We're not kidding ... it's the coolest
Now that my summer of writing, editing, and reviewing has ended with two weeks of eating Butterbeer ice cream on the steps of Gringotts Bank inside Diagon Alley, I thought I'd be in the best frame of mind to share with you the coolest activity you can do with a comic book.
I first shared the idea at the 2014 Reading for the Love of It Conference back in February and it generated a lot of positive feedback. The idea, however, is very simple.
So many of the activities that are built around visual narrative in the classroom have teachers getting their students to create a graphic novel or story out of some other work they are doing. For example, students are asked time and again to "Choose a favourite moment" in a novel they are studying and turn it into a graphic story. They are often told how many panels should be on the page and are reminded to use dialogue bubbles and narrative boxes in their story.
There's nothing wrong with this activity once in a while. It serves a purpose.
However, if teachers are really wanting students to understand something about a novel, poem, or play, and think that comics can help, then the opposite activity is much better: Have students take a comic book and get them to transform it into the form they are presently studying.
What this activity teaches students is that novelists must rely exclusively on words to present a whole range of complex ideas, emotions, and situations. Since graphic novelists use pictures, and pictures (as we know) tell a thousand words, how cool is it that novelists can create these in our head without a visual component to their narrative?
Let's say I wanted to use graphic storytelling in teaching Dickens' Great Expectations. Sure, I could ask students to "visualize" the opening scene by creating a graphic narrative about Pip's encounter with Magwitch. Will this teach students something about the impact that Dickens' words have on what they imagine? I suppose it will, although students who are self-conscious about their artistic skills might suggest they can't adequately represent what's in their head.
However, I am much more inclined to take a comic like issue #117 of The Defenders--one that begins with a group of superheroes gathering in a storm-swept glade in upstate New York to commemorate a fallen comrade--and get them to turn it into what could be the opening of the novel. Sure, they can incorporate some of the narrative captions and dialogue featured in the comic--these will prove to be useful scaffolding--but they are going to have to use language to describe the visual landscape of the comic.
This gives students a hands-on activity that really teaches them something about novel writing rather than about graphic storytelling. If you want students to learn about a particular literary form, then, have the work they are producing be of the form you want them to learn about about.
If you enjoyed this activity, you might also enjoy:
Every once in a while I have my students participate in an experiential activity whose purpose is to teach them just how much information contemporary technologies provide them access to. In the activity, students must put away their laptops and smartphones, and then use nothing more than the technologies that existed in the early 1980s to answer a series of very challenging questions. They are permitted to use the school library, and can look up books on the library's computer (given the absence of a card catalogue) but they certainly cannot surf the web, use keyword searches, or do anything that would allow them to answer the questions in the nanoseconds it would take them with technology.
On one occasion, a student came up to me who was trying to figure out what a particular word in one of the questions meant. "Can you tell me what this word means?" the student asked, to which I replied, in teacherly fashion: "Where would you find the definition?" The student looked at me puzzled, then looked at the question again, but doing so didn't seem to help.
"I don't get what you mean," he said.
"Wouldn't you use a dictionary?" I replied, after a short pause, giving him that look that suggested I was trying to break something gently to him so that he wouldn't feel altogether too silly. But what he said next was a stunner.
"Uh...how am I supposed to do that? You took away our laptops..."
Before the bibliophiles out there begin to lose their minds over this, let me take a moment to say that the kid was right. It's likely that he had never looked up anything in a print dictionary, and who can blame him? Dictionary and encyclopedia publishers have largely moved to online platforms now, and I can get dozens of definitions for a single term, cross-indexed, hyperlinked, and all in the time it takes me to type in the word.
The problem, however, is that many writers and thinkers in the past two decades have used stories like the one above to write articles about the "Death of the Book," suggesting that digital technologies have changed the publishing landscape forever and that it's only a matter of time before books are entirely obsolete. Inevitably, this prompts others to write about how the book can't die or about how the news of its impending death is an exaggeration of the facts.
The problem, as I see it, is that when people write about the "Death of the Book," they're beginning the conversation by talking in metaphors. Framing the discussion in this way isn't really productive, however. People have strong feelings about reading, and about the relationship they have with books, and so it's no surprise that they decry what they see as the end of a beautiful friendship.
The whole argument, however, is silly. Should we really be worried that the advent of electronic libraries, the decline of traditional bookstores, and the changing reading habits of young people are threatening to destroy printed books?
