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

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