by Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
Why Comics in Education?
As you may know, I was inspired to launch Comics in Education after the 2014 Reading for the Love of It Conference at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto. I received so many wonderful inquiries from teachers that I wanted to create a forum where K-12 educators could find what they needed and be inspired to share the great things they were doing with their students to further explore visual narrative in the classroom. Below are synopses of the two workshops I gave at the conference, but I'm also including the workshop notes as well!
Everything I Know I Learned from Comics
Everything I know I learned from comics. No really -- everything. Not surprisingly, then, this session examines visual narrative as a genre worthy of study -- not simply as a means of giving elementary students material they find "easy" or "accessible" but as one whose form, content, and history can illuminate for kids different ways of accessing, thinking critically about, and making meaning of the world around them. Special focus will be given to teaching comics, graphic novels, and graphic poetry, and to the use of visual narrative with young learners. The session will look at award-winning titles and series that teachers can use with their students, including trade publications and those specifically designed for the junior classroom.
Fostering Inquiry One Comic Book at a Time
This session examines how visual narrative—specifically comics and graphic novels—can be used to foster inquiry in young people, specifically in developing their global perspective. Visual narrative is transcultural, with a history that predates writing, and looking at its development shows us, at every turn, what the culture that produced it was thinking and feeling about itself and the world around it. The session will share ideas and activities that can be used to engage students in understanding the ongoing dialogue that comics and graphic novels have about how the world works and how (from their perspective) it should, while giving participants insight into a genre that has finally come into its own.
by Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
Everything I know I learned from comics, so I owe it to comics to learn about its history!
At the 2014 Reading for the Love of It Conference in Toronto, my first session was entitled "Everything I Know I Learned from Comics." If that's the case--and really, it is--I think I owed it to comics to try and figure out where the tradition of visual narrative actually comes from. Of course, for this, one needs to be armed with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a work whose importance to the genre cannot be underestimated.
So, the next time anyone casts aspersions at your idea of introducing visual narrative into the classroom because it's somehow a "lesser" genre than poetry, the novel, or short fiction, tell them that it actually has a tradition extending much further back than the written or even the spoken word.
Better yet, just show them this...
When we think about comics and graphic novels, we should think about them in the broader context of visual narrative. Visual narrative is telling a story in whole or in part using visual images, like illustrations or photographs. If we think about comics and graphic novels in this way, we can more easily recognize them as the product of a tradition that extends much further back than the tradition of writing.
Cave of Altamira, 20000-35000 BCE
The Cave of Altamira in Spain is known as the Sistine Chapel of Cave Art. Its depictions present a breathtaking visual narrative of the reality of life in Ancient Spain. The dynamic movement and energy of the illustrations tell us not only how ancient man perceived the natural world and its creatures, but how he felt about them. Taken together, these illustrations form a visual narrative that tells us an important story of early man, and serves as one of the most important examples of our species' ability to tell its stories with visual imagery.
Tutankhamun's Tomb, c. 1323 BCE
We owe a great deal to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This ancient artifact containing a combination of three different language systems, gave rise to the field of Egyptology. When we look at ancient hieroglyphics, like those found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun, we see a fascinating early example of visual narrative. Told through visual imagery that contains representations of human beings, animals, and symbols, ancient hieroglyphics are sequential art of the highest order.
The Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1077
The Battle of Hastings and what it decided changed the course of European history. William the Conqueror and his Norman army crossed the Channel and won a decisive victory over the English, killing their King, Harold, when an arrow struck him in the eye. Perhaps even more remarkable than the Battle of Hastings, though, is how it was commemorated in the town of Bayeux. Woven into what has come down to us as a 70m long fabric is the Bayeux Tapestry, perhaps the most visually stunning graphic story in the world. A combination of image and text, it tells the story of the Norman conquest beginning before the Battle of Hastings and extending through to William's coronation.
Stations of the Cross, c. 1600 CE
Many of us are confronted with a rather profound work of visual storytelling whenever we step foot within a church. The work in question is a common installation called "The Stations of the Cross," which generally came to be recognized as such in the fifteenth century. These stations tell the story of the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and are often arranged around a church as either inscription-bearing sculptures or plaques, or, in some instances, stained-glass windows. Each station bears a title, such as "Jesus falls the first time," or "Jesus is stripped of his garments." As has been noted of William Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress," the stations effectively form a storyboard or visual narrative of an important sequence of events in a person's life.
"A Rake's Progress," 1732-33 CE
"A Rake's Progress" is a series of eight paintings completed by William Hogarth in 1732-33 which were then produced as engravings for printing in 1735. They tell the story of Tom Rakewell, a wasteful "rake" who inherits a small fortune, wastes it through frivolous living, ends up in Fleet Prison, and then Bedlam hospital. Because "A Rake's Progress" effectively tells the story of a character's rise and fall in visual form, it has been thought of as an early example of a graphic story (Scott McCloud) and even a storyboard (Alan Parker).
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!
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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