Of all the series I have worked on, I have a special place in my heart for the 21 volumes of Graphic Poetry. Published by Rubicon / Scholastic, the series went on to win two major awards, including the 2010 Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association and the 2011 Teachers' Choice Award from Learning Magazine.
I'm especially fond of one title in the series: Margaret Atwood's "This is a Photograph of Me" and "Girl and Horse, 1928," probably because I teach a unit on Atwood's poetry to Grade 11 students in the IB program at The York School in Toronto.
For the Atwood unit, we study recurring motifs and themes in her poetry, with a culminating assessment that involves students creating a visual piece that speaks to the same motifs and themes we explore in her poetry.
When my student, Kersti, got up to do her presentation, I was exceptionally impressed by how she was able to capture the spirit of "Girl and Horse, 1928" in a wonderful painting she did. Her explanation of the choices she made in putting the piece together were equally impressive.
I have to admit that I was a wee bit pleased with myself for having shown the class the adaptations of Atwood's poetry in the above volume from the Graphic Poetry series. The projects they produced, like Kersti's, were so excellently done and I figured that they were inspired in part by seeing how poetry can be successfully married with visual art.
However, what happened on a subsequent assignment absolutely floored me. Kersti chose to interpret Atwood's "Flying Inside Your Own Body," a poem that discusses the freedom a woman enjoys when she dreams and the rather terrifying reality she inhabits when she awakens. When Kersti stood up, this is what she showed us
"Okay," I thought. "She's managed to capture something of the final part of the poem. The restrictive, claustrophobic, isolating world that women can experience when they wake to discover the dream of flying inside your own body is illusory. "But what about the dream? What about the freedom and the joy that's described at the start of the poem? Where are they?"
Then, to the surprise of everyone, she opened the painting...
That's right... She opened it. And there, inside, was the speaker of Atwood's poem. Kersti's explanation of the choices she made in her interpretation were brilliant--the tattoo, the necklace, the symbolic touches in the background--and students couldn't stop complimenting her on her work.
So, this is why we teach visual narrative in the classroom. This is why we celebrate it...
...And this is why I started a website called Comics in Education.
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.
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...
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.
Film, literature, Graphica, and How They Can Teach Us that Sometimes, the Less Said, the Better
I was reminded this past week that comics, indeed any sort of wordless visual narrative, can teach us how important it is when something is not being said. Now don't get me wrong. I love a good long story. The nearly one thousand pages of Dickens' Bleak House was enthralling for me as a graduate student. The twelve hours or so of the Lord of the Rings trilogy's extended edition was great fun. And I've watched a great number of musicals and plays with a pretty substantial running time and found myself amused, engaged, bewitched, and otherwise entertained from start to finish.
But I'm also reminded of one of my favourite examples of flash fiction--attributed to Ernest Hemmingway though the connection is tenuous at best--that consists of but six words:
Now I don't know if this story has the same impact on you as it had on me the first time I read it, but there is an economy about it that is startling, and so much of the story has been left unsaid that this economy has a profound effect on the reader.
A couple of years ago I had a similar experience when a colleague showed me the short film below. It had won the Phillips Cinema "Tell It Your Way" Competition's Grand Prize. The rules of the competition dictated that the films being submitted could consist of no more than six lines of dialogue, and this submission, The Gift, took home the prize.
If you've never seen this short film before and have now composed yourself after breaking down in tears at the end, we probably have quite a bit in common. This film only needs six lines of dialogue because the visual component of the narrative is so powerful. It is such a clever, well executed, and--as a result--profound piece of film-making.
So what actually got me thinking about narrative economy? Well, not surprisingly, it was a wordless comic book panel drawn by none other than writer and artist, Francesco Francavilla. He was sending it around yesterday and it brought back to mind how powerful an image can be--how much it can actually say--in the absence of words telling me how to interpret it. Here's what he tweeted.
I don't know about you, but this image just sort of sends chills through me. That's usually my reaction to things Francesco draws, but this one is especially so. It reminded me when I saw it of what an economy of words can do, and it should remind educators that those who would suggest that comics and graphic novels are a way of "dumbing down" the reading experiences we give to our students should, if anything, be pitied.
After all, think about what they're missing....
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.
Great Projects Deserve a Kickstart
I'm reminded this week of how so many great projects get off the ground because of the crowdsource funding that goes on at Kickstarter. Recently, two projects especially caught my attention--one of which deservedly met and exceeded its fund-raising goals, and one that seems to be well on its way!
She Makes Comics -- a documentary about women in comics
Because it's the Sequart Organization, we knew this campaign was going to be lights out. This is the group that helped bring us Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, not to mention a host of titles on comics scholarship. If you love the world of comics and haven't seen either of the above documentaries, then you should stop reading immediately and go watch them. When the final tally was counted, it wasn't just the total amount pledged that was impressive, it was how many people thought that the project should be supported. The screen capture says it all.
More than 1400 people supporting Julian Darius, Mike Phillips, Respect! Films and everyone that will be involved in the production. That's absolutely fantastic, and it's what Kickstarter is all about.
Share with Me -- an illustrator and her daughter make a book
I just happened to spot a tweet about this project and took a moment to have a look. I couldn't quite believe it. I think every parent at some point has had a dream about building, or making, or creating something with their child, and what Mica and Myla Hendricks are creating is a rare thing of beauty.
Mica is an illustrator. And yes, that's right: Myla, her daughter, is four. Together, she and her mom have put together a book that is whimsical, and enchanting, and collaborative, and just about everything you'd want a book to be.
If you'd like to learn more about either of these campaigns you can click on the images and it will take you to their Kickstarter pages. Sequart's ended in funding success, so if you just want to visit them at their homepage click here. Please continue your wonderful support of Mica and Myla's project and find Myla @busymockingbird on Twitter.
And thank you, Kickstarter. I mean, how long would we have had to wait for these projects if it weren't for crowdsource funding organizations like you?
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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