Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be talking about teaching with comics. The focus this week is on humanities: reading, writing, social studies and history – I’ll tackle art and drawing next week. You can read the first post in this series here.
Perhaps the most obvious use of comics in the classroom is to help students learn to read – and enjoy reading. Comics with popular characters – including superheroes like Spiderman and cartoon characters like the Powerpuff Girls – can entice reluctant or struggling readers and help them develop intrinsic motivation to persevere with reading. But comics can do so much more for reading and writing. Comics combine words and pictures but they aren’t picture books – they are more like movies, minus the “moving” part. In comics, the pictures convey important information – facial expressions tell the reader how a character is feeling, for example, or motion lines can tell the reader whether a door is closed quietly or slammed. This visual language can support reading comprehension for both native speakers and language learners.
There are also plenty of comics – or “graphic novels” – that would be appropriate reading material for older students; many use the medium to deal with difficult subjects (from bullying to war) and could be used to great effect in a history or social studies class. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is perhaps the best known but there are many others: Louis Riel by Chester Brown, Palestine by Joe Sacco (any book by Sacco, really); Charley’s War by Mills and Colquhoun; Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa; Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; and Watchmen by Alan Moore – to name a few.
Less “heavy” (i.e. depressing) but still historical (more or less): Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, Asterix by René Goscinny, The Adventures of Alix (primarily available in French), and the delightfully anachronistic Hark! A Vagrant.
Creating comics can also be used to teach writing, whether it’s simple comic strips or an entire comic book. Students can practice writing coherent three-panel comics (for example) using blank comic templates such as these. Creating an entire comic book could include concept development, scripting, writing, and art. In the process of developing their own comic books, students must think about what story they want to tell and what they must show in order to tell it. What makes a comic book work? I recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for both deconstructing comics as literature and understanding how to create them.
Students could illustrate their comics using clip art or a comic-creation program (such as this) – or you can use comics to teach students about art and drawing. More on that next week!