Books that Provide Teachers with the Ideas and Activities for Teaching Visual Narrative in the K-12 Classroom
Once teachers have read a few comics for their own enjoyment, done some additional reading about the genre, and found a good graphic novel to use with their students, only one thing remains. They need to do some reading about how to teach the genre to young people. Below are four excellent resources that teachers can use when they want to bring visual narrative to the K-12 classroom.
The trick, of course, is getting it to come out!
For those who are yet to be convinced of the power of visual brainstorming, or who are wondering why teachers haven't all been doing this since the first time students were made to sit down in chairs and listen to grown-ups in school, I present to you this latest effort. It comes from my student, Hannah, who apparently had quite a lot to say about Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
I'm not really sure what to call this one. "Crazy Town" comes to mind, I think. It reminds me of the maps I poured over of Ancient Pompeii when I wrote Fire Mountain for the Rubicon/Scholastic Series Timeline.
The fact is that it allowed Hannah to express a wealth of information about the first scene of Fo's play--that's right: it's only the first scene being represented here and not the whole play. Even the British flag demonstrates an understanding of how Fo intended the play always to be set in the very moment that the play takes place. And that's just one small piece of the brainstorming. You can see at the bottom left hand corner, for instance, that an Oxford English Dictionary makes an appearance to show a definition of farce...
You see. Students do still use dictionaries.
They're Thoughtful, They're Visual, and They're Very Pragmatic
[A version of this post was originally published in October, 2013 on a WordPress blog I started. I moved the entire contents of that blog to its present location here. It consisted only of this post. You can also read it on medium.com.]
This is not a post about comics or graphic novels per se. This is a post about the future of education that is happening right now.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m interested as much as the next person in the present of education. I’ve been to enough conferences and listened to enough keynote speakers to know that the present is pretty interesting. After all, this is the 21st century, and our classrooms are comprised of an exciting new breed of student: the 21st-century learner. I quite like them, in fact.
I can’t help but think, though, that much of what is said about the 21st-century learner, despite being well-intentioned, doesn’t always accord with the needs of the 21st-century learner. Now on the surface it seems to. We talk about how these learners have a different “operating system” than learners once did, and are hardwired to inhabit a visual culture of fleeting images and an aural culture of soon-forgotten soundbites. We’re pretty certain, as well, that they need to complement their "superficial" understanding of a broad range of subjects with deeper investigations of the important few. Talking about these things with one another in the office, discussing them at department meetings, and sharing them at conferences all make us feel like we have a handle on 21st-century education…
But this is a post about 22nd-century education.
Perhaps more accurately, this is a post about the future of education, and about how much or how little we are doing to prepare for it.
I was inspired after much procrastination to post this because of something that happened in my class last term. I learned a fundamental truth about the way in which my students deal with the visual world they inhabit. It reconfirmed my belief that the manner in which students negotiate this world must be an essential component of any secondary school curriculum. I think you will see why in a moment.
In preparation for a Grade 11 unit on poetry, I gave my students the image below to consider:
What I wanted them to do is to use their facility with visual images to teach themselves how well they could transfer these investigative skills to the study of poetry. I wanted them to find evidence, use context, interpret clues. And they were fabulous. They noted, for example, that the central figure appeared to be a woman, that her dress seemed turn of the (20th) century or older, that the men in the photo were ministering to her, and that the nooses suggested something ominous was about to happen.
Then I decided to push them further. I said that I could only begin the poetry unit once they told me who the woman in the photo was, where the photo was taken, and on what day. I teach in a laptop environment, and I allowed the students to use any technology they had at their disposal.
How long do you think it took them to discover her identity?
Perhaps more pertinently, how many clicks do you think it took them?
If you’re imagining a process of keyword and image searches that quickly narrowed things down, with only a few minutes and a handful of clicks required to answer the questions, then you likely understand something about 21st-century learning.
If you’re intrigued, surprised, horrified, or delighted by the fact that the answers can be found in two clicks, however, then read on.
It took about 30 seconds before a student got up, walked over to me holding his phone, and read off his litany of responses: “It’s Mary Surratt, sir, And the photo was taken on July 7, 1865 in Washington, DC. She’s about to be hanged for the Lincoln Assassination.”
“But…how…?” I asked. I mean, it was only 30 seconds after I set them the task.
“Google Goggles, sir. Just took a picture of the image with my phone and the app compared it with the images in the Google Database. Then I just clicked on the link that came up.”
That’s right: two clicks.
