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Critical Pictures: Page 2, Comics to the Rescue

Written by Mitch Nobis
April 29, 2013

The old and oft-maligned genre of comics offers us one possible answer and a unique way to include visual literacy without having to wildly alter the classroom curriculum.  Here’s how it worked for me.

My AP Lang class reads Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” as an anchor text in a short synthesis unit about the freedom of speech.  In the past few years, I’ve taught a visual literacy unit focused solely on analyzing print advertisements, but it was a stand-alone unit, disconnected from the curriculum at large.  In an attempt to streamline instruction and help students better see the connections between composing alphabetic and visual texts, I revised the lessons to fit alongside Thoreau.

In short, the unit took one week* and went like this:

Students were asked to…

  1. read and thoroughly annotate Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”
  2. write a rhetorical analysis of the three pages in “Civil Disobedience” when Thoreau describes his night in jail.
  3. read an introduction to visual literacy that covers elements and principles such as lines, shapes, colors, the rule of thirds, and more.  (On this note, Frank Baker’s website has a host of helpful materials.)  Apply the elements and principles by analyzing a print advertisement alongside the introductory reading.
  4. read and discuss an article from Salon about free-speech zones at the Republican and Democratic national conventions during the 2012 presidential campaign.
  5. conduct an analysis of the visual rhetoric of the article’s accompanying photograph that shows numerous police suited in riot gear.
  6. read and discuss an editorial cartoon by Ruben Bolling about free-speech zones and the Founding Fathers.
  7. review the basic terms of comics authoring.
  8. discuss and analyze the visual literacy and comics techniques used by Bolling.
  9. follow Nick Kremer’s Digital Is resource to guide them as they create comics versions of a scene from Thoreau’s jail excerpt.  We also looked at comics by Matt Feazell for good examples of how even stick figure comics use elements and principles of visual design to influence an audience.
  10. write a reflection analyzing their own visual-rhetorical decisions as authors. 

* This process took one week in an AP class, and we were only able to do it that quickly by doing steps one, three, and nine as homework; it would likely take longer in a non-AP class with lower homework requirements.

It is important to note that without the emphasis on visual literacy in this lesson, students would still read and analyze the same pieces on freedom of speech.  The analyses of visual elements and making of and reflecting on the comics are the new components of the lesson, but they really only moved there from the advertising lessons.  Ultimately, not much of this was new to my AP English Language curriculum, only moved to streamline the curriculum, to help students make connections among the lessons, and to invite students to actively use critical visual literacy skills.

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