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September 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 1

Amazing Comics

"I believe that the image is the great instrument of instruction." So John Dewey said in 1897, well before the advent of trading cards, YouTube, or video games. Dewey would likely approve of the technology-enhanced imagery evident in many classrooms today. Social studies teachers, for instance, use Google Earth to highlight the topography of diverse regions. Math teachers employ appealing physical and digital manipulatives to help students picture abstract concepts.
Interesting images often motivate students who would tune out otherwise. But literacy teachers confront a paradox about visual imagery. Literacy educators want students to become proficient readers and writers of text. As motivating as visuals are for students, they seem to confound this effort. Why would we want students to look at pictures if we aim to inspire skill with words and language? Early in my career as an elementary school teacher in New York City, I found it downright distracting when my students doodled Pokemon characters when they were supposed to be forming compound sentences.
But one day, I told these would-be comic artists something that changed my perceptions of imagery, literacy, and motivation. "If you put words in these characters' mouths," I said, "That will count toward the writing you need to do in class."
As if I'd fired the starting gun to a race, my students were suddenly creating comics. Within a few weeks, many of them who had been disengaged from learning were designing art, writing words, and sequencing stories. Moreover, they were doing so during recess, on the bus, and wherever else they could catch a few minutes.
Thus the Comic Book Project (CBP) was born. Since 2001, more than 150,000 students around the world have plunged into creating original comic books through methods that are used in CBP's after-school clubs but are adaptable to many learning settings. The project's goal is to motivate students, especially in literacy, by guiding them to write, design, and publish comics, mostly in high-poverty schools. Here, I highlight several ways that educators leverage comics to motivate students—and describe ideas for doing so in any content area.

Comics, Voice, and Motivation

If you leaf through an education publisher's catalogue or walk through a library, you'll see the extent to which comics have entered the mainstream. The once-denigrated medium is now a popular reading tool in schools, with Art Spiegelman's Maus and other graphic novels appearing on many school reading lists.
Although many educators realize the power of comics as pathways to reading, few have students create comics. But through creating original writing and artwork about issues in their lives, underserved youths, especially, begin to find their voice and their motivation.
When we engage young people in a personally meaningful opportunity to learn, they will want to learn. Think of it like this: If a school launched a punctuation club, enrollment would be light. However, in the context of a comic book club, suddenly punctuation, spelling, and the nuts and bolts of writing matter. Students are publishing a story with their names on it, so they want it to be correct. I heard one participant say to his slacking teammate, "Come on, man! People are going to see this thing!"

First, Teach the Language

Many educators feel intimidated by comics because they don't know enough about them. Rest easy: you don't need to collect comic books or frequent Comic Cons to help students create comics. All you need is an open mind and the ability to spark a student's creative energy. Many students (especially those who haven't been identified as artistically talented) also feel inadequate to the task of making comics. So it's important to launch a comic-creating club or activity with an emphasis on creative rather than artistic skill. There is a difference. Artistic skill is represented by technique, but creative skill—the ability to do unique, original, independent thinking and engender new ideas—is more important.
A comic book club or unit should embrace every participant as a writer and artist. Activities focused around simple lines and shapes—like the prompt "What can you turn a triangle into?"—get creativity flowing. Here's how one 5th grader turned a triangle into a dropped ice cream cone:

Figure

Anybody could have drawn this image; it's the power of her inventive idea that makes it intriguing.
Innovativeness also comes forth in drawing facial expressions. In our clubs, we often challenged students to draw a high-quality, recognizable facial expression using six or fewer lines. Students must rely on creativity, not drawing talent, to accomplish the task.
Comics marry art and words, so introducing the "language" of comics is an important next step. Words in comics appear in captions or word balloons, letting the writer balance visual imagery and text. Word balloons deliver a character's dialogue directly; captions efficiently narrate a scene without much verbiage. This directness of language is a boon for struggling writers. They can express a lot without needing to produce reams of words and engage with words and language in fun ways.
Teachers can help kids get comfortable with writing in comics style by challenging them to create a two- or four-panel mini-comic book centered on a reading passage or a story theme, such as "You've Landed on a Strange Planet." Students should plan these mini-comics by writing out, in complete sentences, what they want to create in their comic, including a description of the setting, character names, and basic actions. They'll use that plan to determine how the story will flow through the panels.
It's important to foster good ideas at this stage so that students get excited to write as much as possible. The more they write, the better writers they'll become. Reinforce sequencing by encouraging students to use words like first and last. Here's a written plan a 3rd grade student wrote for a mini-comic based on the Strange Planet theme:
I will have my character land a rocket-ship on a unchareted planet. He will make friends with strange animals. Last panel will show him going home because he misss earth.
Obviously, there are mechanical mistakes here. I recommend not worrying about such errors at this point if a student has presented a good plan. Red ink is a poor motivator.