Why shouldn't be worried? Well, we went from carving things on stones to writing by hand to printing out manuscripts, to housing them digitally, and in the process we seemed to increase the number of people who can read and who enjoy it. And it's simply not going to be the case that we discover new ways of reading that are awful or terrible or that people won't like, because someone will simply come up with something that isn't awful and isn't terrible and that we do like.
I grew up loving books and going to libraries and bookstores. I loved leafing through dictionaries and encyclopedias to discover new things. And I especially loved the smell of walking into my local comic book shop and seeing the titles, old and new, lining the shelves.
And although I still love books and feel a sense of nostalgia about my childhood reading experiences, I'm not going to pen an elegy about the death of the book. They are changing and transforming and gradually becoming something new and different, but when all is said and done, they are just the medium through which we get to learn about other people's stories.
And it's not like we're going to stop telling each other stories any time soon.
If you enjoyed this article, or even if you didn't, don't worry. Perhaps the book will make a resurgence some day, as shown below:
The world of academia just got a little less flat.
While everyone was wishing one another a happy #StarWarsDay yesterday or enjoying #FCBD (that’s Free Comic Book Day for those who don’t get out much) the day previous, I'm guessing that considerably fewer were paying attention to what Nick Sousanis was doing at Teachers College, Columbia University.
He was defending his doctoral dissertation, written entirely in comic book form.
Writing a dissertation is challenging enough, but what Nick has undertaken is a step beyond challenging. His dissertation, “Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry into Learning in Many Dimensions,” uses visual narrative in a way that may cause a few traditionalists to raise a Spockian eyebrow, but his work and its particular form are an important contribution to academia.
As Sydni Dunn noted in her Chronicle article on Nick's dissertation earlier this year, his work is being recognized by other academics as part of an important development in the evolution of research at the doctoral level:
Sousanis’ work is just one example of this evolution, says Sidonie Smith, director of the Institute for the Humanities at University of Michigan, who is a former president of the Modern Language Association. Smith has also seen dissertations presented as series of articles, as public blogs, and as interactive digital projects, to name a few.
In earlier blogs I’ve provided K-12 teachers with a a rationale for comics in education and in other posts have discussed both why we should teach comics and how we can explain to fellow colleagues and administrators the reason they should be included in the curriculum.
Nick’s work should help to make such conversations easier.
Next time someone balks at your suggestion of choosing The Silence of Our Friends or Boxers & Saints for a unit on cultural conflict because "comics aren’t academic," show them Nick’s dissertation and tell them that the 21st century has arrived and that they should put down their copy of Martin Chuzzlewit and come outside and play!
The 10 is a series of books that use a Top-10 countdown format and graphical text to explore fascinating topics from sports, science, history, pop-culture, and a wide variety of other subjects. Whether they’re exploring the ten smartest animals or the ten greatest sports showdowns, students are encouraged to engage in inquiry-based learning tasks that extend learning and discussion outside the classroom. In 2009, the series received the Teachers' Choice Award for Children’s Books from Learning magazine. Here are many of the titles that I wrote for the series.
THE 10 SMARTEST ANIMALS
by Glen Downey
Think you're smarter than your pet dog, Fido? Think again! From monkeys that do math to pigs that play video games -- you'll be shocked at just how smart some animals are.
What do you think it takes to win the title of world's smartest animal?
MOST DECISIVE BATTLES
by Glen Downey
History, as they say, is written by the victors. When the future of a nation and even the fate of the world can be decided on the battlefield, it's no wonder armies will do anything to come out on top.
What decisive battles would you put on the list?
HOTTEST HOLLYWOOD CARS
by Glen Downey and Maria Malara
Nothing makes more of a statement than an amazing car. From cool gadgets to luxury accessories to superhero drivers, these cars all stand out from the rest of the pack.
Which car do you think is Hollywood's hottest ride?
MOST SIGNIFICANT DOCUMENTS IN HISTORY
by Glen Downey
Whether they were carved in stone, written on bamboo, or woven into a belt, each of the documents in this book has played an important role in shaping our world.
What do you think is the most significant document of all time?
GREATEST HOCKEY TEAMS OF ALL TIME
by Glen Downey and Kirsten Tenebaum
Many great hockey teams have been assembled over the years. From the innovators to the trail blazers to the record breakers, there have been many teams throughout hockey's history that have stood out from the rest.
How do you pick hockey's most outstanding teams of all time?
COOLEST FLYING MACHINES
by Glen Downey and Sandie Cond
Ever since humans figured out how to fly, people have come up with all sorts of ways to take to the skies. The fastest jet in the world, the fanciest jetliner ever built, the stealthiest spy plane service -- these are some of the coolest ways to fly!
