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?
Students create a storyboard or visual narrative that does not contain text. The exercise has wide application, whether in having students block a scene from a work of drama, visually relate the progress of a character’s story from a work of fiction, or visually represent the story of a particular historical moment. The exercise is similar to Activity 3: Visual Note-Taking, but the student is not permitted to use words in order to communicate his or her ideas.
Critical Thinking, Navigation Skills, Making Connections
By the end of the activity, students should perceive the challenges of communicating without words, translating the written or verbal into the visual, and developing a narrative that is comprehensible to their audience when said narrative must be interpreted in the absence of explanation. The aim of the exercise is to develop the student’s communication skills and transliteracy: the ability to demonstrate literacy across a range of platforms or mediums of expression by making meaningful connections between them.
Critical Thinking Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in this Activity?
As in the previous activity, students will have a dizzying range of questions that they will have to ask themselves at the outset of the activity: “How do I represent this scene from a play or short story without needing pages and pages of illustration?” or “How can I best capture the most important features of a historical battle in a way that a person examining it can understand?” My inspiration for this activity comes from Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress,” which Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics cites, along with hieroglyphics, cave art, etc. as a forerunner to the comics of today. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that little or no text (other than the naming of the individual paintings), the audience has little difficulty perceiving what is happening to the rake. As our global village shrinks and our students are immersed even further into a principally visual culture, being able to communicate with the visual takes on an increasing importance.
Students use a combination of words and images in order to create a visual narrative of a process, sequence, set of instructions, or procedure related to their study within a specific discipline. The instructor can have them create this to show the steps they have taken in a lab, to organize how they will prepare for a set of exams, to reflect on a strategy used in a particular sport or physical activity, or even to explore how they might handle and unfamiliar task.
Self Awareness, Critical Thinking, Navigation Skills
By the end of the activity, students should recognize the extent to which using a combination of words and images can help them to think in non-linear ways about a given task. There is much to be said when it comes to note-taking of breaking things down into a series of written steps, bullet points, or explanations, but going from the intricate web of ideas in a student’s head to the linear is not always easy. The visual note-taking, process description or instruction writing allows them not just to think outside the box, but to put the box aside and just to think.
Critical Thinking Questions
Navigation Skills Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in This Activity?
This activity is thinking and inquiry in their purest form—allowing the student to make sense of something without being restricted by the linearity of formal sentence mechanics. If a picture tells a thousand words, and there are a thousand words in the student’s head, do I really want to have them write them all down? The inspiration for the activity comes from the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 m long woven fabric showing the Battle of Hastings and both what led up to it and what followed. This remarkable medieval comic doesn’t just give us insight into 11th century Anglo-Norman relations, but what the weavers perceived worthy of inclusion, and what they felt they needed to explain or refrain from explaining.
We Salute You!
Comics in Education wanted to take a moment to thank once again for all of the wonderful visitors to our website. We've now officially reached 10,000 of you and more are visiting the site every day. Our mission is to nurture and develop a love of visual narrative in the K-12 classroom, and we're delighted that so many of you out there are as well.
In truth, we expected you would be, but you're doing such wonderful things!
In addition to the "Our Supporters" tab we now have one for "Corporate Support." If you are a business or organization whose goals align with ours, we'd be happy to feature your icon, company description, and a link to your business. You can find both of these pages under the "About" tab on our website or just click the links above. This service is free of charge and lets the wider comics and education communities know of your support.
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Comics in Education
Students create a visual representation of an historical figure, famous scientist or thinker, literary character or individual related to the discipline they are studying and use symbolic elements in order to convey something about that character’s personality, mindset, nature, or temperament. Once they have done this, they write a reflection that explains how these symbolic elements help us to better understand the character in question.
Critical Thinking, Metacognition, Making Connections
By the end of the activity, students should understand something about how symbolic language can help us understand the visual representation of a character or individual, how symbolic language is similar to and different from orthographic language, and how words and images can have a genuinely emotive power in a given context.
