While Americans tend to view comics as “fodder for children,” people in Europe and Japan have a more positive view of the medium, explains John Lowe, who is chair of the Sequential Art Department at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Lowe thinks comics deserve more credit, especially since they launched his interest in literature.
“I started reading comics, and then I got into other types of fiction and literature. I stopped reading comics a little later, but I don’t think I would have made the leap [to literature] if it weren’t for comics.” In his case, Lowe says, he literally went from reading “Batman to Faulkner.”
Now he works with students who are interested in cartoons, graphic novels, and manga—Japanese comics and graphic novels—which Lowe notes are especially popular among female students. He has seen a steady increase of interest in the school’s sequential art offering since the program started to take shape in the early nineties.
Storytelling is the program’s primary focus because this skill prepares students to work in any genre, Lowe explains. He adds that the demands are tough and require “a high level of concentration and skill—such as writing, drawing, inking, and having computer coloring skills.”
Other educators also see the educational potential of comics and graphic novels. They can help with building complex reading skills, according to Shelley Hong Xu, associate professor in the department of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach. She says that graphic novels and comics should have a classroom role similar to children’s literature.
Comics and graphic novels can be used as a “point of reference” to bridge what students already know with what they have yet to learn, Xu says. For example, comics and graphic novels can teach about making inferences, since readers must rely on pictures and just a small amount of text. By helping students transfer this skill, she says, teachers can lessen the challenge of a new book.
Xu uses comics and graphic novels in her reading methods course. She asks preservice teachers to read an unfamiliar comic or graphic novel and then record the strategies they used to comprehend the text. “I think that every preservice and inservice teacher needs to experience this activity in order to better understand literacy knowledge and skills that students use with reading comics and graphic novels.”
Xu cautions teachers to do some research before rushing to include comics and graphic novels in their teaching plans. This includes finding out about students’ experiences with comics and graphic novels and studying the genre in general. She also urges teachers to respect students’ enjoyment of comics and graphic novels and to view them not as “instructional materials” but as “tools for bridging” in- and out-of-school literacy experiences.
Xu further recommends that teachers talk with school administrators and parents about how using comics and graphic novels—or any texts from popular culture—can “address curriculum standards, motivate students to learn, enhance students’ learning, and provide additional opportunities for those who struggle with literacy tasks.”
Focus on Graphic Novels
Cat Turner, a secondary English specialist and teacher at Henry Wise Wood High School in Calgary, Alberta, recommends that teachers who want to know more about graphic novels read Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art.
Turner has worked with Liz Spittal, a differentiated learning and teaching specialist for the Calgary Board of Education, to determine “what makes [graphic novels] different from comics, picture books, and novels with supplementary visuals.”
They found that like novels, graphic novels have a beginning, middle, and end as well as a main character that develops through conflicts and the story’s climax. “The most significant difference from a comic is that the graphic novel’s text is both written and visual,” Turner explains. “Every part of each frame plays a role in the interpretation of the text, and hence, graphic novels actually demand sophisticated readers.”
Turner adds, “Manga are very popular with our students, so much so that many students are actually learning Japanese so that they can read the newest manga straight off the press, instead of waiting for translations.”
Turner and Spittal asked students to create guidebooks to help teachers understand graphic novels. They piloted the assignment in a twelfth-grade classroom and with eleventh-grade International Baccalaureate students, feeling it would “be a disservice to the genre to designate it for only the low-achieving students.”
Turner and Spittal selected a range of fiction and nonfiction graphic novels and didn’t include any superhero texts because they “wanted the students to treat the genre seriously.” They reviewed the texts for appropriateness and weeded out some that they felt “were a little too risqué.” Then they let students follow their own interests in choosing a novel.
The results were fantastic, says Turner, who is a member of the English Language Arts Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “Not only did the students become the experts, but they also demonstrated their awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into each of these texts through the creation of the guides.”
Turner and Spittal noted the genre’s growing popularity when they went to check out graphic novels from the Calgary library and found there were over 350 titles in a collection that continues to grow.
Comics Art Group Expanding Resources
Interest in comics and graphic novels as well as questions about how to use them in the classroom have encouraged the National Association of Comics Art Educators (http://www.teachingcomics.org) to gear up for a new initiative to help K–12 teachers and librarians understand and use the texts.
Ben Towle helped to found the group that started a few years ago “to further the cause of teaching the art form” in colleges and “to serve as a depot for exchanging ideas, lessons, tips, and experiences.”
Towle believes that the concept of using comics and graphic novels in the classroom is at the stage that the discipline of film studies was in the 1950s and 60s: “It was becoming a movement.” He feels the medium itself is going through a renaissance, with academic interest being one reflection of this.
Teaching Punctuation, Paragraphing, and Outlining
Using comics and graphic novels in the classroom is about harnessing students’ natural interests, explains Rachael Sawyer Perkins, a teacher at Dolores Street Elementary School in Carson, California. She also believes that it’s a way to teach important reading and writing skills.
“For students who lack the ability to visualize as they read, it provides a graphic sense that approximates what good readers do as they read. Moreover, it provides an excellent way for reluctant writers to communicate a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. I think comics and graphic novels are an excellent vehicle for teaching writing, as a story has to be pared down to its most basic elements. It is easy for the students to look at a short comic strip and identify story elements.”
Perkins uses comics to teach punctuation for dialogue, and sees them as “an extremely visual way of getting across the concept of using quotation marks around narrative text spoken by individuals. The students knew that each time they saw a dialogue balloon it meant the text inside was spoken and needed to be placed in quotation marks.”
Perkins also finds that cartoons are an effective way to teach outlining skills. “Using a comic, the students were able to understand that each panel represented a paragraph. The narrative text at the top became the topic sentence of sorts, communicating the main idea of the paragraph. The details were found in the visuals and in the dialogue.”
Learning Literary Terms
Sharon F. Webster, English department chairperson and literacy coach at Narragansett High School in Narragansett, Rhode Island, believes that comics can engage students in the pre-reading stage and can serve as a connection through the reading and assessment stages.
Webster says that when she uses comics and music to teach the concept of transcendentalism, students gain a better understanding of the concept. “The quality of their understanding came through in the connections they then made to the work of Emerson and Thoreau.” (Find her lesson, “Examining Transcendentalism through Popular Culture,” on the ReadWriteThink Web site at http://www.readwritethink.org.)
She also uses comics to teach literary terms. “Many of today’s comics rely heavily on allusion, satire, irony, and parody to make a point. Students discover they might actually need to know such terms for reasons other than analyzing a Dickinson poem. Making this connection has strengthened their understanding of terms.”
However, Webster believes people often miss the sophistication of comics. “Lurking beneath the literal meaning of strips like ‘Shoe,’ ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ and even ‘Zits’ is the chance to capture the curiosity of a student who might never have otherwise given a term like existentialism a glance. We need to take advantage of every learning opportunity to engage our students in a way that acknowledges the visual world in which they live.”