A Public Service Announcement! ;)

A Public Service Announcement! ;)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Publishers Weekly Article on Comics in the Classroom

Here's a neat article on how graphic novels and comics are making their way into the classroom. Publishers Weekly necessarily has to focus on market issues and buying/use trends, so I won't be too harsh on the angle taken in the article, but it does represent more evidence of a trend I'm seeing: graphic novels are being marketed more to schools, with issues of quality of the material not necessarily at the top of publishers' priorities.

An argument is made that much of the existing material on teaching graphic novels doesn't really speak to the realities of teachers (the sales numbers for my own book might suggest otherwise), but here's the interesting thing about those who market without putting students' needs first: the market data will inherently be based on the flawed realities of education. Education scholars and many dedicated teachers are actually trying to change the realities of education in America, to move them towards more equitable, justice-oriented contingencies.

Sure, studying the market may yield company profits and maybe even make many teachers happy, but as anyone who studies curriculum in this country knows, too many leaders and teachers are happy to let someone do their "grunt work" for them, and to accept products and product lines and pre-packaged market-driven curricula, but my fear is that graphic novels are going to start being used to further reify the status quo rather than to build real critical literacy.

To that end, I'd like to share some of my own answers when I was interviewed by the article's author (as in the above paragraphs, I've bolded some sections of text).

Do you know of any recent academic studies that have explored comics and their role in the classroom -- particularly on the K-12 level?

Scholars have been studying the connections among literacy and comic art for at least 75 years. George E. Hill published several studies in the 1940s on comics reading. In one, he found a long-standing truism that reading comic strips does not seem to negatively affect vocabulary; if anything, it seems to help. Others over the years have looked at the vocabulary in comics and remarked on their respectable reading level. Shirley Brice Heath, a prominent literacy expert and ethnographer, noted the complexity of vocabulary in the Uncanny X-Men, for example, in a major handbook for teaching the English Language Arts. For a good synthesis of recent comics studies, see Stephen Krashen's The Power of Reading, second edition. In there, you'll find many of the studies that illustrate that reading comics can be a conduit to more and more varied reading. Wertham thought comics were a gateway to delinquency in the 40s and 50s, even though academics were publishing work to discredit his claims (unfortunately they did so in academic journals whereas Wertham was more prone to going to popular magazines, etc. So whose message do you think influenced mainstream America more?). What we also see nowadays is an overwhelming number of studies that suggest we should be making more of visual literacy because we tend to take in and remember more with visual scaffolds, and our eyes process so much more information so much more quickly when viewing than when reading alone. Basically, we're always reading visual clues. So long as we have our eyes open, they're processing bits of data at an amazing rate. I think semiotic theories have also influenced people's notions of reading, but the research on visual comprehension and processing is so compelling, I think folks like myself and others are turning to comics and graphic novels as a means to acknowledge that body of research. So, in some ways, we're applying what researchers are saying about visualization and visual recall to our classrooms and students via graphic novels, though there is more history of comics-and-education-related research than many know.

Although comics seem to have been increasingly embraced by educators in the last several years, how widespread do you believe this acceptance is?

Well, I think it depends on the school, the district, and the state. I have seen many teachers eager to use comics or graphic novels in their classrooms, and when I first started doing so in the late 90s, it was still considered odd in my school. I think the more aware teachers are of growing evidence on how students learn and how visualization helps them do so, the more likely they are to expand their notions of curriculum or even notions of their field. For example, NCTE defines the English Language Arts as reading, writing, listening, speaking, visualizing, and visually representing. So, one could claim that if English teachers aren't teaching things like media literacy, comics, and film, they aren't really teaching the English Language Arts. That is still a hard thing for many veteran or traditionalist teachers to swallow, I think, but more and more teachers, young and old, are waking up to what research tells us about student learning and how comics or graphic novels can be used to tap into students' learning potential. I can tell you that if you look at the NCTE national conference program books, you'll not a marked increase in the number of presentations concerning graphic novels over the last ten years. It's palpable. That is good evidence that there is a "market" of educators out there interested in learning more about how to teach comics in their classrooms.

Are you aware of any quantifiable measure of the degree to which comics and graphic novels have begun to move into classrooms and libraries?

