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.
The Simpsons writer/producer and The Doozies cartoonist Tom Gammill has a fun video series called Learn to Draw that, despite the title, will not teach aspiring cartoonists how to draw. Instead it offers a fun glimpse into the world of comics as what is possibly the world’s first comedy web-series about comics and cartooning.
Tom Gammill started the web-series three years ago (almost to the date – the first video was posted to YouTube on November 12, 2008) and has since seen guest appearances by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman (Zits), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Tony Carrillo (F Minus), Mell Lazarus (Momma), Cathy Guisewite (Cathy), Jeff Keane (The Family Circus), Matt Groening (The Simpsons, Life in Hell), Bill Amend (Foxtrot) and even Jeannie Schulz, the widow of Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts). Gammill and/or his writing partner Max Pross is an excellent director able to get these non-actors to loosen up and do some pretty silly things. Or maybe it’s that after year years and decades of creating comedy every day, cartoonists have built a natural ability to perform with good comedic timing. Whatever the reason, it’s a
Here are a few favorites, culminating in the crazy Arnold Roth episode:
The 2011 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards released their nominees for excellence in comic books for the previous year last Friday. A panel of 6 judges made up of professionals throughout the industry selected the nominees. People throughout the industry will now begin voting on the nominees. Winners will be announced at the award show put on at this summer’s huge Comic-Con International convention in San Diego. The Eisners are basically the comic book equivalent of the film industry’s Academy Awards, TV’s Emmy Awards, music’s Grammy Awards, and theater’s Tony Awards, so it deserves a closer look.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be breaking down the nominees in each category, providing context and background info, and I’ll also give you a link to Amazon and other sites so you can buy your own copy, if possible. I can’t read everything, so lots of this stuff passed by me or is on my way-too-high to-read pile, so I’m going to avoid saying what “should” win. (I’m also pretty bad at predicting award show winners, so I’m not going to bother embarrassing myself.) Please feel free to post your predictions, preferences, opinions, or questions.
Today we’re taking a look at the nominees for the Best Short Story category, kind of the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Short Film.
Best Short Story
- “Bart on the Fourth of July,” by Peter Kuper, in Bart Simpson #54 (Bongo)
- “Batman, in Trick for the Scarecrow,” by Billy Tucci, in DCU Halloween Special 2010 (DC)
- “Cinderella,” by Nick Spencer and Rodin Esquejo, in Fractured Fables (Silverline Books/Image)
- “Hamburgers for One,” by Frank Stockton, in Popgun vol. 4 (Image)
- “Little Red Riding Hood,” by Bryan Talbot and Camilla d’Errico, in Fractured Fables (Silverline Books/Image)
- “Post Mortem,” by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark, in I Am an Avenger #2 (Marvel)
Take a closer look with the click through: Read the rest of this entry
I’m busy pitching woo with the one I love, so to tide you over here are a bunch of comics or semi-comics pictures celebrating love and the Holiday That Hallmark Built. Enjoy!
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
(Still catching up. Time keeps on slipping-slipping-slipping into the future. For your patience… a sorta-kinda Halloween-themed edition!)
Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of September 23 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Don’t have a lot of time, so not much commentary from me. Just imagine me being excited about all of these because they all look awesome.
Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.
Ghost Comics: A Benefit Anthology for RS Eden – $10.00
Edited by Ed Choy Moorman
176 pages; published by Bare Bones Press
Ghosts of dinosaurs, transforming robots, and forgotten pasts abound in this star-studded book of staggeringly good comics.
All proceeds benefit Minneapolis substance abuse treatment facility RS Eden.
Including: Monica Anderson, Tuesday Bassen, Jeffrey Brown, Kevin Cannon, Allison Cole, Warren Craghead III, Will Dinski, Will Hayes, Hob, John Hankiewicz, David Heatley, Toby Jones, Reynold Kissling, Aidan Koch, Lucy Knisley, Mike Lowery, Sean Lynch. Jessica McLeod, Ed Choy Moorman, Sarah Morean, Corinne Mucha, Abby Mullen, Madeline Queripel, Evan Palmer, John Porcellino, Zak Sally, Jillian Schroeder, Mark Scott, Eileen Shaughnessy, Jenny Tondera, Sarah Louise Wahrhaftig, Maris Wicks, and Jessica Williams.
