Comics in Education: Comics as a Tool for Writing
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.
In past columns we have spent a lot of time talking about how to use comics in the classroom. We’ve discussed everything from using wordless comics to teach elements of narrative, to using graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare, to experimenting with comics based on poetry. What we haven’t really talked about is how to use the medium of comics to help students tell their own stories, or demonstrate their own learning.
Using the comics format as a way to get kids writing couldn’t be more natural. Students love to tell stories, especially their own stories, and the comics media is a perfect vehicle for doing so. But kid-created comics can do so much more than just tell stories. In this month’s column, we are going to spend some time talking about all the ways you can use comics in your classroom to help students to share their voice and “show what they know” – in other words, as a vehicle for expression.
Perhaps the most natural way to have your students create their own comics is through the process of creative writing. Unfortunately, in our testing obsessed education culture, creative writing is often the first part of the English curriculum to go. Teachers are often compelled to have their students spend time writing essays, such as expository, response to literature, persuasive / opinion essays, etc. But did you ever think that perhaps combining these genres of writing with comics could be another tool in your motivation toolbox? Why not invite your students to create a Response to Literature as a conversation between the speaker and the reader – in comics form? Or, why not create a persuasive argument as a visual essay with two characters debating both sides of the issue? There are innumerable ways to have your students employ a visual component to their essay writing. Neither the teacher nor the students should be intimidated by the drawing component either. Students need not be able to draw; stick figures work well, as do shapes (think of Flatland).
Consider this example…
Using comics to help students learn about a topic, and then demonstrate that learning just makes sense. Some of you out there might be thinking that having students create “persuasion” comics (like the one above) is not the same or as rigorous as having them write conventional essays on the topic. But I would argue that’s simply not true. A student created comic can certainly be as rigorous and sophisticated as a prose essay – it’s all up to the teacher to set high expectations, and provide many models for students to review. And for most students, creating comics is a heck of a lot more fun and motivating than mere writing alone. If essay writing is the ultimate goal, then creating a comic as an interim step is a great way to get students involved in the writing, bringing out their voice and passion. It’s just a hop, skip, and jump away to turn that comic into a full-blown essay – should the need arise.
“How to” Comics
Much like the “essay” comics described above, “how to” comics can be used at any grade level to help students demonstrate what they have learned about a topic. There is the added advantage of authenticity to this project, since “how to” comics are a part of the world we live in. From the safety instruction pamphlet on an airplane, to the building instructions that come with Ikea furniture –“how to” comics are everywhere.
Writing “how to” books is a common part of many elementary school writing programs – and can even be found in many state standards. Instead of your standard “how to” text only writing assignment, why not have your students illustrate their text and turn it into a comic? Once again, adding in the visual/artistic component builds motivation and investment in the project, and creates a student work product that is both pleasing and instructional. With your older students, it can even be fun to have them create such “How to” comics to give to younger classmates at school (i.e. through a book buddies program). A fun adaptation of this project would be to model it on the popular TV show, “How its made” – inviting your students to explain how something is made…. Like a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. Yum!
Comics that Explain
The “How to” and “How its Made” comics mentioned above both explain how to do something, or how something is made. But there are other ways to explain things as well. I’ve known many math teachers over the years that invite their students to use the comics format to explain a math procedure, rule, or proof. I remember one year a student, after receiving such an assignment, used her comic to explain why a negative times a negative (or positive time a positive) is always positive; while a negative times a positive is a negative. She created an entire story about how when you put a negative person with a negative person, they are happy (i.e. positive) to be negative together, and when you put a negative with positive person, he just ended up bringing her down… (making her a negative in the end…). Ok, not perfect math, but it was creative, awesome and ultimately, the student came away with a better understanding of the rule – and never forgot it.
All in all, there isn’t really anything out there that couldn’t be explained in a comic if you just give your students a chance to do so. Plus, it gives your students an opportunity to use their artistic intelligence, not just mathematical or linguistic.
Comics as Journalism
This is actually a genre that exists in the comics publishing world. Whether you are a fan of the works of Joe Sacco (Palestine), Guy Delisle (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea), or Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón (The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation) – there are plenty of great models for students to look at, and be inspired by. Encourage students to find an issue they are passionate about, and investigate it. Then, invite them to use the comic format to report out on that issue. Comics writers have been doing this for ages, and it’s a legitimate form of reporting. Again, such visual reporting can be extended in so many ways – use as a launching point for having students create their own film documentaries. Or, have them create a comics newspaper on the issues that matter most to them. This particular assignment also offers numerous opportunities to teach the writing conventions of the journalism genre (who, what, when, where, why… etc.). Again, if text only writing is the goal, well-written, high quality text can be lifted directly from the comics.
And last but not least, using comics as a form of activism, or for promoting social change is a great way to channel student writing. Combining elements of all the types of writing we’ve already discussed (persuasion, how –to, explanatory, journalism, etc.), Comics Activism takes it a step further, asking students to use their comics to compel the reader to act.
Again, there are real world examples of this. One of my favorite organizations to share with students is World Comics. World Comics specializes in teaching individuals (both kids and adults), how to use the comics format as a way to speak out on important issues. Basically, World Comics uses comics to give voice to those who would have been otherwise silenced. Students in their programs have created comics that “focus on different issues, such as racism, sexual harassment, girl child rights, school drop-outs, hiv/aids, sanitation, and right to education… Any issue, on which one can make a story, can be expressed through grassroots comics.” (World Comics website, “Comics in Action”)
World Comics has a great website with a myriad of tools for running comics workshops, and they have affiliates in numerous countries. Not only can you teach your students how to create comics for social change, but through World Comics (and other organizations like them) you can partner your class with other students around the world who are doing the same thing.
Comics have the power to change things. They have the power to change reluctant readers into avid readers. They have the power to motivate lackluster writing into writing filled with voice and passion. When created by empassioned students on topics that matter, comics have the power to change minds and motivate people to act. Much like those archetypal characters that transform from average, everyday regular “Joe’s” into crime fighting, butt kicking superheroes, comics—the literal underdog of the literary world—have the power to do a little butt kicking of their own.
So get busy and get your students to write comics. Like World Comics’ tagline says, “If you have something to say, say it with comics.”
Homework: Check out the myriad of tools at the World Comics website, and maybe even start a World Comics Club at your own school!
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 March 25, 2013, in Comics in Education and tagged activism, classroom, comic books, comics, creative writing, education, Ernie Colon, essays, Flatland, Florida Citizens for Science, graphic novels, Guy Delisle, How to, Joe Sacco, journalism, response to literature, Richard Korzekwa, Riva Jalipa, Sid Jacobsen, Stick Science Cartoon Contest, World Comics, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.