This is the first in a series of posts that are intended to give English educators some new ways of thinking about how to incorporate graphica into their curriculum. One way of making inroads with colleagues who are resistant to visual narrative in the curriculum is to show them how these works speak to, reinforce, support, augment, and otherwise work well with canonical literature dealing with similar concepts or themes. As you read these posts, please feel free to send me your ideas. I'd love to publish them on our site!
I like this roster of text choices, not only because the two novels and the choreopoem are written by women, but because the list will present students with engaging and challenging material. This is especially true of both Beloved and For Colored Girls and teachers would be well advised to ensure in advance that their students can handle the issues presented in these works.
I love the addition of The Silence of Our Friends, a semi-autobiographical work that looks at race relations in Texas circa 1967, with a white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood befriending a black family living in one of the the city's poorest wards. They come together when five black students are unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.
The other graphic title I've included here was written in 2013 and was accorded numerous honors that included consideration for Graphic Novel of the Year. That's March, Book 1, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, who also happens to have illustrated The Silence of Our Friends!
Of course, the amount of time that you have with your students and the specific demands of your curriculum will decide whether you can take an approach as suggested by the above list. However, we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which 21st-century students appreciate a curriculum that makes sense to them, and seems to be put together with the express purpose of fully and authentically developing their understanding of a particular issue or theme.
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...And if there's anything better than free comics, it's an entire day devoted to free comics!
Linda Layne reminded me earlier today that this coming Saturday, May 3rd is Free Comic Book Day. I don't know about you, but when someone mentions "free" and "comic book" in the same sentence, I get kind of excited.
However, before you rush out to your local comic book shop and begin emptying their racks into a large hockey bag, you might want to take a minute or two to find out how to get ready. The above video is a good place to start, and they're currently showing it on the mediabistro site.
As well, Linda gave me some excellent links to share with you. One is to the Free Comic Book Day Store Locator, while the other will get you ready to go with everything you need to know for a successful Saturday.
Those interested in why we have such a thing as Free Comic Book Day will want to check out the following mini-documentary:
Let us know if you have a really cool experience on Free Comic Book Day. If so, we'd love to blog about it for our readers!
If you teach with comics, be on the lookout for great resources like this one!
We are lucky to be educators at a time when sharing valuable resources is so easy. Here is a great blog post from Colleen Graves, entitled "Graphic Novels in the Classroom." It examines approaches to teaching a variety of graphic novels, like Maus, Persepolis, and The Arrival. There are also a host of links that Colleen has shared, so be sure to check those out as well!
The post focuses on a range of different activities, including those that allow students to take old stories and adapt them to a new setting, as in Colleen's idea for using fairy tales to this end:
I love how complex Jack and the Beanstalk became simply by changing the setting and modifying the characters. I’d like to share this with my students and then have them create their own fractured fairytale graphic novels in groups. Each group could have an art director, author(s), artist, and pencil artist. Groups would be given fairytales, settings, and character ideas and then they could work together to create their mash-up masterpiece!
Over the coming months, I'm hoping to gather and identify as many useful resources as this one from Colleen and share them with you. If you're looking on our site for classroom ideas, check out the activities tab or click the image below!
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.
When people ask me how I started writing graphic novels, my answer is usually one word:
When they ask me how I was inspired to write for the Rubicon / Scholastic series, my answer is always two words:
When my son was very young he was fascinated by Ancient Pompeii...not just the fateful events of August 24-25, 79 CE, but the vibrant city bustling with life that preceded it. He was similarly fascinated by gladiators and fullers and senators and emperors, and he was so interested in the people, places, sights, and sounds of the ancient city that we had to do something about it.
So, we decided to take a trip to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa/Hull, where the plaster casts were being exhibited. These were the same plaster casts that were created by archaeologists who injected plaster into the air pockets of the volcanic debris that had hardened over the course of more than 1600 years. By doing so, the archaeologists were able to bring to life the forms of those who perished in one of the worst pyroclastic surges in the history of Volcanic eruptions.
When we got back home from our trip, we watched videos and read books and talked about what we had seen. When I asked my son what more we should do about it, he said, "You should write a graphic novel about Pompeii."
So that's what I did.
What follows, then, are the books I wrote for the Timeline series, entirely inspired by my son's self-directed learning. Writing them was tremendous fun and I could always count on a certain someone to provide me with an endless assortment of ideas about how these stories should be told.
With adventures that take place throughout history—and into the future, Timeline is packed with heroes and villains that will capture the imaginations of both boys and girls. Students love them because they are cool and teachers love them because they are motivational and packed with non-fiction learning. Each title blends a fictional protagonist with real historical characters in a unique story that teaches children about an important moment, time period, or event from the past. The series is also available in the United Kingdom under Oxford's Treetops Graphic Novels brand. For a review of the series have a look at Jared Robinson's review, "Rubicon's Timeline Series...Timeless!"