Critical Thinking Questions
How Visual Narrative Can Foster Inquiry in This Activity
Some critics have argued that graphic novels derive their power from a rather unique quality—their lack of photographic realism. When looking at a photograph, for instance, we are acutely aware that we are only looking at a photograph. We are not witnessing the events taking place or the people affected by them in real time, because the photograph tells us that these things have already happened. In a graphic novel or story, however, things are not so clear. We are more likely to accept that when we see little Marji in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, we are actually looking at a “real person.” The cartoonish nature of the representation has the opposite effect we think it might. Because it’s obviously a cartoon, our minds don’t wrestle with the question of whether it’s the actual character or only his or her representation. So, we don’t tell ourselves that this line drawing isn’t really Marjane Satrapi. We just accept that it is.
The activities that follow will be permanently housed on our site. Feel free to use, reuse, and distribute, tailoring specifically for your own curriculum, grade level, or program!
Students create a piece of visual art that shows a day in their life in the manner of a cave drawing. It is up to the individual student to determine how much or how little they represent, how much of their canvas they apportion to a particular moment or event, and how they use colour, shape, and form to represent their activities or experiences. Once they have completed the piece of visual art, students then produce a written reflection in which they try to explain not simply what they have represented, but the process by which they came to represent it.
Self Awareness, Critical Thinking, Metacognition
By the end of the activity, students should come to understand something about how they have represented themselves and their activities and experiences, how they have chosen to budget their visual space to this end, how they have gone about deciding what to include and what not to include, and what their piece of visual art does and does not say about them.
Critical Thinking Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in This Activity?
Because students are creating a product that is ostensibly about them, that they generally care about, and that they are given a fair bit of freedom to put together, they tend to do a good job reflecting on what they have produced. However, the real power of the activity for me derives from what I learned this year from a student who was giving a presentation after engaging in a very similar activity. When asked to what extent the final amalgamation of images represented him, the student replied that he didn’t think it much represented him at all.
“However,” he said, “if people could have seen the process I went through deciding what to include and what not to include—how I put everything together—they would have learned everything about me.”
Visual narrative and visual storytelling show us so much about what a writer and illustrator are thinking, feeling, seeing, and trying to articulate—what they value as a story and what they want us to see and experience.
Next month, I'll have the good fortune of presenting at the annual CITE conference at Upper Canada College in Toronto. CITE is an acronym for the Conference of Independent Teachers of English, an organization made up of teaching professionals from independent schools in Ontario. The workshop I'm presenting has the same title as this blog post, and here's the description I've provided to organizers:
This workshop explores how, in recent years, visual narrative has become an important literary genre for teaching us about the world. Indeed, comics has seen an explosion in personal narratives in which graphic novelists have traveled to far and distant places and then written about their experiences. These writers have a great deal to teach us, and to teach our students, about how we see the world, how others see it, and how our collective perceptions are informed by travel. The workshop identifies ten of the very best graphic memoirs from the past two decades and talks about how we can use these in the classroom to foster curiosity, engagement, and global inquisitiveness.
I have a range of graphic novels I'm planning to share with conference participants--Pyongyang and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle, Beirut 1990 by Sylvain and Bruno Ricard, and the works of Joe Sacco--but I was interested in what visitors to Comics in Education, if given the opportunity to present such a workshop, would choose to discuss. Is there are great work of graphic travel writing that you feel teaches us "about how we see the world, how others see it, and how our collective perceptions are informed by travel?" If so, I'd love to hear from you! When it comes to comics in education, these sorts of discussions are invaluable.
Looking forward to hearing from you at www.comicsineducation.com!
And some solutions too!
Teachers who are looking to integrate comics and graphic novels into their regular classroom practice routinely face the issue of having colleagues who are very reluctant to do likewise. This is not surprising in and of itself, but you might not know what is actually behind the reluctance. Having talked to many educators on this very subject over the years, three facts stand out about these attitudes of resistance. Although we might think that most teachers who are reluctant to use visual narrative in the classroom simply believe that comics and graphic novels are unworthy of treatment, this only seems to be about the fourth or fifth most common response.
