter Five:
1. I'm getting some good ideas about why Art and his father don't get along. Can you find some answers in this chapter?

2. "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" uses people as characters rather than animals. Why does the author do this? Why is Art portrayed as a prisoner?

3. What are some of the "mouse holes" in this chapter? How does this device help to support the cat and mouse metaphor?
Maus I: Chapter Six:
1. One thing I thought was unusual was Mr. Spiegelman's use of real animals -- rats on page 147 and dogs on page 157. How does this add to or detract from his sustained metaphor?

2. Vladek and Anja have escaped capture until this point. How are the "mice" finally trapped?

3. Art ends the book by calling his father a murderer? Why does he use such a strong word?
Maus II: Chapter One:
1. In some cases, survival can be a matter of luck. How has Vladek been lucky?

2. The Holocaust is about one group trying to dominate another group. Can you find examples of a parallel in the Spiegelman family?

Maus II: Chapter Two:
1. In this chapter Art is a human wearing a mouse mask as he works at his drawing board. What's that about, and why are there flies and bodies in the room and a guard tower outside the window?

2. Art shrinks in size when he goes to visit his shrink. Why?

3. What is Art's problem in this chapter? Why is he struggling so much?

4. Vladek seems especially eager to tell Art about how he helped to dismantle the gas chambers and ovens at Auschwitz. Why is this so important to him?

Maus II: Chapter Three:
1. I find irony in the title of this chapter. Do you? Why?

2. What is strange about Vladek's comments about the African-American hitchhiker?

Maus II: Chapter Four:
1. American soldiers are only portrayed briefly. What do you think of them? What does Vladek think of them?

2. What do you think about Mr. Spiegelman placing the pictures of the extended family at the end of the second volume of Maus rather than earlier in the two books? Do you like this placement?

Maus II: Chapter Five:
1. What do you think Spiegelman means by the "second honeymoon"?

2. Why does Art Spiegelman have Vladek call him Richieu at the end of the story?

3. Look at the picture of Art Spiegelman on the book flap at the back of the book. Why is he wearing a mask? Why does he show smoke rising from his cigarette next to a picture of a smokestack outside the window? And why does the package of cigarettes say "Cremo"?

4. Look on the outside of the back cover of the book. What message does the picture of the mouse in prison uniform bleeding into the book's barcode send?

Ideas for multiple-book literature circles to be used with Maus:
* Other nonfiction or historical fiction graphic novels:
Briggs, Raymond. Ethel & Ernest. Pantheon, 1999. ISBN 0-375-71447-2
This is a story of the lives of the author's parents from the time they meet in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s. Living in Great Britain during those years, they saw many changes in the world around them.
Kubert, Joe. Yossel:April 19, 1943. I Books, 2003. ISBN: 074347516X
Kubert's Polish family escaped the Holocaust, but in this book, he imagines what might have happened had they remained in Poland.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. Pantheon, 2003. ISBN 0-375-71457-X
An autobiography of Ms. Satrapi's life from ages six to fourteen, this book takes place in Iran as Islamic totalitarianism takes hold.
Winick, Judd. Pedro and Me: A Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned. Henry Holt, 2000. ISBN 0-8050-6403-6
Pedro Zamora was one of eight people selected for the 1993 The Real World television series; Winick was his roommate and friend. This is the story of Pedro's battle with AIDS and of his friendships with the housemates.

* Other titles on racism/persecution:

Balakian, Peter. Black Dog of Fate. Broadway, 1998. ISBN 0-7679-0254-8
Similar in many ways to Maus, this book is the story of the Armenian-American author's childhood in a multi-ethnic New Jersey neighborhood and his search to uncover his relatives' closely guarded stories of the Armenian genocide.
Frank, Anne. Diary of a Young Girl. Bantam, 1993. ISBN 0-553-29698-1
A classic story in Holocaust literature, the diaries of the young Anne Frank will have many parallels with Vladek's experiences in Maus.
Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa. Harper Keypoint, 1988. ISBN 0-06-447063-6
A collection of stories and autobiographical accounts that details life with racism in South Africa.
Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. Puffin, 1991. ISBN 014034893X
Close to the time period during which the Holocaust occurred, this book deals with a different kind of racism. It is the story of an African-American family in the American South during the 1930s. Even a close, loving family cannot protect its members from the racial injustices and violence of their environment.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Bantam, 1982. ISBN 0553272535
Like Vladek, Wiesel is a survivor of Auschwitz as well as Birkenau and Buchenwald. He recounts his experiences and his lifelong quest to find meaning in his experiences.

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