We're not kidding ... it's the coolest
Now that my summer of writing, editing, and reviewing has ended with two weeks of eating Butterbeer ice cream on the steps of Gringotts Bank inside Diagon Alley, I thought I'd be in the best frame of mind to share with you the coolest activity you can do with a comic book.
I first shared the idea at the 2014 Reading for the Love of It Conference back in February and it generated a lot of positive feedback. The idea, however, is very simple.
So many of the activities that are built around visual narrative in the classroom have teachers getting their students to create a graphic novel or story out of some other work they are doing. For example, students are asked time and again to "Choose a favourite moment" in a novel they are studying and turn it into a graphic story. They are often told how many panels should be on the page and are reminded to use dialogue bubbles and narrative boxes in their story.
There's nothing wrong with this activity once in a while. It serves a purpose.
However, if teachers are really wanting students to understand something about a novel, poem, or play, and think that comics can help, then the opposite activity is much better: Have students take a comic book and get them to transform it into the form they are presently studying.
What this activity teaches students is that novelists must rely exclusively on words to present a whole range of complex ideas, emotions, and situations. Since graphic novelists use pictures, and pictures (as we know) tell a thousand words, how cool is it that novelists can create these in our head without a visual component to their narrative?
Let's say I wanted to use graphic storytelling in teaching Dickens' Great Expectations. Sure, I could ask students to "visualize" the opening scene by creating a graphic narrative about Pip's encounter with Magwitch. Will this teach students something about the impact that Dickens' words have on what they imagine? I suppose it will, although students who are self-conscious about their artistic skills might suggest they can't adequately represent what's in their head.
However, I am much more inclined to take a comic like issue #117 of The Defenders--one that begins with a group of superheroes gathering in a storm-swept glade in upstate New York to commemorate a fallen comrade--and get them to turn it into what could be the opening of the novel. Sure, they can incorporate some of the narrative captions and dialogue featured in the comic--these will prove to be useful scaffolding--but they are going to have to use language to describe the visual landscape of the comic.
This gives students a hands-on activity that really teaches them something about novel writing rather than about graphic storytelling. If you want students to learn about a particular literary form, then, have the work they are producing be of the form you want them to learn about about.
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At Comics in Education, we conceptualize visual narrative as a broader category than what we think of as traditional comics and graphic novels. Its implications and applications for the K-12 classroom are likewise also broader. Take, for instance, the three novels below whose first chapters are rendered as Wordles. It turns out that these tag clouds can generate some exciting activities:
Novel #1, Chapter 1
Novel #2, Chapter 1
Novel #3, Chapter 1
Think about the great thinking and problem-solving activities that students can engage in with these Wordles. They can be used as a pre-reading activity in getting students to consider what the works they are about to study might deal with. Consider the following:
You can see that activities during and after reading also suggest themselves, and that analyzing the word distributions here can be a fantastic springboard into a fuller investigation of the styles of the three authors.
No doubt, some of you are yelling at your laptop or handheld and calling out the names of the novels as you read this. If that's you, then Tweet your answers to me @teachingcomics or @GlenDowney. The first person to get all three correct will be immortalized for their victory in this very blog post!
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Each year, students at The York School in Toronto undertake Challenge Week excursions, travelling all over the GTA and across Canada to engage in experiential learning activities. Last year, I had a group at The Brickworks in Toronto (where TYS has a classroom) for a week-long experience called “Write of Passage.” It featured aspiring Grade 10 writers working with experienced poets, food authors, and playwrights. This year, I’m with a group at Maker Kids in Toronto, an organization that allows students to get hands-on experience building just about anything they can think of. Located at 2241 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Maker Kids is a unique space, as its website notes:
MakerKids is one of the only makerspaces for kids in the world. It’s a non-profit workshop space where kids can learn about and do things like 3D printing, electronics, and woodworking. We offer workshops, camps, afterschool programs and more at our location in Roncesvalles in Toronto, and participate in external events in the GTA and beyond. We enable kids to build their ideas with real tools and materials; our goal is to inspire and empower kids to think, design, experiment and create.
When we asked students what they wanted to make, it didn't take long for one of the groups to say "Hovercraft." The short video below shows a 3-D printer having a go at one of the casings for the high speed lift propeller.
What is so impressive about Maker Kids is the visual and tactile learning environment in which students are immersed. Here the goal is to have them dream big and to ask for anything that can help bring their dream to reality. On just the first day of our excursion, our students were imagining designing everything from piano gloves to iPhone accessories to hovercrafts and miniature helicopters. Important in fuelling this hands-on, tactile learning experience is all of the signage around the space that encourages students to pursue their ideas.
It strikes me that this visual stimuli – not just the encouraging posters but all of the equipment that surrounds them – does something for the students that is not unlike what I see comics and graphic novels doing for reluctant and struggling readers. It gives them a more immersive kind of experience and helps to reassure and encourage them in their process of attempting to make meaning from their experiences.