I had the great fortune of having my kids--who absolutely adore Stan Lee--get their picture taken with the legend when he made an appearance at the 2012 Fan Expo in Toronto. It's nearly two years later and they still haven't stopped smiling.
Imagine my delight, then, in discovering the Stan Lee Excelsior Award, a prize given to one of eight graphic novels each year as selected by the real experts on comics and graphic novels: teenagers! Here's the description of the award from the website:
The Stan Lee Excelsior Award is the only nationwide book award for graphic novels and manga - where kids aged 11-16 choose the winner by rating each book as they read it!
You'll be pleased to know that the organizer of this award is Paul Register, the librarian at the Ecclesfield School in Sheffield, England. Ecclesfield specializes in visual and performing arts and I can't help but think that it shares a kindred spirit with my own institution, The York School in Toronto. As noted in the award description, Stan the Man himself has endorsed the award, and it's such a great way to help foster and promote the idea that a school--an academic institution--sees comics and graphic novels as worthy of study, appreciation, and recognition.
So hats off to Paul Register and the Ecclesfield school for the Stan Lee Excelsior Award.
Over the course of the next few months, I'll be sharing a number of graphic novels that I consider must-reads for those educators wanting to give serious treatment to the genre in the contemporary classroom. These works may not always be at the top of everyone's reading list, but each will have the capacity to make a very real impact on teaching and learning in the 21st-century classroom.
Of the books I read in 2013, this one had the most to say to teachers.
Though written a few years ago now, the English translation was published this past year, and we should be nothing short of thankful for it. In this critically-acclaimed work, Davodeau recalls the experience of learning the craft of wine making in the Loire Valley from vintner, Richard Leroy. At the same time, Davodeau gets Leroy to learn the art of writing, drawing, and publishing graphic novels. The story is brilliantly told, and from it we come away with a genuine understanding of how much people from different backgrounds and occupations can learn from one another by seeing what is actually involved in what they do.
I would strongly encourage teachers to read this graphic novel. It strikes me that Davodeau and Leroy engage in precisely the kind of authentic learning we want for our students. For instance, it's one thing to know that winemakers use barrels and that barrels are made by coopers. It's another thing to watch as Leroy pays a visit to the cooper's and hangs out there all day making sure the barrels are made just so while Davodeau looks on nonplussed. Indeed, both men learn from one another how passionate they are about their respective professions and how this is a fundamental quality they both share.
Talking with students about this graphic novel and sharing it with them is important, I think, in preparing them to be initiates for the world of lived experience.
For more information on The Initiates, have a look at the following links:
Just in case you didn't have reason enough already...
In a lecture called "Fostering Inquiry One Comic Book at a Time" that I delivered at the 2014 Reading for the Love of It Conference, I discussed the importance of teaching visual narrative in the K-12 classroom. What I talked about, though, was actually inspired by a pair of articles I wrote for the Sequart Organization at the start of 2013. Here's what I said in "Changing Attitudes to Comics in the Classroom:"
In 2010, I assigned a rather curious task to a group of twenty-two graduate students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) while teaching a course called New Literacies: Making Multiple Meanings. The students included K-12 educators with a range of experiences and backgrounds, as well as those working in education in a non-teaching capacity. The purpose of the activity was to determine what they saw as the basic skills needed to access “new literacies.” Pairs of students were assigned a given literacy, and then came up with a thoughtful analysis of the skills that would be needed for someone to possess, for example, information literacy or health literacy. The following week, just as one might do in a middle school classroom, I had the students fill up a blackboard with the skills they came up with for their given literacy. Then we simply circled the skills that appeared over and over again. The following five were repeated multiple times:
Given that 21st-century students in our K-12 classrooms spend a considerable amount of time immersed in a visual culture outside the classroom, it seems absurd to avoid teaching visual narrative to academic students as they develop the above-mentioned skills. Having students navigate through different genres and across different platforms of learning as they critically think about and make connections between poetry, novels, short fiction, visual narrative, epistolary writing, discussion boards, blogs, and hypertext fiction seems like a no-brainer. Are students’ self-awareness and metacognition really better served by avoiding comics and graphic novels in the academic English classroom? Isn’t visual narrative an ideal starting point in exploring with students both the traditional “print” genres of the novel, short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and the world of writing that hypertext and the web has opened up for all of us?
If the skills that my students identified are crucial ones for access to the range of 21st-century literacies our students need, and if studying visual narrative helps foster these skills, we would be remiss if we kept comics and graphic novels out of our classrooms.
Interestingly enough, the five skills listed above are ones that a certainly category of individuals has developed better than any other, and studying these individuals gives students insight into how to develop the skills themselves. What category would that be you might ask?
