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.
The Case for Comics in Classrooms: Refuting the Naysayers
I read an article recently that dredged up some unpleasant feelings for me. Well alright, it actually made me mad, but I’m trying to be professional here. After ranting a bit to my family, my daughter pointed out that the article was written two years ago, and that things have surely changed in that amount of time. But I asked myself, “have they really?” I’m not so sure.
The article, “Wondering (Worrying) About Graphic Novels”, was written by Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade language arts teacher, and teacher of the year for his region. In his article (in which his tone is quite condescending), Ferriter “worries” about the growing use of comics in the classroom, and the ways in which such use surely must be preventing students from having the quality learning experiences they deserve.
I hesitated before writing this response, because I didn’t want to give his article any more attention than necessary. But its two weeks later, I’m still incensed, and this topic is too important to let such ignorant opinions run rampant ‘round the Internet. That and, I know there are a LOT of teachers and librarians out there still hanging on to these same misinformed (even if naive) points of view. So, let the debunking begin…
Comics do all of the “imagining” for students.
It’s true that comics do contain pictures. A LOT of them. But to say that pictures take the opportunity to imagine away from the reader is completely false. I would venture to guess that good comics require more imagination on the part of the reader. The reader must not only read and interpret the images presented in the panels, but they must further imagine the action taking place between the panels. Unlike prose, which contain necessarily frequent amounts of exposition, quality comics leave much up to the imagination of the reader where inference is a critical skill. The reader has to work relentlessly to interpret the images, and infer information from the ways in which the images and text work together to communicate a message.
Furthermore, there are a multitude of comics out there that have as much, or even more text than many prose-only books that our students are reading – not to mention more rare vocabulary. Consider the following…
“The Judas Contract” story arc from The Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman… nearly every page of that arc is literally covered with text, with a reading level at times superseding that of most high school texts. Another example: The new “Death of the Family” Batman story arc has over 690 pages with word counts ranging from between 50 to 250 per page. Even if we estimated the average words-per-page count for the series to be 150 words per page, that’s still over 100,000 words all totaled. That’s more words than: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Slaughter House Five, Lord of the Flies, and many, many other classics as well.
And that’s just addressing the sheer quantities of words present in Comics. Nevermind the fact that research has shown comics to have more rare vocabulary words in them than even most adult books – outmatched only by Scientific Abstracts, Newspapers, and popular trade magazines (Selected Statistics for Major Sources of Spoken and Written Language, Rare Words per 1000. University of Oregon).
With text that prolific and challenging, why are the images even an issue? The images provide the comprehension support needed to ensure that students can do the work of imagining everything that is going on in that world. Moving on…
Comics don’t require thinking.
In many ways, comics require more thinking than mere prose. A quality comic contains text and images seamlessly interwoven. More thinking is involved, because the reader must actually “study” the complement of words and images to make meaning. This is why so many students will return to a favorite comic again and again – because they are gaining new information each time, information they missed in the last go round. It is a multilayered experience that allows for continued enjoyment and “aha’s” throughout repeated readings.
Comics are often figurative and metaphorical. Not only must the reader employ keen observational skills to comprehend the literal representation of the images and words, but the reader must reflect on their figurative meanings as well. I recall in a recent reading of the No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet graphic novel with a student, encountering an opportunity to teach about metaphor. In a series of panels showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inquiring of Hamlet, the artist Neil Babra chooses to show them as puppets, whose strings are being manipulated by King Claudius. The student and I had an extensive discussion about this artistic choice and what it communicates to the reader. We talked about metaphor, and how it can be used to help us achieve a deeper understanding of characters and their motives. The rigor of this discussion was a direct result of using the graphic novel, rather than just the text version of the play alone.
Another great novel for teaching literary elements is Blankets by Craig Thompson. I’ve used the opening sequences to teach tone and mood, and visual metaphors abound throughout. The panel where the angry father punishes Craig’s little brother by putting him in “the cubby” is particularly terrifying, especially with the gaping mouth full of menacing teeth standing in for the cot.
I’ve used Bone by Jeff Smith to teach almost all the elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I’ve used The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho to teach allegory – the graphic novel version adapted by Daniel Sampere is much more accessible than the novel itself. I’ve used Calvin and Hobbes to teach tone (i.e. write this series of panels in a… nostalgic… sarcastic… playful… bitter… tone). I’ve used The Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown to teach parody and satire. I’ve used wordless panels of Owly by Andy Runton for a myriad of things, from dialogue writing, to oral language development, to descriptive language generation, to writing action, and so much more.