Here are the top three:
Number 3 Challenge
"I don't know what an appropriate graphic novel for a junior or middle school classroom might be"
This is a pretty common admission. Teachers will often tell me that they're unsure of how to go about finding a good, readable, pedagogically-suitable, age and content- appropriate graphic novel for their students.
"It takes reading, research, and collaboration with those who have used visual narrative in their classrooms."
This is the best, and indeed the only, solution.
Number 2 Challenge
"How can I convince parents that comics and graphic novels are the best thing for their academic child?
I get this one a lot as well. Many teachers don't have a problem with the genre, but can't necessarily articulate to a parent its inherent value over traditional genres.
"A 21st-century learner must be able to have an understanding of and a facility with a wide range of reading materials. These include visual narrative."
This is difficult to argue with and parents seldom do.
Number 1 Challenge
"I didn't grow up reading graphic novels and don't really understand them."
This is the most common admission teachers make to me and it usually comes near the end of the conversation. Some don't really understand how to teach the genre.
"Just admit to students that it's a form you are learning with them and that you'll need to help one another in making meaning from the works you are reading."
Work alongside your students and grow with them.
Whether articulating a scientific process, the plot of a novel, or an important moment in history, a plot map, especially one that is able to include the visual, can be an invaluable tool in the hands of a 21st-century learner.
Stay tuned for more presentations designed specifically for today's students.
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.
Word Origins Can Be Graphic
If that is indeed the case, and I'm fairly confident it is, it's foolish not to capitalize on the inherent usefulness of the visual. So, the next time you're studying word etymologies with your students, consider having them create visual etymologies. This is great as both a collaborative activity or as an individual one. Do it, and you might just give your lesson a bit of swag.
Sometimes Note-Taking Isn't Just about What You Write...
In a previous post I shared with you a student's Sir Ken Robinson / RSAnimate-inspired visual note-taking exercise comparing the spectre of death in A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. Here's what my student, Lucila, did with the theme of marriage...
The minimalist nature of the notes themselves are part of the beauty and importance of this example. Note for instance how cleverly Lucila has shown Blanche literally drowning in a glass of whiskey, and then look more closely still to see what the whiskey is composed of.
The text looks at Blanche's desire to escape the past, but it's run together and becomes very difficult to interpret--as though it is visually expressing slurred speech, a hazy memory, and a desire to forget. Blanche is colourful and so are the letters. Blanche tries to make sense of the past and fails just as the letters do.
No doubt the student could have managed to articulate these things if asked to engage in a more traditional brainstorming exercise, but I doubt that it could have captured so forcefully, so expertly, so profoundly something that is at the heart of Williams' play.
We could look at the visual note-taking that the student has done and at first glance we might think she has expressed very little.
But how very wrong we would be!
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
But the animation is just so entirely engaging in this video -- it provides so much to both the visual and auditory learner alike -- that it speaks volumes to teachers about our need to give students opportunities to put their thoughts down on paper in a way that makes sense to them. We can get them to organize their ideas to form a coherent comparative essay later, but for now it is so much better to allow them to express their understanding in a way that looks more like the thoughts themselves and less like some linear model that does not mimic how they think. This is the beauty, I think, of something like RSAnimate. It shows us a kind of visual note-taking that is rich, powerful, and inspiring--exactly what we want our lessons to be.
I won't repeat my previous post by sharing Catherine's work with you, but I will show you my own. Inspired by the RSAnimate version of Sir Ken's talk many moons ago, I decided that my lesson plans needed to have something of the visual in them. So, I started creating lessons that would use a hybrid of comic book narration bubbles, a flow chart, and visual imagery. Throw in some colour and a pinch of Photoshop and you have an array of visual lesson plans that students will respond to.
Every year at least one student asks me why I do this. Is it that I'm just such a comics fanatic that I have to do visual lesson plans in this way? Do I have hours of time to spend on these aesthetic touches?
"No," I tell them. "I do this because learning is beautiful."
...it takes a school to nurture in them an appreciation for visual narrative.
Some K-12 educators that I meet on the conference circuit express concern about the lack of support they receive from their fellow colleagues, department heads, or school administrators when it comes to using comics and graphic novels in the classroom. This always dismays me a little bit because I know how important it is to have colleagues and administrators who are encouraging and even enthusiastic about what you're trying to do.