Which do you think is the coolest?
MOST REVOLUTIONARY MILITARY INVENTIONS
by Glen Downey
From giant bomber planes to invisible chemical and biological weapons, military inventions come in all shapes and sizes. Take a trip through time as we investigate which weapons have had the biggest impact.
Which military invention really was the most revolutionary... and deadliest?
MOST MEMORABLE TV MOMENTS
by Glen Downey
From a heroic sports finale to the debut of educational programming for kids, you'll be amazed at the way TV has allowed us to experience memorable moments. Find out why these moments had people around the world on the edge of their seats.
What do you think is the most memorable moment in television?
MOST UNFORGETTABLE NASCAR MOMENTS
by Glen Downey
High speeds, skilled drivers, and big prizes -- that's what NASCAR is all about. From a million-dollar prize to an unexpected crash, you'll find out what makes auto racing fans so passionate about this exciting sport.
What is it about a NASCAR race that makes it so memorable?
MOST SHOCKING SPORTS SCANDALS
by Glen Downey
Welcome to the wild world of sports! From cheating in games to bribing judges in competitions, this book ranks the shocking scandals that ruined some of the biggest names in the game.
Have we made winning the only thing that matters?
MOST MEMORABLE SPORTS SHOWDOWNS
by Glen Downey
The stakes are high, the crowd is pumped, and tension fills the air. The arena is about to turn into a battlefield as we relive the 10 greatest sports showdowns.
Are you ready to face some of the fiercest competitors in sports history?
MOST REMARKABLE WRITERS
by Glen Downey and Jayn Arnold
From tales of Middle-Earth to moving poems, exceptional writers have wowed us with their incredible talents. Find out how each of these 10 remarkable writers made their mark on the literary world.
Who is the most remarkable writer?
For more information on "The 10" click the button below!
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!
What's Out There...
There is considerably more scholarship in the area of visual narrative than most educators or, indeed, most outside the areas of comics publishing and production are aware. Here is a starting point for your investigations. If you find others that you think should be represented here, just let me know and we can add them to the Scholarship tab under Graphica.
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.
The Flesch-Kincaid Scoring System
I was thinking the other day about whether those who write comics and graphic novels for the trade market consider the demographics of their intended audience--not in terms of the appropriateness of the content of what they are writing, but in terms of the language they are using.
Often when teachers want to use a graphic novel that was not specifically designed for the classroom--like Persepolis, Maus, or Watchmen--they are not initially sure whether their students will be able to make sense of it (i.e. whether it's of an appropriate grade level for their students in terms of the issues it address or its use of language). This got me thinking about whether there would be a good resource to talk about in this blog that all teachers and all writers should consider using when respectively teaching and writing.
Fortunately, there is, and the resource is closer than you think!
It's called the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test and it's what every educational publisher knows when putting together any kind of book for the classroom, including leveled comics and graphic novels. What the test amounts to is a pair of equations that can analyze both the readability of a given text and its associated grade level.
Here are the snippets courtesy of the one website I could find with a very readable presentation of the two tests: Wikipedia!
Reading Ease Test
Grade Level Test
What are the implications for teachers and writers? Well, those writing in any genre can check the basic readability of the physical language structures in their prose by using the Proofing tab under Options in Microsoft Word. The hyperlink above takes you to Microsoft's site. The reason very few people use this function, however, is that it is defaulted to "off" in Word. You need to check a box called "Check Readability Statistics" in order to turn it on. Then you'll be able to see something like this: when you spell check a document.
If you write comics or graphic novels, it's a bit more challenging to use the feature. You have to include on a Word page just your dialogue. Otherwise, the reading will be skewed. It's an especially valuable tool for those who want to write for the educational publishing industry, though, since it can ensure that the physical structure of the writer's prose is not way over the heads of the intended audience. In the above example, it is indicating that a student in Grade 11 lshould be able to understand the document on a first reading. Numbers over 12 indicate that a student would generally need to have a postsecondary education to ensure their understanding of the language structures.
For teachers, there are very practical uses for this. Have your students check the grade level of their writing. Are they in Grade 12, but the Flesch-Kincaid readability test is saying that the student is writing at a Grade 4 level? It might be the case that there is a lot of dialogue in the student's text--which tends to generate lower scores--or that the student uses a number of short, monosyllabic sentences. Is your student in Grade 4 and writing at a Grade 12 level. It might be that they are constructing run-on after run-on and aren't sure where to put the period!
Okay, now I've shown you the resource. See if it can work for 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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