Friday, October 30, 2009

Comics in the Classroom


The potency of the picture story is not a matter of modern theory but of anciently established truth. Before man thought in words, he felt in pictures... It's too bad for us "literary" enthusiasts, but it's the truth nevertheless, pictures tell any story more effectively than words.

- William Marston

There's a scene from the movie Ice Age that I've always enjoyed. The misfit gang of mammals crossing the arctic landscape in search of greener pastures find themselves in a mysterious, magnificent cave. Adorning the walls of the cave are human pictograms depicting the life- struggle of the humans inhabiting this ancient world. The mammals start "reading" the sequence of pictures and magically the images come to life on the wall and enact the story. The story is a revelation for both the characters and the audience and a new perspective on the plight of these characters is achieved, all without uttering a single line of dialogue.

Reading a comic is exactly like reading cave paintings; the sequence of images, how they are placed next to one another, alters our understanding of each individual image. For students, understanding how one image impacts another, is precisely the same practice as reading a literary text where one word can drastically alter the word that either follows or precedes it. "Reading" is not an act of following a sequence of words, but rather it is an act of following a sequence of symbols, and the stories being told breathe life into the subject. Comics should be used not only as an option to engage visual learners, but as worthy and legitimate texts to be explored. Comics create visual connections with words and readers begin to see vocabulary and sentence structure for the art that it is.

The strength of comics as pedagogical tool goes beyond their ability to engage the visual learner; comics activate the basic human impulse of storytelling. I once heard Thomas King, Canadian literary giant, say that "stories are all we have. They are everything we are." Telling the story of the discovery of the atom, or Einstein's perspective on his work being used for warfare, adds the emotional resonance to a topic that could very well be reduced to a technical drawing. Telling these stories, depicting them both in image and text, connects the reader emotionally to both the topic and the person, or people, who brought it to life.

Take Mr. Yang's introduction to factoring as an example:

And just as we ask students to read comics, we should also encourage them to create comics to express their knowledge. There are a number of excellent resources available to help teachers implement comics in their curriculum. Comic Life is a web-based software that enables the user to use digital pictures as graphics in their comic. They also provide tutorials for educators on how to use the program to its full educational potential. Click the logo below to visit the Comic Life website. and CLICK HERE for a guided tutorial.

Bitstrips is another web-based software that allows the user to build their own characters and insert them into panels to create a story. Users can build stories and entire books and share them with other users. The software is very easy to use and there are a number of pre-created characters, backdrops, and props to help build interesting, rich and humourous scenes. Click the logo below to visit the Bitstrips website, and CLICK HERE to read a Globe and Mail photo-story of students using Bitstrips in a Toronto school. For an interview with the creators of Bitstrips CLICK HERE.

Gene Yang, high school teacher and cartoonist, researched the strength of comics in education while completing a Masters of Education degree. Click the image below to read his research and thoughts on comics and education.

As an occassional teacher, I always keep a few comics handy in case of emergency. Some are about grammar or science, others are funny or insightful strips that I've collected along the way, but all are educational and have helped me engage students in thoughtful dialogue. And you would be surprised at the number of conversations students have prompted with me when I'm walking through the halls with a comic tucked under my arm.

Click here to read more about comics in the classroom

Click here for a list of suggested comics for the classroom

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Recommended Viewing: CBC documentary

Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips: IT'S A TEEN'S WORLD

Last week CBC aired this important and revealing portrait of the social and sexual lives of high school students in the wired age. In this documentary, Toronto high school teenagers explore complex issues that both weave and tear the fabric of their social lives. How has media transformed the image of the responsible teenager? Is the objectification of women in hip hop responsible for male students abusing their female counterparts? Can our moral standards catch up to the speed of technology's progression? Are cell phones a distraction from reality and instruments of gossip or tools of independence and empowerment for youth?

What is particularly effective about this documentary is that most of the commentary, the criticism of social issues among teenagers, is provided by teenagers themselves. They are perceiving the same problems we as educators, responsible adults and role models for youth, perceive as disturbingly normalized behaviour. This is crucial viewing for anyone looking to better understand the impact that technology and media are having on today's youth, and for those who find the consciousness of today's youth a mysterious Pandora's Box of questions. This is a portrait of their wired world, still full of humanity, reflection, and empathy.

Cleverly, this documentary subverts the damaging effects of technology's progression by empowering its filmmakers with video cameras, computers, and editing software. Teachers everywhere are being implored to incorporate technology in the classroom and this film is a shining example of why they should do so.

Many of the issues explored in Wired for Sex parallel ideas discussed in Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity. Tough Guise creator Jackson Katz argues that most of the problems plaguing the social dynamic of western culture can be traced to the narrow image of masculinity presented to boys and young men. If you enjoy the CBC documentary, I suggest you watch Katz's film, I'm sure you'll find the parallels compelling.



Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ottawa Secondary School Start Times

On more than one occasion I've woken up to my alarm knowing I had to work at a school somewhere but not sure exactly when they start. Unfortunately it's not the easiest information to find on the school websites and it can lead to some anxious, rushed mornings.

Problem solved. Here is a list of all the Ottawa area public secondary school start times (click on image to enlarge). Thanks, Derek.