Writing With Pictures: Creating Comics in the Classroom
Introduction: Language Arts is, at its core, about teaching students to effectively express themselves and to accurately interpret the communication of others, so I’ve always thought that divisions between English and Art were arbitrary and counterintuitive. Both use the same tools – connotation/denotation, critical thinking, inferences from context clues, cultural influences, creative elements of “craft”, etc. – they just seem to speaking different dialects. English primarily concerns itself with written and oral language, and Art primarily with visual language (if you don’t consider visual iconography a language, no further remedy is necessary than “reading” Shaun Tan’s The Arrival…but more on that to come!). As a beginning teacher, I thought there was no better way to cross the bridge between these two disciplines with my students than through the medium of the graphic novel, a literary form whose merit has long been unduly denied. As a fairly avid reader of comic books growing up, the medium has always had a place near and dear to my heart, so I was always a bit surprised to encounter the disdain and contempt held by academia for what was perceived to be an inferior form of literature. Many dismissed the medium as un-intellectual and thus unworthy of further thought, and of those who did take the time to consider comics, it was typically with a breath of mild contempt for “short changing” students of genuine literacy experiences. I felt at the time that this couldn’t be true; many of my geeky collegiate friends had also been (and still were) comic book readers, and they turned out just fine. Furthermore, didn’t almost all of us start out with picture books as a point of entry into the wonderful world of literacy? Thankfully, I entered education at a time when research was finally starting to catch up with my claims. Work within the last decade by Michael Bitz, Dr. James Bucky Carter, and Dr. Katie Monnin, among others, has started to document the many benefits of using comics in the classroom, and they are wide-ranging. Expectedly, many struggling readers find graphic novels to be more engaging than their non-illustrative counterparts and more in-tune with the various other types of visual media kids are currently consuming in our culture (television, film, video games, etc.). Equally expectedly, as these students become active readers of graphic novels, their literacy skills improve: they learn to visualize texts internally as they read, appreciate literary techniques, acquire vocabulary, reinforce traditional grammar and spelling, and foster an overall love of reading. Comics are more than a remediation tool, however. As critics take the time to sit down with a copy of the best this medium has to offer – Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir, Maus, Alan Moore’s deconstructive and dystopian Watchmen, the aforementioned archetypal immigrant story, The Arrival, to name a few – instead of blindly attacking the worst available (titles which are often meant to be primarily commercial entertainment; you don’t see efforts to ban the novel as a literary form from just because of the existence of a plethora of Judith McNaught romance paperbacks), they will realize that comics have a lot to offer. They force readers to critically analyze both what they see and “hear,” to draw inferences about what occurs between panels, to experience symbols and metaphors and juxtaposition and a litany of other literary elements in extremely overt forms, and to navigate transmediated forms of composition. There are benefits and drawbacks to any literary form; the writer should have a full palette at his disposal for conveying his message. So with that in mind, early in my teaching career I decided to bring comics into my classroom by adopting the same tried-and-true method I had for getting students to appreciate any literary form we studied: to transform them into poets or playwrights, or in this case, graphic novelists, with creative license and aesthetic ownership of their own authentic content. The following lesson is the same framework by which I exposed my students to what makes a comic book “tick”, and will hopefully leave you with a greater appreciation and understanding of the complexity of the medium. Grab a paper and pencil - and enjoy!