“An excellent sampler of what’s being done in today’s indie comics scene.” – Midnight Fiction
Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror #15 – $4.99
Edited by Sammy Harkham
48 pages; published by Bongo Comics; available at PictureBox
Guest edited by Sammy Harkham, the award-winning creator of the popular Kramers Ergot anthology, this year’s issue is jam-packed with some of the most idiosyncratic takes on “The Simpsons” universe ever.
Among Halloween-inspired short strips by such visionary cartoonists as C.F. (Powr Mastrs), Will Sweeney (Tales from Greenfuzz), Jordan Crane (Uptight), Tim Hensley (MOME), and John Kerschbaum (Petey & Pussy), are four featured tales of inspired Simpsons lunacy: heralded artists Kevin Huizenga (Ganges, Or Else) and Matthew Thurber (1-800 Mice, Kramers Ergot) collaborate on a weird and wild story equal parts Lovecraftian eco-horror and Philip K. Dick identity comedy. Jeffrey Brown (Incredible Change- Bots, Clumsy) does a creepy and suitably pathetic story featuring Milhouse in a “Bad Ronald”-inspired tale of murder and crawl space living. Harkham and Ted May (INJURY) pull out all the stops for a tragic monster tale of unrequited love, bad karaoke, and body snatching at Moe’s Bar. Ben Jones (Paper Rad) does the comic of his life with an epic tale of how bootleg candy being sold at the Kwik-E-Mart rapidly spirals out of control into an Invasion of The Body Snatchers-like nightmare of a Springfield filled with cheap bootleg versions of familiar characters. And nobody does squishy, sweaty, and gross like up and coming cartoonist Jon Vermilyea (MOME), who outdoes himself with “C.H.U.M.M.,” a C.H.U.D.-inspired parody featuring everybody’s favorite senior citizen, Hans Moleman!
Every year “The Simpsons” TV show does a special Halloween-themed episode. They also put out a comic book that’s probably even more bizarre and hilarious. Here’s a review of it with some previews.
Underground #1 – $3.50
By Jeff Parker & Steve Lieber
32 pages; published by Image Comics
Park Ranger and avid caver Wesley Fischer is on a one-woman mission to stop Stillwater Cave from being turned into a tourist trap, but public opinion is not on her side. When locals begin blasting in the cave, Wes and a fellow ranger investigate – and a confrontation spirals into a deadly chase deep under the Kentucky mountains!
Yes, there are even comics about people who explore caves. Claustrophobics be warned. Here’s a 7-page preview. One of the characters are named Corey, so I don’t really think it’s possible for this to not be awesome.
(And if you haven’t read Whiteout, I highly recommend it. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I haven’t really heard good things about it. Like with Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, ignore the movie and enjoy the comic.)
The author of the acclaimed “North Country” is back with a dark comedy. Despite Rick Watt’s best efforts to keep it together, he feels his life is falling apart, turning him into a zombie. After a cross-country move with girlfriend in tow, his fresh start turns into a festering mess. As a video game artist, Rick is subjected to the incompetence of three bosses and a kinky art director. His overactive imagination helps him cope until… his seven-year relationship tailspins and his ex takes flight with the guy across the parking lot. Other jobs and a new GF don’t look any better. Caught between his fantasy world and reality, Rick decides to pull the trigger.
With a foreword by Robert Kirkman, creator of the Walking Dead.
Here’s a 10-page preview. That flooded comics scene might be the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
How did Robin of Loxley become Robin Hood? Why did he choose to fight injustice instead of robbing for his own gain? Expressive and gritty, this graphic novel whisks readers back to Crusades-era England, where the Sheriff of Nottingham rules with an iron fist, and in the haunted heart of Sherwood Forest, a defiant rogue — with the help of his men and the lovely Maid Marian — disguises himself to become an outlaw. Lively language and illustrations follow the legendary hero as he champions the poor and provokes a high-stakes vendetta in a gripping adventure sure to draw a new generation of readers.
Here’s a 30-second preview for you:
And here’s the graphic novel’s blog, for interviews, reviews and some other preview images.