If you look at Michele Gorman's Getting Graphic or start to dig into the masses of the library articles on graphic novels, you'll find that some libraries increased their circulation numbers by 80% once they integrated graphic novels. I currently have a research study underway in which I ask teachers what their attitudes beliefs, practices and background via their methods classes is/was. I think more and more English Education methods classes are integrating some form of exposure to graphic novels into their classrooms, but we may still have a long way to go to get them to be a part of every new English teacher's pedagogical experience. I also think more and more pre-service teachers are coming to their professors and asking how to use these texts -- or if it is OK to do so -- even without the professor's prompting. We're educating future teachers right now who grew up on Zelda, Mario, GTA, instant messaging and web browsing. They're more inclined to accept visual literacy from their students because they live it themselves and may therefore be more interested in using comic art with their students.

What do you think comics publishers who are new to publishing for the educational market could be doing better to reach out to educators and make their materials more accessible? How important is determining readability or Lexile levels for graphic novels on the K-12 level?

Well, what I often see is that a new publisher, a new teacher, a new scholar will sort of "discover" graphic novels and think that they're the first one ever to think about their pedagogical potential. A lot of us are saying the same things or working to the same ends (though some of us with learning as the primary goal, others with making money off the comics they publish as the primary goal) but we aren't all talking to one another as much as we could be. I have a hard time getting review material and press releases sent to my blog, which is specifically dedicated to education-and-comics-related issues. I guess what I'd say is try to see beyond your own realm and always be ready to expand your network. Don't find your "people" and then keep them at the expense of expanding. Publishers contacting scholars, scholars contacting each other, teachers contacting scholars, etc. I'm trying to work on possible solutions to this among education scholars right now, with the help of someone with similar interests whom I just recently met. Indeed, you may want to speak to him. His name is Peter Gutierrez.

As far as the import of determining reading levels for graphic novels, I think it is marginally important. What I see when I see a graphic novel that has been "graded" by the publisher is someone definitely trying to market the book to my kids. I prefer to read graphic novels that are worthy literature in and of themselves, that have authors who do not see themselves as educators per se, but as artists and storytellers. As I once said, it's not Art Spiegelman's job to create a work that will help teachers. His job is to create art/Art. Now, if he chooses to create work with strong pedagogical potential -- and he certainly has, especially with his wife and their Little Lit series and more recent efforts, not to mention the work we all know him for -- that's great. But it is the teacher's job to look at great work, great art and determine how to best use it with his or her students. Let creators create and teachers teach. Good teachers know not to take too much stock in pre-leveled texts anyway, and whats more, they know how to level the texts themselves. That's not to say there aren't many, many educators out there who will go straight to a reading-level or Accelerated Reading mark and make choices based on that alone, but that's not the best way to go about choosing texts for kids. Now, it might be important in that it is a good marketing technique that will appeal to many educators, but it won't do much to attract the brightest ones.

What resources would you recommend for educators who are interested in integrating comics content into their classes -- particularly if there is institutional resistance?

Certainly I would recommend all of my work, both in print and in progress, lol! Seriously, though, I have written and do speak about ways to handle resistance. I mentioned actually knowing the definition of English Language Arts. I often ask teachers to know their NCTE/IRA standards as well to help them make cases for bringing in comics. I suggest writing rationales or contracts for controversial texts. As simple as it sounds, I tell teachers to read the text completely before making a decision. The last thing a teacher needs is to let an image slip by them on one panel of one page and then have it come back to haunt them. Knowing one's community and school is essential as well, of course. But, we also have to remember that there are many ways of bringing comics into the classroom, not just using them as other texts to read.

As far as resources, there are some great librarian-based websites out there. I think of Michael Lavin's site at University of Buffalo, for example. No Flying No Tights is a great web resource as well. As far as print-based works, I would suggest my edited collection, Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel; Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher's Teaching Visual Literacy: Using Comic books, Graphic novels, Anime, Cartoons and More to Develop Comprehension and Thinking Skills; Terry Thompson's Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6; and Stephen Cary's Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom. Articles associated with these writers and the scholars they reference or include in their works are other excellent resources. Knowing that education professors and classroom teachers are already working on these issues and integrating comics into their classrooms might be the best knowledge a teacher can share with resistant leaders, who often want evidence, indeed, have to seek it, that something seems effective.

1 comment:

Bucky C. said...

Thanks to Ofer B. for drawing my attention to the PW article in the first place! :)