Before you start teaching visual narrative in the classroom then, it's important to have discussions with all the stakeholders at your school about how the institution does or does not celebrate the visual. I've walked into lots of high schools where the hallways are devoid of student creativity and expression, but I almost never walk into a kindergarten classroom without being blown away by how much wonderful, crazy stuff is on the walls.
You'll notice that there's no shortage of the visual in the images that follow. I teach at a school that celebrates student creativity in a way that never fails to impress a comics person like myself. Here are some images that I shared at a recent conference, where I talked about the importance of making visual storytelling and artistic expression a living, breathing part of school culture.
You see, it takes a school...
This is what you need to have at your school in order to create the lasting conditions for a successful appreciation, understanding, and love for the visual! It hardly makes sense to talk to your students about the importance of studying comics and graphic novels, and then have them walk out into a hallway in which there is nothing to look at.
I'd love to know what you think about this, and please don't forget to take a moment and answer our poll question!
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!
There are so many great videos out there just waiting for you to share them with your students. The trick, sometimes, is finding them. While I enjoy sifting through countless videos on YouTube that are student reenactments of great works of literature, I would prefer to know what's out there in advance. What follows in the coming blog posts is a collection of great YouTube videos that are either animated or focus on visual narrative in some way. They can really help you make successful curriculum connections with your students and help foster engagement. We'll start with the one below by Lynn Tomlinson.
So begins Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --," a chilling poem that focuses on one of her favourite themes: Death. Even more chilling, perhaps, is this 1989 adaptation of the poem by Lynn Tomlinson. Here, the incessant buzzing and shifting, animated canvas seem spot on with Dickinson's own sensibilities.
When I teach this poem to my IB English students, I find Tomlinson's video to be eminently helpful. Above and beyond generating great discussions about the mood that it establishes, the video also shows students that the poem really works best when it's subject to a very matter-of-fact reading. So much of Dickinson's poetry is like this in fact. I really love the way the poem is delivered, especially when the fly appears on the scene. It takes students no time at all to realize that the windows failing are the speaker's eyes, and then they soon discover that nearly every time Dickinson makes reference to windows, our ocular faculties are in play. Soon after, they make the connection between "Eye" and "I" that pervades so much of Dickinson's writing.
Some educators would argue that the video serves to interpret the poem for students--that they have less of an opportunity to think or to imagine by virtue of watching it. This, however, is a red herring, because young learners profit far more from listening to a solid reading of the poem first and seeing it in some sort of context. We don't go to a performance of Hamlet and come away complaining that the director ruined Shakespeare's text by interpreting it (unless, I suppose, the interpretation is dreadful). We don't fret about the sanctity of a screenplay for a film when we go and see the film at the theatre.
As educators, we need to get away from handing out the poem to students, asking Sally to read it (because Sally likes reading out loud) and then asking the class what the poem means. That stopped being cool last century.
Note that this post and others in the "Visual Narrative and YouTube" series will become permanent fixtures of the website under the "Classroom" and "Curriculum Connections" tabs.
If our recent awesomeness on the larger ice surface in Sochi showed the world anything, it's that Canada continues to produce some of the finest hockey players on the planet. I was in between sessions at the Reading for the Love of It conference in February, where I was presenting on comics in education, when I decided to do the patriotic thing and watch our women's hockey team go down to what appeared to be inevitable defeat in the finals at the hands of the Americans. There were only about five minutes to go in the game. Not long after, about 300 of us were absolutely losing it in the foyer of the Sheraton Conference Centre.
While Canada continues to produce great hockey players, however, you might be surprised to discover that we also apparently produce some of the finest comic book stores in the world. I'm not just talking about good stores but great ones. If this is the case, then, why aren't we taking our students to them?
When we teach Shakespeare we'll sometimes take our kids to a play. When we study poetry with them, we might invite a local poet to do a reading. However, if we're teaching a graphic novel, how many of us are doing a field trip to the local comic book store?. I mean...why shouldn't we?