I have a feeling, then, that just as we're beginning to get a handle on 21st-century education, the next century has already begun. Apparently, we needed to begin getting ready for this back in the '50s or something,
So although this site will usually focus on the use of comics and graphic novels in the classroom and their wider applications (in visual brainstorming, in recognizing similarities and differences between literary forms, genres, etc.), I still want to hear from educators, students, and parents about where we we need to go in educating today's learners. I want to know how we can transform the real and virtual spaces in which our students learn and break out of the traditional environments we’ve inherited in order to produce the next generation of learners…
Well, the next after the next, anyway.
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...
Perhaps you were a comics fan when you were a kid and haven't read them in a while. Things have probably changed a bit since then. Or maybe you'd like to use them in the classroom with your students but feel like you don't have a great background in reading them. The following list should help get you started on the road to becoming an expert on the hottest and most exciting genre on the market!
The Mysterious Underground Men (1948), by Osamu Tezuka
A Contract with God (1978), by Will Eisner
Maus (1986), by Art Spiegelman
The Dark Knight Returns (1986), by Frank Miller
Watchmen (1986), by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Finder (1996-present), by Carla Speed McNeil
Transmetropolitan, Volume 1 (1997), by Warren Ellis and Darcik Robertson
Persepolis (2004), by Marjane Satrapi
Building Stories (2012), by Chris Ware
Boxers & Saints (2013), by Gene Luen Yang
Use Visual Note-Taking Strategies for Better Results!
I know in the mathematics classroom that we're ever-more conscious about allowing students to find their way to the answers to problems. Gone, I hope, are the days of forcing students to take a single road along their journey through our mathematics curriculum.
I was never big on taking that road myself. When asked to solve a math problem, I always wanted the solution to look cool for some reason. I think this had to do with my formative reading experiences being so tied to comics, detective fiction, adventure stories, and the manuals and gamebooks of fantasy role-playing games. I wanted the journey to be exciting!
A few years back, I was teaching at a school that held a math contest for students and faculty. I found the questions really challenging, and that's with ten undergraduate math courses under my belt!
I managed to win the contest (which I think my colleagues found strange given that I taught in the English department), but the way I answered the questions had something to do with it: Here were my responses, and I apologize in advance for having no longer any clue what the questions were...
Q1. Killer Geometry Question
Q2. Fractals -- It was brutal
Q3. Hypocycloid Question (I nearly died)
Q4. I honestly don't even remember this one...
I think when we allow our students to draw their math answers, write out their frustrations about their math answers, and use visual brainstorming techniques for their math answers, we're giving them opportunities to arrive at these answers in very useful ways. If you encourage visual brainstorming or having kids use doodling in their written responses to questions, send along some examples because we'd love to feature them at Comics in Education!
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.
Word Origins Can Be Graphic
If that is indeed the case, and I'm fairly confident it is, it's foolish not to capitalize on the inherent usefulness of the visual. So, the next time you're studying word etymologies with your students, consider having them create visual etymologies. This is great as both a collaborative activity or as an individual one. Do it, and you might just give your lesson a bit of swag.
You absolutely rock!
Comics in Education would like to thank the thousands of visitors to its website in only its first week of operation. We wanted to let you know that we have a new page up on the site called "Our Supporters" under the "About" tab. If you are doing great work in the field of comics in education, want to celebrate visual narrative and the impact it has on popular culture, or hope to promote the great work you're doing in the comics industry, please consider sending us a message on Twitter or through our contacts page and we'll put a link to you and your work as a thank you for visiting our site!
If it sounds like free advertising, well...I guess it is!
Comics in Education wants earnestly to promote the use of visual narrative in the K-12 classroom, and for that we need an industry that is dynamic and receptive to the needs of all readers, from those who are young to those who are young at heart. Fortunately, we seem to have just that!
Thanks everyone for all your support!
Comics in Education
But the animation is just so entirely engaging in this video -- it provides so much to both the visual and auditory learner alike -- that it speaks volumes to teachers about our need to give students opportunities to put their thoughts down on paper in a way that makes sense to them. We can get them to organize their ideas to form a coherent comparative essay later, but for now it is so much better to allow them to express their understanding in a way that looks more like the thoughts themselves and less like some linear model that does not mimic how they think. This is the beauty, I think, of something like RSAnimate. It shows us a kind of visual note-taking that is rich, powerful, and inspiring--exactly what we want our lessons to be.
I won't repeat my previous post by sharing Catherine's work with you, but I will show you my own. Inspired by the RSAnimate version of Sir Ken's talk many moons ago, I decided that my lesson plans needed to have something of the visual in them. So, I started creating lessons that would use a hybrid of comic book narration bubbles, a flow chart, and visual imagery. Throw in some colour and a pinch of Photoshop and you have an array of visual lesson plans that students will respond to.
Every year at least one student asks me why I do this. Is it that I'm just such a comics fanatic that I have to do visual lesson plans in this way? Do I have hours of time to spend on these aesthetic touches?
