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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We've taken a look so far at a number of examples of how visual narrative can be adapted to brainstorming and note-taking in order to allow us to take the non-linear ideas in our head and put them down in a way that makes sense to us. A neat application of this is when we are researching, note-taking, and brainstorming in the area of literary onomastics: the study of names and naming in literature. An activity like visual brainstorming, especially when accompanied by a good dictionary, can produce some pretty great results. Take, for instance, one of the most fascinating novellas of the 19th-century, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
(Your students might be amused by this animated version of Stevenson's story -- from Australia -- that came out exactly 100 years after the novel).
Here's what a quick visual brainstorm can help us to see in the novel with respect to the significance of the names that Stevenson uses. It doesn't appear to be happenstance that he chose "Jekyll" and "Hyde" for his central characters...er...character.
Give me a dictionary and the freedom to brainstorm in this manner and it quickly becomes apparent how relevant names and naming are to Stevenson's novel. Even if some of the associations seem like a stretch, it's the freedom to make these associations in this early phase of the researching and pre-writing process that will yield results for our students later on. The problem with a graphic organizer in this instance is that it suggests to the student that there is an expectation about what they must produce. With such an expectation in mind, they can find it challenging to think outside the box.
After all, in a graphic organizer we've already put the box there...
Using Wordle as an Analytical Tool Can Make a Big Difference!
In addition to using Wordle.Net to analyze poetry, music lyrics, and the like (to identify key words that serve to reveal prevailing themes, for example), wordles can be used to look at the completed draft of an essay and provide valuable information about it. Here are the top five things students should look for after putting their essay into a wordle.
1. The largest word in the cloud
Typically, the word "the" will be the largest word in the cloud. That's not surprising since it's the most common English word. In the example above, however, the student has written a personal reflection, so it's not surprising that "I" is the most frequently occurring. What students should make sure of, however, is that there isn't an unusual word that is the most frequently occurring because this will likely indicate the unnecessary repetition of a word in the paper. However, to do a proper check, the student must go to the language tab and tell Wordle.Net not to remove commonly occurring words. The Java program removes them in its default setting.
2. The relative distribution of words
Other than commonly occurring words like "a," "the," and some of the basic pronouns and conjunctions, the other words in the essay should have a distribution about them that makes sense. If the name of the book a student is writing about is a bit larger than the other "less common" words in the cloud, that makes sense. However, if such a word is dominating the wordle, it's a source for concern. The more evenly distributed words are in a wordle in terms of their size, the more likely that the student has found an acceptable balance in his or her use of diction in the essay.
3. The size of the word "and."
If the student cannot see the word "and" in the wordle cloud, this is a big problem. It means one of two things: (1) The student has used primarily simple sentences with few coordinating conjunctions and has likely written a very stilted essay, or (2) The student has constructed a significant number of comma splices and/or run-on sentences.
4. The size of the word "because"
If the word "because" is very tiny or virtually invisible in the cloud after the student cuts and pastes in a persuasive essay, this is also a big problem. The word "because" is one that we use when we are attempting to prove or explain something. Without it, how is the student effectively making their case? How are they proving or explaining what needs to be proven or explained?
5. The use of the verb "to be"
Younger writers who are still developing tend to overuse forms of the verb "to be." If words like "is," "was," "were," and "are" seem very large in comparison to the next most frequently occurring verbs, there can be a significant issue. The student should reread their paper and try to find better and more appropriate verbs when these are called for.
It was great to present these ideas at CITE2014, and to talk about the application of other technologies to benefit student writing. If you couldn't make it to the workshop, here's the handout!
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...
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....
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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