Monthly Archives: May 2008

Comics and Literacy

I recently read an article in Edutopia about comics and literacy, A New Literary Hero: Comics Make for Colorful Learning by Ed Finkel. It brings up some of the points I’ve been thinking about regarding the use of comics as a tool for literacy. The article also refers to the Comic Book Project, a program out of Columbia University’s Teachers College. I took a quick look at that site several months ago but I’m ready now to look at it more closely. The project’s stated goal is “to help children forge an alternative pathway to literacy by writing, designing, and publishing original comic books.” I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this is in a future post.

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MLTI and Comic Life

In the fall of 2006 the Maine Learning Technology Initiative distributed new iBooks to all 7th and 8th grade teachers and students, replacing the four-year-old devices of the first deployment. These new laptops had some new software. One new title was Comic Life. I had seen it and even played with it a little beforehand but I really started thinking about it when it became available to everyone.

If you haven’t seen it, go to the Plasq site and take a look. It’s a tool that allows you to create comics using images from your photo collection. I knew right away that kids were going to love this but I wanted to have some solid rationale for having kids create comics (other than it’s fun). It turned out that there are lots of good reasons for using Comic Life in school and I’ll talk more about this in future posts.

Because of the sequential nature of comic art it became clear that teachers and students could use comics when explaining processes. Teachers could use it to demonstrate step-by-step directions. Students could use it as an alternative to the written science lab report. I needed an example of this so I turned to my resident artist (my son) and asked him to create a comic in Comic Life that would demonstrate a process and I suggested it would be cool if he used his drawings rather than photos. He agreed and made this little comic about how to make a comic with your own drawings:

Comic Life Tutorial

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

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Why comics?

I did not read comic books when I was a kid.

I learned to read before I started school (my older sister taught me) and I read everything I could my hands on but one thing I couldn’t get my hands on was comics. I guess my mother thought there was something immoral or unhealthy about comic books so we never had them in our house.

I’m a very text-oriented reader. I do read comic strips in newspapers but my eyes immediately go to the text. I’m sure I’m “reading” the images on some level but I truly believe that I get the story from the text. And because I’m good with text, I did really well in school and eventually became a teacher.

As an avid reader and a teacher of reading, I expected that my son would be a reader just like me. After all, I knew how to produce a reader; I read to him every day from the day he was born. Our house was full of books and he loved them. He could retell the stories and his preschool teachers constantly commented on his extensive vocabulary. I’m afraid it turned out to be not that easy. He didn’t start reading independently until the end of third grade and he has always struggled with text. School was a nightmare for him and now, in college, he still finds reading and writing to be very difficult.

It was my son who introduced me to comics. He couldn’t get enough of them when he was little and he knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a comic book artist. I clearly remember the first comic he drew. He was 5 or 6 years old at the time. He folded some paper into a little booklet and on the first page he drew a hand with one finger. He drew the hand again on the second page and gave it two fingers and continued the sequence on the next three pages until the hand had a full complement of fingers. He made a cover and asked me to write the title on it: Growing Fingers. That was the beginning of what I hope will become his career. He’s a student now at Savannah College of Art and Design where he is majoring in Sequential Art.

Needless to say, my little family has been surrounded by comic books and cartoon art for a few years now and, while I appreciate my son’s talent, I never really understood why he was so attracted to this art form. Then, a couple of years ago, he ordered a graphic novel from Amazon as a gift for his girlfriend. The book arrived at our house when he was away at college so I opened the package. It happened to be Free Comic Week and, in celebration, Amazon added a free copy of “Splashin’ Around” an Owly comic to the order. It’s a story told almost completely with images and without words. I was curious so I opened it and started reading. By the third page I was feeling really annoyed. I was struggling. Getting the story from the images was hard work! And then I realized that my son must feel that way when he reads text. If it’s hard work and you can’t do it easily and fluently, before long you give up and stop trying.

This is happening in many of our classrooms too. Kids who struggle with text for one reason or another give up and find excuses not to read. And since so much of our content is delivered through text, they miss out on a lot. Many of those kids might be more fluent in images than in text. They may be more adept at giving and receiving information with pictures than with words. How often do we give them opportunities to do this?

This is what lead me to consider teaching with comics and that’s why I created this blog – as a place to try out new ideas and hear some of yours.

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