"No," I tell them. "I do this because learning is beautiful."
Chaney also gets into the whole idea of how we tend to process cartoonish representations of the human form in a different way than we would still photography. Photography suggests an image captured in the a past that no longer exists. We know that something in a photograph is not happening to the person "in the here and now" because the photo had to have been previously taken. However, Satrapi's cartooning shows us a character that we, as readers, are willing to believe is in "the present" of the narrative. This is such an insightful idea and one that can generate really excellent discussions with students.
Chaney's talk and the ideas it raises also allow for a lot of cross-polination depending on the other writers your students are studying. For example, Margaret Atwood's poetry is filled with references to the problematic nature of photography: how photographs capture an instant in time, but don't tell us what happened to the subject in the time before or the time since the click of the camera's shutter. Think, for instance of "This is a Photograph of Me" or "Girl and Horse, 1928." Satrapi also focuses on photographs as a visual record, with a memorable full-page panel of her father taking photos of the violence, and other panels in which a character is looking at a photograph from the past and pointing out something about it.
Chaney's talk, then, is a wonderful starting point for such discussions. Be sure to check it out!
We want students in a junior or middle school classroom to begin to develop an understanding of what they read, how language works to make meaning, and how they can figure such things out. Graphic novels can therefore pose an additional level of challenge, because the visual and its impact on meaning must be worked out at the same time that the language is being examined. Even something as simple as this prototype I designed for the Graphic Poetry series is instructive (don't worry...I didn't illustrate any of the titles, and the series has won two awards). A student might be comfortable reading a short story and analyzing its setting—the time, place, and prevailing circumstances of the story—but how do they analyze the setting of the poem presented here as a visual narrative? They would have to talk about the colour of the half-page panel at the top, and how it seems to suggest that the events of the poem will take place in the early evening or at twilight. They would also need to talk about how the title of the poem, juxtaposed with the tree, implies that the reader is looking at the poison tree in the opening panel. And what is to be made of the fact that the tree is entirely black and blends in with the gutter between each of the panels and the page borders as well? Is the author/illustrator making a comment about how quickly and dangerously poison can spread? What are we to make of the close up of the male figure in the bottom left-hand panel and the eerie red background colour? He looks angry and the black words on the red background reinforce that, but his fixed gaze almost seems to peer right through the gutter and at the “friend” who is shot in a medium-long to long shot, presumably looking back at him, albeit tentatively. All of this is happening and we’ve only reached the end of the poem’s first line, at which point—if we were simply looking at the text of the poem—we wouldn’t normally have begun debating its meaning. It is crucial, then, when teaching graphica that we don’t just acquaint students with the terminology they might use to talk about how a shot is composed, but look carefully with them at the various features of the verbal and visual canvas before them.
If you're looking for some of this terminology by the way, you can find it under Terms and Terminology on the Introduction tab.
At the 2014 Reading for the Love of It conference in Toronto, I mentioned an activity to participants that struck them as being a new idea in teaching the graphic novel. Here's what I said:
"We should teach kids how the form and structure of a graphic novel is related to the form and structure of other genres they might read in a junior or middle school classroom. However, we need to go beyond just having students create a graphic story out of a chapter or scene from a traditional novel. Probably the coolest exercise you can do with a group of students is to have them turn the pages of a graphic novel into a traditional narrative. The advantage of this is that it forces students to think far more about traditional narrative and about how very complicated it can be for a writer to use only words to represent the simplest ideas or concepts."
A number of participants remarked afterwards that they wanted to try this activity right away and inquired about good starting points in terms of choosing a graphic novel that would lend itself well to such an activity. I gave them some of my own suggestions (Persepolis, Watchmen, Maus, The Silence of Our Friends, Are You My Mother?), but for the benefit of those who might be taking a look at this post, I'd love comments from experienced comics educators who have either done this activity with their students or who have a suggestion about a great comic or graphic novel that would work well.
Thanks in advance, and see you next time!
Welcome to Comics in Education, a new site devoted to advancing the use, understanding, and appreciation of comics and graphic novels in the K-12 classroom. Motivated by the insightful questions and great feedback I received from the 2014 Reading for the Love of It conference in Toronto, I was inspired to get this site up and going.
Comics in Education is a work in progress, but things are progressing well and I hope to have it fully functional in short order. Because this site is for teachers, students, school administrators, curriculum specialists, educational publishers, library professionals, academics, and for folks within and outside of the comics industry, I welcome as much feedback and as many suggestions as you can send my way. Updates are coming soon to the "Classroom" tab, and there'll be a lot more on the website in the days ahead. Thanks for dropping by and check back again soon for the updates.
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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