Teacher's bookshelf: Lesson steps – using Dragon Hoops in the classroom

I recently had the chance to read Dragon Hoops, a newly-released graphic novel from Gene Luen Yang. Yang is perhaps best known for his previous work, American Born Chinese and as the author of the also recently-released Superman Smashes the Klan, and has served as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature here in the US.

Dragon Hoops holds powerful potential for engaging adolescent readers, and the text is accessible for this age group. To achieve realism, Yang occasionally inserts expletives, but leaves out letters so that the implication of the word is present without the actual term, opening up the book for younger audiences, as well.

In this article, I offer a few steps in terms of a reader guide and lesson plan to use with the book for literacy instruction. Part of the power of this book is the way Yang uses basketball as a centre for discussing cultural change and racial equality. With each lesson step, I've offered a lesson prompt that teachers can consider using to elicit discussion with students, as I believe these are conversations we must have as educators.

Step 1: Commonalities and differences

One of the first moves I would make as a teacher with this book is exploring its thematic content with a bit of personal reflection. Yang writes freely about his own reluctance to write the book at certain moments. The author is, in fact, not a sports fan, but finds a set of powerful ideas and messages in the sport of basketball. As a reader who has never been a sports fan, I can relate to this, and yet found myself willing to read a graphic novel of over 400 pages about a sport.

In a moment in which he draws himself wearing a superhero shirt, the author ponders his next creative work, and if he can truly tell a story about basketball. In one panel, Yang asks himself: “Am I really gonna spend the next few years of my life working on a graphic novel about basketball?” (p. 53). Along the way, he finds commonality with the current coach at his school, and begins to become more and more invested in the players. These commonalities are what kept me reading, and I would be curious to talk with students about their ability to both identify and disagree with Yang's position on sports.

Lesson Prompt 1

How are the author's experiences like your own, and how does his view of writing and sports challenge your views? Why do you think Yang felt so strongly that he should write a story about basketball, even though he is not a sports fan?

Step 2: Moments and motifs

Yang's book has a basketball-inspired cover and features the sport prominently, as a reader might expect. Yet, there is so much more going on below the surface of this story. Yang uses basketball as a centrepiece for examining the ways that barriers have been broken down between groups of people, including African Americans, Asian Americans, and women. Many of these stories are told in flashback and form a solid back story in the book. Yang has clearly done his homework.

These historical moments are ripe for more exploration, and I can see using this book as a springboard to have further discussion with students about the ways that sports and other aspects of culture have brought people together over time.

Throughout the book, when a barrier is broken and a character courageously moves forward, Yang depicts a close-up of the person's feet in motion with the word ‘step' in the panel. Indeed, the teaser text on the cover of the book, emblazoned on the dappled orange surface, speaks to this message of equity and progress: ‘From small steps to great leaps.' This motif of the ‘step' forward acts like a punctuation mark throughout the story, and teachers can discuss these moments with students.

Lesson Prompt 2

How does the story presented in Dragon Hoops challenge you to step out in your life? What are the barriers that you see in our world that still need to be broken down, and the steps that still need to be taken?

Step 3: Author identity

In a moment of graphic novel irony, Yang inserts his wife as a character discussing elements of the book with him. In particular, he debates throughout the text about including the story of a coach whose reputation was shrouded by controversy. The coach is essential to the full telling of the narrative, especially for an understanding of why the sport of basketball is so important in the school setting.

Rather than continue the conversation with the caricature of his wife, Yang seizes the moment to be self-deprecating about his own art, and to insert himself as a conversation partner, illustrating the author's inner dialogue. He debates with himself across multiple panels about the work he should do as an artist, and how he can fully convey the story without including the controversy. I saw myself as a questioning and revising author in these panels.

At the conclusion of the dialogue (monologue), Yang even addresses the audience, while chastising himself in the panel for breaking this wall of reader and author, to seek the reader's understanding for including the controversial story.

Lesson Prompt 3

What struggles do you experience as an author? What barriers do you find in telling your story? Consider using illustrations and/or words to display this conflict, as well as how you see yourself working it out.

Final words

I continue to be inspired by the writing and art of Gene Luen Yang, and this book immediately led me to a series of lesson possibilities. At the conclusion of my reading, I asked myself, like Yang, what inspired me to keep engaged with a sports story, even though athletics fall outside my interest.

The truth is, just like Yang, I saw so much going on this story that I could not stop – and I believe there is still work to be done with this book, just as there is work to be done in our society.

What is your process for text selection? Dragon Hoops is a graphic novel – do you use a range of formats, and genres, as teaching resources in your classroom? Do your students have access to a range of formats and genres for personal reading?