Maker Kids has a wealth of programs for kids but also sets aside time for parents and educators. For more information about their programs, you can check out their website at www.makerkids.ca.
Visual Brainstorming Once Again Proves Its Worth
I love this recent example of visual brainstorming submitted by my student, Ben. It's the product of a short article he read about Giussepe Pinelli, an anarchist whose death was the inspiration for Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which I blogged about a couple of days ago. There are so many wonderful touches here that bring together a diverse array of cultural phenomena, including comics, social media, and good old-fashioned brainstorming.
The dialogue balloon, "In order, there is chaos... In chaos, there is order. #anarchy #yoloswag," wouldn't look out of place by any stretch in the Twitterverse, but neither would his lists look out of place in a free-writing or brainstorming assignment. Somehow, the comics-inspired illustrations bring it all together, and blend historical events with Pinelli's own view of himself in an insightful visual brainstorming exercise.
What blows me away, however, is the crossed-out list on the left hand side of the paper. So many times as teachers we encourage students to cross out and continue when they make a mistake rather than white something out or erase.
We are very wise for telling them this!
Not only is it a time saver, but teaching kids that it's okay to cross out pays dividends in a situation like this in which the crossing out becomes a rhetorical strategy that shows a deep understanding of the circumstances surrounding the play and the underlying themes of the play itself.
We can't get to the bottom of the mystery about what happened to the ill-fated anarchist. The only thing we can be sure of is that he was very likely misunderstood.
So, as I've been saying over the last few weeks since starting this blog...Do this exercise with your students.
You'll be so glad that you did!
Having Students Take Notes in Their Own Way is the Key
In a couple of previous posts, I showed you examples of Grade 12 students doing a comparative analysis of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire using a Visual Brainstorming technique that saw them employ a combination of words, images and symbols to represent their thinking. Although the examples I showed featured students with excellent artistic skills, it's important to remember that Visual Brainstorming and Visual Note-Taking are not simply exercises in illustration.
They are exercises in brain-dumping.
Think of the activity as less about drawing and more about freewriting, but with some license to use the visual and without the need to avoid lifting the pen from the page. Here, Kailey has amassed an excellent amount of information about the opening scene of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Her only direction was to think about a few basic concepts: character development, staging, humour, and dialogue. She was also encouraged to ask questions right on the paper about things that were happening in the scene that she might not fully understand.
The results are so staggering that I'll likely be transferring this to the exemplars section of the website so that I can generate a slightly larger illustration to show you what she came up with.
Please try these exercises with your students! You may be quite pleasantly surprised not just with their artistic skills, but by how much knowledge and understanding they are able to articulate when given the freedom to express their ideas in this manner.
Activities Inspired by the Visual Can Yield Amazing Results
This one I just had to share with you.
In the lead up to teaching Persepolis this year, I wanted to give my students as many opportunities as possible of working with the visual. If you read my blog post about the "Cave Art" activity, you'll recall that it required students to depict a day in their life, a challenging encounter, or their best moment on the planet, etc. as a cave art montage. In effect, the Cave Art activity is a kind of visual brainstorming about a moment in the student's own life. The above collage by Marwa is fantastic, looking like it sprang to life out of the Futurist movement in Western art.
There's a very cool variation on this activity that I alluded to last time. It has the following steps:
What are some neat results?
Perhaps the coolest thing about the activity is that regardless of whether they feel their collage does or does not represent them, the students are really only tasked with making a judgment and defending it. It's not a failure if it doesn't represent them nor is it an overwhelming success if it does. However, when I did this with my students this year there were some unexpected insights that resulted, one of which came from a student who suggested that although his collage didn't represent him, what did was the process he went through to put it together. These are the kinds of insights we want from our students.
As a side note, I did my own collage to see what I would come up with. The result is below:
As this site grows and develops, I guess you'll be the best judge as to whether or not this represents me. It's just crazy enough that it might...
Students read, examine, and create graphic poems, and consider both the implications of using the visual in connection with poetry, and whether an artist or poet/artist can visually represent the intricacies of literal and figurative language. The hope is that students will recognize the beauty of graphic poetry and thereby develop a greater fondness for and appreciation of poetry proper.
Self Awareness, Metacognition, Critical Thinking, Navigation Skills, Making Connections
By the end of the activity, students should see that there is something to be gained and something to be lost in marrying a poem with its graphic illustration. What is gained is a visual context that the reader can use to help him or her understand what is actually happening in a poem. What is also gained is the recognition of what art can and cannot do with pictures in order to mimic or represent the figurative. What is lost, perhaps, is precisely what is lost when the curtain rises for the presentation of play and we see the gradual unfolding of the directorial decisions that will define how the performance in front of us will interpret the stage directions and dialogue of the playwright.