Here are three of the best in Canada:
THE BEGUILING, Toronto, ON
When I first took my three boys to The Beguiling, I did so with the promise to them that they could buy any book they wished. However, I found myself having better luck than they did as I lost myself in the tightly packed aisles filled with graphic novels and autographed Chester Brown titles (he's rather fond of the place, as it turns out). However, my kids are pretty traditional Marvel and DC junkies and I was having trouble finding these until someone behind the counter kindly directed us upstairs.
"Oh sorry," I said to the guy. "I didn't realize you had an upstairs." But sure enough they did, and so I rather sheepishly made my way up to the second floor with my kids. When I got to the top, I stopped.
"Dear God," I thought to myself, "they have everything."
I think the mark of a great comic book store is that it's packed, with narrow aisles that make it like an awkward social mixer for nerds like me. It should feel claustrophobic, and you should be sitting there in a corner with your Hulk-obsessed twelve year old 45 minutes after arriving trying to figure out which of the twenty Hulk comics he should buy because they're all, of course, awesome.
And that's exactly what The Beguiling is. It's awesome.
STRANGE ADVENTURES, Halifax, NS (and elsewhere)
A colleague of mine recently told me that she was moving back to Halifax. Most people in this situation would instinctively know the right thing to say. Not me.
"Oh my God," I said, "You're moving to Halifax? They have like one of the best comic book stores in the world! I'm so freakin' jealous!"
Strange Adventures is now a small franchise, with shops in Halifax, Fredericton and Dartmouth, but like with The Beguiling, negotiating the narrow aisles in the Halifax shop a few years back was an absolute joy. You went down into what seemed like a small bunker and then were just overwhelmed with an awesome array of titles. When it comes to Strange Adventures, it's hard to do much better. You want a comic book? It's there. You want a book about comic books? It's there. You want a weird board game? It's there. And when you're in the store, you can't possibly deal with nicer people.
You also can't help but feel that as comic shops go, this one is pretty amazing.
THE DRAGON, Guelph, ON
And then, of course, there's The Dragon. I ran into the owner, Jenn Haines, when she gave a session at the 2013 For the Love of Literacy Conference in Burlington, ON. The Dragon advertises itself as a women and kid-friendly comic book store that sells graphic novels, board games, self-published comics, manga and a whole host of other things. Oh, the other thing you should know is that in 2012 it won the Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award.
Yeah, it won that one.
Haines has worked as an educator (at the Linden School in Toronto) and the store just looks and feels the way an awesome bookstore should look and feel.
So, if you're in the neighborhood and want to check these stores out, click the link below and you can find them.
If you're not in the neighborhood, or if the stores I've just described are at least a plane flight away, let me be the first to say how very sorry I am.
Still, if you love comics and want to inspire your students to love them to, take them to a comic book store today!
(c) 2014, Catherine Paap, published with the artist's permission at www.comicsineducation.com.
The next time you're having a disagreement with someone about the importance of visual narrative in the classroom, just send them to this post. What you're looking at here is a wonderful example of how visual note-taking--the kind of note-taking inspired by visual narrative--can have a tremendous impact in the classroom. In a recent IB English class at The York School in Toronto, I had my students engage in a visual note-taking exercise. Usually, when we're writing, it makes sense to be fairly linear. Essays tend to be linear, articles tend to be linear, and any kind of formal writing that doesn't involve someone like Borges, Calvino, or Cortazar is going to be pretty linear.
Our minds, however, are not linear.
Visual note-taking allows us to put down on the page our thoughts and ideas in a way that isn't linear. It therefore serves as a bridge between how we think and what we want to say. Those of you out there who burn the midnight oil making comics probably already know this. When you were in school, your teachers probably asked you to stop doodling on more than one occasion.
But doodling is crucial.
In the above piece, my student, Catherine, is using visual note-taking in order to draw connections between Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Some students went with flowchart structures, others chose mind maps, but most of the students, regardless of artistic skill, opted for the visual and the symbolic. Catherine's artistic skills are exceptional, but more importantly, they allowed her to express her exceptional thinking skills.
And that just totally rocks.
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!