Comic book superheroes.
A Great List for Teachers
If you're interested in comics, graphic novels, and visual narrative in general, and are equally as interested in their implications for classroom teaching, you should certainly consider following as many of the accounts below as you can. These are folks whose tweets frequently focus on the comics industry, comics in K-12 education, or academic scholarship related to comics.
A great strategy for those new to Twitter--like educators wanting to learn more about individuals and organizations involved in either comics and education or the wider comics industry--is to follow the people that the folks above are following. After all, they must have a pretty good reason to be doing so!
The Graphic Canon is a Godsend for Teachers
Edited by Russ Kick, the three volumes of The Graphic Canon contain a wealth of wonderful curriculum support materials for teachers. Although there may be colleagues of yours who balk at your desire to use visual narrative in the classroom, they'd be hard-pressed to object to the stunning series of graphic poems, stories, and novel excerpts that constitute these three volumes. Your fellow department members only want to teach "The Canon?" That's fine. With The Graphic Canon they can do just that!
I could talk at great length about this series of books, and no doubt in future postings I'll be looking at how to use them in the classroom, but for now your best resource on the series is their WordPress site.
I can tell you that each volume in the series covers a distinct period of time and the literature that goes with it. The first volume's selections range from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. Volume 2 takes readers from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" to the works of the Bronte Sisters and finally to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, the third text goes from Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Hemmingway to Infinite Jest.
From my perspective, the series is of most use to high school educators who either want to...
Of course, there is nothing preventing the teacher from constructing an entire unit around these selections. With younger students, however, you might not have enough selections that are geared towards a junior or middle school audience, so that a series like Graphic Poetry from Rubicon/Scholastic would be a better option. Scott Robins @Scout101 also mentioned in a Tweet the Visions in Poetry series from @KidsCanPress.
Filmic language can be useful in terms of understanding and expressing the relative distance between the reader/viewer and a given subject in a graphic story (see Filmic Language, Part 1). However, it can also help us understand our angle of view with regards to the subject, which in itself can have an impact on how we perceive what we are seeing.
A bird's-eye view in a comic allows us to view the contents of a panel from overhead, helping us to do one of a number of different things, including seeing the context of a scene with greater clarity or giving us a clear sense of a character's predicament. When a graphic storyteller shows us a character from a bird's-eye view, they can seem smaller, weaker, or more insignificant than when shown from a different angle. They can look physically smaller and less imposing, and therefore more vulnerable.
In this type of shot in a graphic story, the camera looks up at the subject from below. This can make the subject itself seem much larger, more imposing, or even more physically intimidating, especially as the bug's-eye shot moves closer to the actual subject and the angle gets closer to 90 degrees.
In this shot, a character is typically shown in the immediate foreground of the panel with another character further away. The action of the panel is sometimes literally framed bythe head and shoulders of the character in the foreground, thus giving the shot its name. It is a commonly used shot in the exchange of dialogue since it gives the reader an opportunity to perceive the character (or object, scene, etc.) in the distance from the general point of view of the character in the foreground.
For the POV shot, the viewer takes a small step forward from the over-the-shoulder shot to become, in effect, the character in the foreground. Comics and films from the horror genre use this shot frequently since it can develop great anxiety and anticipation in the reader/viewer. It can allow him or her to walk in the shoes of a killer or potential victim, seeing only what this character sees. Its use, however, is not limited to the horror genre, and a POV shot has wide applications in visual narrative.
Shot / Reverse Shot
This is a common technique in graphic storytelling that has been inherited from classic Hollywood films that sought to de-emphasize transitions from one scene to the next . Often, a shot / reverse shot in a panel sequence involves a medium over-the-shouldershot of two characters in conversation followed by a panel in which the characters' positions are reversed. This allows for a fairly seamless conversation.
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
When it comes to comics and the broader tradition of visual narrative, it is incumbent upon educators to teach students about the genre and its history. If we talk to students about how poetry developed from an oral tradition, or about the resurgence of the drama during themiddle ages, we must also talk to them about how sequential art has evolved over time. We must treat the genre with the same degree of seriousness with which treat other genres, because not doing so would be to suggest that there is something nobler or far more worthy of our consideration in poetry or in drama than in visual narrative.
That, however, is rubbish.
Great works of literature are great because they merit such distinction--not because they happen to be of one particular genre and not another. We don't look down our nose at War and Peace because it's a novel and not poetry. We don't think less of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" because it's "only a letter."
Visual narrative is a genre worthy of study, both for ourselves and for our students. Comics in Education (www.comicsineducation.com) is dedicated to proving that.
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
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.
If you've found this site useful and would like to donate to Comics in Education, we'd really appreciate the support!