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December 1, 2009

Mobile Comics Apps in the Classroom

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Eric Federspiel is a middle school teacher living in Chicago with his wife, Stephanie. He's been using comics in the classroom (primarily with struggling readers) for the past eight years. His website is outfromthecomicshop.com, and you can find him on Twitter as well (@comicsteacher).

 
This past July, I was lucky enough to earn a grant from my school district’s local fundraising organization for a set of 15 iPod Touches. Many hours of research went into the decision to write this grant, which included the benefit of the iPods’ mobility, user/kid-friendly interface, and of course the plethora of applications with educational potential. Fortunately, as an avid comics reader and a teacher who has used various forms of comics in my high-school and junior-high-school classrooms, there are many apps available for the iPods that either allow students to read comics or to create their own. What follows are some of my initial observations about the educational uses of such apps, with particular attention paid to seventh graders’ abilities to easily navigate the software.
 
Comic Viewing App: uClick and Bone
 
Considering that this will be the second year I’ve used Bone by Jeff Smith in my seventh-grade Language Arts classes, it was natural that I would want to see how Smith’s amazing epic fantasy would translate to the mobile screen. (I should note that only the first volume, Out from Boneville, is available for download; this suits my needs, as we only have enough time in the school year to read one volume.) There are obvious shortcomings of such apps, including the relatively small size of the screen, splicing of large panels or two-page spreads into multiple viewable pages, oversimplification of page layouts, etc. However, the comics nerd in me has to admit that as much as I enjoy seeing how an artist organizes his/her storytelling in terms of varied and unique page layouts, the truth is that my students have great difficulty with such organization. Considering how much emphasis traditional reading and writing instruction places on consistency and structure, it’s been my experience that seventh graders are not necessarily impressed by this kind of creativity. Most are purely seeking fun, simple storytelling. Viewing one panel at a time, my students do not need to focus their attention on decoding the organization of multiple images on one page. Instead, they can focus on the simple relationships between text and images within each panel. I imagine that older students might quite enjoy J.H. Williams III’s layouts, but as for seventh graders (and, I believe, readers who are new to comics), simplicity is best. uClick’s Bone serves its purpose in that regard. And at $5.99 for the entire first volume (six 99-cent chapters), it’s quite a bargain.
 
Comic Creation App: Strip Designer
 
I must give credit for discovering this app where credit is due. Tony Vincent’s wonderful Learning in Hand turned me on to Strip Designer, which enables students to use pictures stored in the photo album of their iPods to create simple comic strips. Students can take screenshots of images from the web using Safari and then add word balloons and various image treatments to create their comics. I’ve found Strip Designer to be useful in studying vocabulary by having students illustrate the meaning of new vocabulary terms through the creation of comics. Once students have organized their layouts, added their word balloons, and selected from any number of other visual effects, they may then transfer their strips to desktop computers and insert them into webpages for their classmates to view. When paired with our study of Bone and comics as a storytelling medium, this activity is great preparation for a summative assessment in which they use ComicLife software to create personal narratives. Retailing for $2.99, this app is also well worth the price.
 

If there is any connection between these two apps, it is ease of use. Though many comics-viewing apps such as iVerse and Comixology offer far more titles, many of these title are unsuitable for younger audiences. As a teacher, uClick affords me the peace of mind that comes with not worrying if students are downloading comics that may be inappropriate for their 12-year-old eyes. The app’s user-friendly interface helps students focus on one image at a time, easing their entrance into the study of comics. Likewise, simplicity is the key to Strip Designer. Adding word balloons and changing panel shapes are a few taps away, though students who so desire could add any number of visual effects to more creatively express themselves and the information they’re presenting. Apps like these are a great way to supplement the study of visual storytelling, and my classroom is better for them.