These are just a few examples…. I could fill an entire article with examples like this.
Comics are good for reading-challenged kids, but not for more sophisticated readers.
I have to admit, Ferriter’s implication that comics are only good for struggling readers probably made me the most angry. What is he really saying here? Oh those picture books are fine for those kinds of students, but certainly not for everyone. It’s completely insulting.
I’ve had every kind of student imaginable – including those for whom reading text was torture. Because of their multilayered nature, comics and graphic novels provided an entry point through which any student could explore literature, literary themes, and elements. It leveled the playing field in my classroom, by enabling ALL students– whether struggling or high gifted, to engage with the text at increasingly deeper levels. It allowed me to move beyond teaching mere comprehension, to the higher cognition levels of: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As a result, the rigor of my classes was pushed in such a way as to meet the needs of even my most advanced students, while not leaving others behind.
Comics will prevent kids from reading “real” literature.
This is absolutely false. It is true that some readers of comics may always prefer to read comics to prose-only literature. But it is equally true that some readers of comics will gravitate to other forms of literature just as easily as any thing else.
The NCTE Council Chronicle article, “Using Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom”, included the following quote from John Lowe, the Sequential Arts Chair at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia:
“I started reading comics, and then I got into other types of fiction and literature. I stopped reading comics a little later, but I don’t think I would have made the leap [to literature] if it weren’t for comics.” In his case, Lowe says, he literally went from reading “Batman to Faulkner.”
I’ve been privileged to witness this phenomenon over and over again with my own students – students who may have gravitated toward simple comics and graphic novels at first, then as they gained more confidence in their reading abilities, branching out to more challenging texts. To be clear, those challenging texts included both prose-only as well as more sophisticated comics and graphic novels.
Which brings me to a very important point. Not all comics are created equal…
Comics are content shallow, the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore”.
It is true that some comics are definitely the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore.” But the same is true for a lot of prose-only books as well. Selecting strong literature for the classroom and for use as lesson content is the responsibility of the teacher and/or librarian. Let me say that again, it’s the responsibility of the teacher. If you have crappy, low quality literature in your classroom, that’s your choice. Do not blame an entire category of literature for your own inability to seek out, identify, and procure quality literature for your classroom, lessons, or library. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. I’ve met too many teachers who want to blame the “tool” when their lessons go awry. That’s like the builder blaming the hammer for poor construction. The teachers that Ferriter quotes in his article, and I would also include Ferriter himself in this, clearly are not experienced enough with comics or graphic novels to make an informed judgment.
Which is why I find the next two points particularly alarming…
One – this guy was selected as a teacher of the year for his region, and two – the article he wrote got picked up by ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) – a national organization dedicated to leadership in education. If people or organizations in positions of educational leadership are touting such misinformed and dare I say ignorant opinions as Ferriter, or even if people are just listening to such blather, we have a much longer way to go than we thought.
And in the end, that’s why I wrote this article. But my voice alone means nothing. Now it’s your turn.
For your homework: Comment with your opinions below, and LIGHT UP TWITTER with your support for comics in the classroom! #READCOMICS #COMICSWORK #COMICSINCLASSROOMS #TEACHCOMICS
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.
Teachers have really been embracing comics and graphic novels as a powerful and effective tool in the classroom over the last 5-10 years but there is still a debate that goes on in those circles as to whether comics are just a lazy way out of “real” reading.
Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Smith, who created the mega-popular and wonderful Bone series, was a guest last week for a discussion on whether graphic novels belong in the classroom. Also speaking in defense of comics was Larry Swartz, co-author of Learning to Read with Graphic Power and educator at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Rounding out the panel was children’s book author Mahtab Narsimhan (The Tiffin). The discussion was hosted and moderated by Cheryl Jackson for the TVO Parents Book Club Meeting. TVO is an Ontario-based non-profit TV station and organization dedicated to education. (Kinda like PBS here in the States, I guess.)
Here’s the entire discussion:
One point that I wish was addressed was the comment that there are only a few words in comics. Yes, in comparison to prose, it’s not pages of blocks of text. But try breezing through Chris Claremont’s notoriously wordy Uncanny X-Men. But more seriously I love how Jeff Smith touched on the challenges and imagination needed to read comics, with the mind having to imagine how the story progresses from one panel to the next. It isn’t necessarily easier than reading prose, it’s just different. Mahtab Narsimhan’s example of Asterix is designed to be read fast and easy. Not so with something like The Sandman or Asterios Polyp or From Hell or any other number of examples. Narsimhan has completely missed out on the levels of communication and interpretive skills at play with comics, such as symbolism and non-verbal communications. These elements are relayed visually without accompanying text hammering each and every point with redundancy, and expressing it in a way personal and unique to the artist and their style, all while simultaneously playing off the accompanying text’s own information. Fortunately the trend is that educators are understanding this more and more.