Starting a Longer Work

Drafting

Once students have practiced the elements that make up a comic, they can begin the process of creating a full-length work—but first they must plan. If students just jump in and start drawing comics, most will have no plan for a good story and will abandon the piece before completion. Students should first draft a manuscript in two stages.
The first stage is an overarching plan for the comic. A one-page cover sheet answers basic story plot questions. (Who are your characters? What is the problem the characters face? What is the climax of the story? Is there a twist? What do the characters learn?) Students should sketch their characters so they begin to get a sense for how the visuals will connect with the written text.
This stage is a good opportunity to set a theme for the comics. Themes—like environmental protection, financial literacy, or bullying—help students stay focused. Themes often help kids learn important content. Students can work individually or in strategically chosen pairs or production teams. In Comic Book Project clubs, a writing workshop approach—in which small groups share their characters and story ideas, get feedback, and revise their plans—produces truly intriguing comics.
In the second stage, students plan each of their panels. They should write the captions and/or dialogue and draw a brief sketch for each panel. This part of the planning stage can be challenging for students because it requires creativity, problem solving, and flexibility—good skills to reinforce with all learners.

Drawing

With the manuscript drafted, the real fun starts. You can download comic book templates from the Internet or have students design their own panels. Students should pencil their drawings and writing first, then "ink" over the lines with a thin black marker or pen. Last, they add the color (colored pencils are easy to control and don't bleed through paper). Encourage students to use dynamic images on their covers. Remind them that the cover is the first thing a reader will see, so it should be compelling.

A Gateway to Content

Some educators seem to believe that if students are being creative, rigorous learning cannot possibly transpire. No wonder so many students are disengaged in school. Creativity is the key to reconnecting disengaged learners, and teachers in many disciplines can use comic making to lay a powerful pathway to content knowledge.
In about two class periods, students can plan and create mini-comics on a literary theme or common text. In essence, this is another form of retelling a narrative and helps students internalize and synthesize something they've read. A long comics unit would encompass at least eight sessions, giving students enough time to plan, develop, and create their works, but sessions needn't happen every day. Why not have a weekly comic book "club" every Friday afternoon for eight weeks, to end the week on an engaging note?
"Inertia Man," created by a high school physics student we'll call Jen, highlights the possibilities for deep content learning through a comic book initiative.
Superhero Inertia Man uses the laws of physics to battle the villain Anti-Newton. Reading through the comic, we see Inertia Man employ each of the Newtonian laws of physics in an ongoing battle. The challenges from Anti-Newton increase in difficulty, but Inertia Man—and Jen—understand the laws of physics so well that good prevails.
This comic has all the action and intrigue of any superhero comic, but the story is driven by the science content the creator was learning in school. Creating a comic book helped Jen bring the formulas and facts to life in an original illustrated story. She used her imagination to comprehend challenging content and then synthesized that learning through independent practice. Jen will likely remember not only the creative experience but also the physics facts embedded in the story.

Consider the Payoff

Having students create comics can be time-consuming. No one makes a great comic book in a single sitting or a few classes. Yet consider the payoff: Students are thoroughly engaged in a literacy experience that encompasses many of the Common Core Standards in writing. No worksheet or textbook can match the motivational value of a student-centered literacy project.
Motivation expands further when we add publishing and exhibiting. Have students share their comics with as wide an audience as possible. You can print a publication of your students' comics, but that gets pricey. Alternatively, publish student works online for free at sites like comiXology. In the library or any common space, sponsor a comics convention featuring students' comics—known in the comics world as a Comic Con. This could be a great way to invite parents and community members to school.
Creativity is important to human development and a powerful tool for instruction and content acquisition. Activities like creating a comic book simultaneously reinforce core content while enabling youths to explore their inner voices and ideas. In the Comic Book Project, we've found this to be true of all learners, no matter their background or experience.
Educators nurture motivation when they use a flexible, meaningful approach guided by student interests and creativity. This is what learning is meant to be. I'm reminded of this with each amazing comic a student creates.
End Notes

1 The CBP curriculum recommends 15 sessions, although students can certainly do some inspiring comics activity in less time.

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