Critical Thinking Questions
Self-Awareness and Metacognition Questions
Navigation Skills and Making Connections Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in This Activity
Reading graphic poetry can help students to make sense of some of the complexities of the poems they examine, even if those complexities are what is literally “happening” in a given work. In my experience, though, a student is far more likely to want to bring their critical thinking and inquiry skills to bear on a poem that they believe they understand than one they don’t. As students move through the process of reading, analyzing, and creating graphic poetry, it is essential that teachers encourage students to develop an ongoing dialogue with the work they are studying.
Students create a storyboard or visual narrative that does not contain text. The exercise has wide application, whether in having students block a scene from a work of drama, visually relate the progress of a character’s story from a work of fiction, or visually represent the story of a particular historical moment. The exercise is similar to Activity 3: Visual Note-Taking, but the student is not permitted to use words in order to communicate his or her ideas.
Critical Thinking, Navigation Skills, Making Connections
By the end of the activity, students should perceive the challenges of communicating without words, translating the written or verbal into the visual, and developing a narrative that is comprehensible to their audience when said narrative must be interpreted in the absence of explanation. The aim of the exercise is to develop the student’s communication skills and transliteracy: the ability to demonstrate literacy across a range of platforms or mediums of expression by making meaningful connections between them.
Critical Thinking Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in this Activity?
As in the previous activity, students will have a dizzying range of questions that they will have to ask themselves at the outset of the activity: “How do I represent this scene from a play or short story without needing pages and pages of illustration?” or “How can I best capture the most important features of a historical battle in a way that a person examining it can understand?” My inspiration for this activity comes from Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress,” which Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics cites, along with hieroglyphics, cave art, etc. as a forerunner to the comics of today. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that little or no text (other than the naming of the individual paintings), the audience has little difficulty perceiving what is happening to the rake. As our global village shrinks and our students are immersed even further into a principally visual culture, being able to communicate with the visual takes on an increasing importance.
Students create a visual representation of an historical figure, famous scientist or thinker, literary character or individual related to the discipline they are studying and use symbolic elements in order to convey something about that character’s personality, mindset, nature, or temperament. Once they have done this, they write a reflection that explains how these symbolic elements help us to better understand the character in question.
Critical Thinking, Metacognition, Making Connections
By the end of the activity, students should understand something about how symbolic language can help us understand the visual representation of a character or individual, how symbolic language is similar to and different from orthographic language, and how words and images can have a genuinely emotive power in a given context.
Critical Thinking Questions
How Visual Narrative Can Foster Inquiry in This Activity
Some critics have argued that graphic novels derive their power from a rather unique quality—their lack of photographic realism. When looking at a photograph, for instance, we are acutely aware that we are only looking at a photograph. We are not witnessing the events taking place or the people affected by them in real time, because the photograph tells us that these things have already happened. In a graphic novel or story, however, things are not so clear. We are more likely to accept that when we see little Marji in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, we are actually looking at a “real person.” The cartoonish nature of the representation has the opposite effect we think it might. Because it’s obviously a cartoon, our minds don’t wrestle with the question of whether it’s the actual character or only his or her representation. So, we don’t tell ourselves that this line drawing isn’t really Marjane Satrapi. We just accept that it is.
The activities that follow will be permanently housed on our site. Feel free to use, reuse, and distribute, tailoring specifically for your own curriculum, grade level, or program!
Students create a piece of visual art that shows a day in their life in the manner of a cave drawing. It is up to the individual student to determine how much or how little they represent, how much of their canvas they apportion to a particular moment or event, and how they use colour, shape, and form to represent their activities or experiences. Once they have completed the piece of visual art, students then produce a written reflection in which they try to explain not simply what they have represented, but the process by which they came to represent it.
Self Awareness, Critical Thinking, Metacognition
By the end of the activity, students should come to understand something about how they have represented themselves and their activities and experiences, how they have chosen to budget their visual space to this end, how they have gone about deciding what to include and what not to include, and what their piece of visual art does and does not say about them.
Critical Thinking Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in This Activity?
Because students are creating a product that is ostensibly about them, that they generally care about, and that they are given a fair bit of freedom to put together, they tend to do a good job reflecting on what they have produced. However, the real power of the activity for me derives from what I learned this year from a student who was giving a presentation after engaging in a very similar activity. When asked to what extent the final amalgamation of images represented him, the student replied that he didn’t think it much represented him at all.
“However,” he said, “if people could have seen the process I went through deciding what to include and what not to include—how I put everything together—they would have learned everything about me.”
Visual narrative and visual storytelling show us so much about what a writer and illustrator are thinking, feeling, seeing, and trying to articulate—what they value as a story and what they want us to see and experience.
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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