Comics in Education: On Comics in the Classroom… A Response to a Response to a Response…
Guest-columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.
On Comics in the Classroom…
A Response to a Response to a Response…
By Anastasia Betts
First of all, welcome to all of you comics and teaching enthusiasts and enthusiasts-to-be alike! As a former teacher, administrator, curriculum developer, and comics lover I am thrilled to have been asked to contribute a column to The Comics Observer. You can count on my monthly column to shoot the breeze on any/all topics related to using comics, graphic novels, sequential art, etc. as tools for teaching in the classroom. Comics are a valuable resource for teachers in the classroom and I hope that this column will provide the space for dialogue and sharing of ideas.
That being said, you may be wondering about the very Inception like title for today’s post. By way of explanation, I will say that I am responding partly to Dylan Meconis, who in his online essay, “On Comics in the Classroom” was responding to the reporter Michael Cieply, who in turn was responding to comments made by a panelist (Lisa Vizcarra) during the most recent San Diego Comic Con panel on Comics in Education. I encourage you all to read Meconis’ argument, as it is smart, savvy, and insightful – and I do not want to spend valuable time repeating his solid ideas here. The quote that started all the responding, however, is here for your convenience:
“It’s frightening,” said Lisa Vizcarra, a science teacher at Carquinez Middle School in Crockett, Calif. Ms. Vizcarra, who seemed to set the day’s tone, was speaking to a Comic-Con audience about a looming pedagogical crisis: Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool, even as schools increasingly use them in their curriculums.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do, and that’s why we’re here today,” she told a room packed with teachers and other listeners…
Like Meconis, I couldn’t disagree more with Ms. Vizcarra’s position. Comics are more popular than ever with kids. And like Meconis, I agree that really the responsibility for solid and engaging instruction lays with the teacher, not the comic. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to choose comics and graphic novels that are sophisticated, engaging, and provide the meat needed for serious critical thinking to take place.
I won’t shy away from the fact that there are a lot of comics out there that are just plain bad, inappropriate, or that simply do not work well in the classroom environment. Some teachers, looking for the quick fix, or the “magic pill” to generate interest in their students, may be tempted to just “plug and play” the nearest graphic lit they can get their hands on. But, this is a teaching preparedness problem, not a comics problem.
I used to teach a “comics in the classroom” course for UCLA. As part of this course, my goal was to help teachers understand that they needed to personally and emotionally invest in the comics they taught, and give serious thought to how that comic would not only be integrated into their class content, but what learning objectives it was designed to meet. I cautioned teachers to never, ever, pick a comic based solely on the recommendation of a friend or colleague – even if that colleague was myself (their instructor). Doing so would only lead to chaos in the classroom. As Meconis points out, students are often far more sophisticated connoisseurs of graphic literature than most teaching newbies. That, and they can smell fear – nothing strikes fear in the heart of a teacher more than being cornered mid-discussion by students who know more about the subject matter, genre, or format than the supposed expert in the room.
Whenever I talk about using comics in the classroom, I frequently encounter teachers who are eager to share their use of comics. Unfortunately, these experiences with comics most often mean Maus or American Born Chinese – both excellent, award-winning books, not to mention personal favorites. But there are plenty of great graphic novels and comics out there, as good or better than Maus or ABC – that is, for the teacher willing to explore and immerse him or herself in the medium. Creating great comics related curriculum takes time, effort, creativity, and innovation.
There are numerous reasons to engage students in graphic or what I sometimes call visual literature – increasing visual literacy and critical thinking for a start. We live in a world where visual literacy is and will continue to be critical to the survival and success of future generations. Every day we are bombarded with images saturated with meaning: literal, figurative, and more and more often – subliminal. Humans, after all, are biologically wired for sight. The eyes are the most powerful conduit to the brain, boasting over 1,000,000 visual nerve fibers to a mere 30,000 auditory nerve fibers. Thirty percent of our brain is devoted to visual processing. And I’m not talking about processing text (which requires a totally different part of the brain) – I’m talking about images and pictures, movies, life…
Consider the power of images and icons. In a recent study on visual literacy, 22% of all US citizens surveyed could name ALL five family members of the popular animated show, The Simpsons. Conversely, only 0.1% could name all five freedoms guaranteed under the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps if each family member wore a t-shirt with a freedom on it, we might remember? Of course I am being ridiculous – or am I? What if after exposing my students to the above statistic, I assigned them the task of renaming each Simpson family member with one of the five freedoms, and then providing a rationale for their choices rooted in their understanding of both the characters and the freedoms? What would Bart’s new name be? Freedom of Speech? I think I know a number of students who could make that argument. How about Homer, Lisa, Maggie, or Marge? For those teachers familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, I’d wager this assignment gets students working well into synthesis and evaluation, which is precisely where any teacher who cares about critical thinking wants students to be operating.
Chances are, if you are reading this column, you are already a fan of comics. If I am lucky, you may even be a classroom teacher. You may be a teacher who is already using comics in your classroom, and so you will have awesome comments to share about your experiences doing so. If I am really lucky, you are a comics lover and a teacher that never thought of merging the two. In that case, this column will be just the “aha” you have been looking for to energize your teaching.
As I said at the beginning, this column will largely be devoted to helping you get familiar with some comics/graphic lit that you may not have been aware of, as well as some tried, true, and not so conventional ideas for teaching those comics, graphic novels, and other visual mediums in your classroom. Oh, and sometimes we may even tackle a little research too…
So, the next time Ms. Vizcarra laments the state of comics in education, and asks, “I just don’t know what we are going to do…” all of you can answer – “Read The Comics Observer and you will know!”
Your Homework: If you haven’t already, read Dylan Meconis’ Blog “On Comics in the Classroom,” and comment on your own experience with using comics as a teaching tool!
Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.
Posted on July 27, 2012, in Columns, Comics in Education and tagged American Born Chinese, Anastasia Betts, Art Spiegelman, Bart Simpson, Comic-Con International: San Diego, Gene Luen Yang, Matt Groening, Maus, San Diego Comic-Con, The Simpsons. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.