(via The Beat)
Yesterday morning, the Hooded Utilitarian posted my list along with 21 others who contributed to a giant survey of comic book creators, retailers, publishers, educators, commentators (like me) and other industry folk from all over the world to determine the 10 Best Comics. In total, 211 people responded.
I sent my list on June 15, in response to the question, “What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?” I started my email response to the Hooded Utilitarian with the following: “I want you to know, this is IMPOSSIBLE.”
And it is. But despite that…
- Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
- Bone by Jeff Smith
- Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
- Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
- Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
- The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard
Start clicking and see if something interests you.
There are plenty of comics that are just as good as the above that deserve to be listed, and even some that are better. But I had a few guidelines to help focus my list down to a manageable size.
First, I had to have actually read the material. Of the above, only Peanuts has material that I have never read. But I’ve read enough of it that what I haven’t read would have to be an absolute bomb for it to tarnish the goodwill. That means there was some material that I am fully expecting to love and that I love for its mere existence and concept that I had to leave out. I really wanted to include Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know on my list. It sits by my desk in my to-read pile from last year‘s Comic-Con.
Second, I leaned much heavier on the “most significant” portion of the question. As some have pointed out, the question asked by The Hooded Utilitarian is really three different questions which could result in three very different lists. Because what interests me is comics’ efforts to find new audiences, I interpreted “most significant” as the comics that have been most successful in winning over new readers. That was probably my biggest barometer. Each of the above have helped establish a genre or publishing strategy or level of skill that has expanded what comics can be and are today. In retrospect, I might’ve leaned a little too heavy on modern material but I think some of the most innovative and inclusive material is being made now (if you know where to find it).
OK, so let’s hear it. What did I miss?
(More random thoughts after the jump.)
The general consensus among mainstream comic book publishers is that comics aimed at kids, or all-ages comics, don’t sell. And sadly, they’re usually right.
Take for example the apparent cancellation of the endlessly charming Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee. Even an impending big Hollywood movie of Thor couldn’t generate enough interest to sustain the series past eight issues. Why? Maybe it’s because there are also about four other comics starring Thor or some Thor-like character and who can keep them straight? Maybe it’s because too many comic book stores cater to their established audience base of young-ish to older adults who aren’t interested in an all-ages comic book no matter how much praise and acclaim it gets.
So kids comics are doomed, right?
Not quite. Fortunately a growing number of comics stores actually do have enough business savvy to diversify their customer base. In support of this, Diamond Comics, the primary distributor for comics shops, has been amping up their KidsComics.com website, now with a handy-dandy order form kids and parents can print out to make sure their local store orders what they want.
And more effectively, and unlike ten or more years ago, there are now other ways for comics to find their audience. As examples, walk into a book store and see how long it takes you to stumble over a display of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Granted, they technically aren’t comic books (or graphic novels), but often not far from away are copies of Bone by Jeff Smith, Owly by Andy Runton, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz adaptation by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, The Muppet Show Comic Book by Langridge himself, and lots more. And they’ve all been selling very well. Yes even the Twilight graphic novel adaptation by Young Kim. And tons of manga too, plenty of it age appropriate (see Manga4Kids for recommendations – I’ve still got a lot to learn myself). The School Library Journal has a great blog to help find Good Comics For Kids.
There are also great web-comics for kids online. Two of my favorites are the whimsical Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl and the delightfully absurd Axe Cop by Ethan Nicolle and Malachai Nicolle (age 5!). LunchboxFunnies.com is a good place to start, although they sadly haven’t updated for several months now. Hopefully it’s just temporary. There have been a few sites attempting to track age appropriate web-comics but sadly most are over a year old now, basically ancient artifacts in internet time.
Plenty of the above mentioned comics have been released as digital comics on mobile devices and online through services like ComiXology. Although they have yet to parse out kids comics to make shopping easier, they do have age ratings, which helps a great deal. Much of Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener is recommended for kids 9 and up, and it is regularly among the most downloaded.
So kids comics do sell. You just have to know how to get them to kids.