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April 18, 2011

Feature Story: Comics In Classrooms: Expert Advice from Teachers


Maureen Bakis is a 12th-grade English teacher at Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield, Massachusetts. She’s also been using comics in her classroom for a while now, to great success. We talked to her to glean her expert advice on how to use comics to reach students.

What's the most valuable lesson you've learned about teaching comics?
The most valuable lesson I have learned about teaching comics is based on Scott McCloud’s explanation of the medium in his Understanding Comics. According to McCloud, we more readily see ourselves in iconic images, and through closure, the reader must necessarily help construct the meaning of a sequential art narrative. Because the comics medium demands this degree of reader participation and interaction with the narrative, students engage with story more immediately and therefore enjoy a more pleasurable, aesthetic reading experience, which is different from the conventional kind of reading students are used to. As a result of a student’s level of genuine engagement in reading comics, I have learned that other ELA skills, including writing, critical thinking, listening, and speaking, can be exercised more often and more authentically when I, as a teacher, focus my classroom environment and pedagogy around students’ personal responses and unique interactions with story. In other words, using the comics medium as a teaching tool has solved the lack of student engagement problem I had in years prior and allows students to feel authoritative about their interpretations, experience reading success, and become more open-minded and positive toward reading in general. My students range from learning-disabled to Ivy League-caliber and realize good stories can come in all sorts of packages and that they too can be apt storytellers if given the chance to create.
Not everyone automatically knows how to read a graphic novel. How do you approach it?
I introduce readers to visual literacy through an initial activity using wordless panels from Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I help students explore the possible meanings that exist in a series of sequential images and the role prior knowledge and experience plays when making meaning from images both individually and in sequential art narrative form. I also have students read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics where they learn about icons, symbols, closure, time, sound, image-text relationships, and other conventions of the comics form. I also work hard to create a classroom environment based on Louise Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory and a Reader Response approach to teaching literature. This pedagogy encourages readers to feel equal with text where a unique experience and exploration can occur. In order to understand how to read comics, readers must also pay attention to their own reactions and contributions to the story as it unfolds. All of this is necessary for readers to understand the process of reading and their role in it, which is very different than what they have become accustomed to while in school. Typically, the text’s meaning is approached as something to unlock and that teachers and other authorities hold the answers that students must find or else they are “wrong.” I have begun recently to use an excellent article by Hollis Margaret Rudiger called “Reading Lessons: Graphic Novels 101,” which shows new readers the process of closure and other elements of reading graphic novels explained in detail in Scott McCloud’s book but in a more concise way through essentially leading the reader through panels from Daisy Cutter: The Last Train by Kazu Kibuishi. I have offered this to other teachers and adults to help them understand quickly what is different about reading a graphic novel compared to an all-print text. Finally, I reinforce how to read a graphic novel by requiring students to attempt to construct their own comics composition to solidify their understanding of the medium.
What's your favorite comic to use in the classroom?
I have many favorites, so this is difficult to answer. I adore Chris Ware’s “Unmasked,” a short graphic narrative found in The New Yorker, for its brevity and usefulness in showing students what can be done within the comics medium after they have read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but I’d have to say I enjoy teaching Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis best, primarily because it enables me to teach critical media literacy, global perspectives, memoir, writing, and making comics all at once. Because of its central theme about identity and perception, most of my soon-to-be high school graduates relate to Persepolis: The Story of a Return, finding personal value in Satrapi’s struggle through her late teens and early twenties. This novel is quite versatile in terms of classroom instruction for a range of subject areas, grade level, usefulness in achieving a variety of curricular goals, and its appeal to a wide audience.

Can you think of a comic you wouldn't necessarily expect to be a valuable teaching aid, but it turned out to be one?
Alan Moore and Dave Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. I was shocked when I realized its thematic similarity to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (something I now use in tandem with this novel) as well as how much it offered in terms of teaching literary elements like allegory, parody, and motif. The depth of critical thinking and analysis this novel elicits from both teacher and students is its value. It’s far more sophisticated and teachable than I initially thought and has a powerful impact on students. My students have learned that political and personal problems are far more complex than they sometimes appear on face value and that reductionism is not always the best approach to reading a text or understanding the world or other people. Out of all the graphic novels and other literature I teach, V for Vendetta changes students’ attitudes about a number of issues the most, including their previous assumptions about superhero comics.

Have you ever had to get a reader who didn't like comics to open up to them?
When dealing with skeptics, I initiate conversation about attitude toward reading in general, which I believe is an important first step in getting non-comics readers to try reading them. I also tell skeptics that I, too, was never a comics reader but eventually found many titles I adored reading. Matching the comics-reluctant reader with an appropriate graphic novel that they can experience with some degree of success is also important. Librarians are wonderful resources to marry readers with appropriate titles. When skeptics discover how much of themselves (their prior knowledge and experience) is an important and valuable part of how they make meaning, they learn more about themselves and become fascinated with the way reading comics works! People who don’t like comics need to be exposed to stories that will have personal value for them, so they shouldn’t try to read genres they wouldn’t normally read. Ultimately, not everyone will enjoy reading comics. Literature can’t be forced on people since taste is so subjective, but there is real value in helping readers expand their interests and reading experiences.

If you knew then what you know now...what advice would you give someone just about to use comics in the classroom for the very first time?
First, read Will Eisner’s Graphic Narrative and Visual Storytelling to understand the value of stories in our lives and in our culture and how important empathy is in the reading transaction. Then read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Yes, focus on the value of the themes or pairing texts as you do with other kinds of literature, but be sure to teach the workings of the medium and its relationship to content. In a 21st century, visual media environment, it’s essential to teach visual literacy and the way stories work in multimedia formats. One hopes that students will understand the variety of media available to them to express their own stories beyond writing text-only stories. Also, if you are ready to use graphic novels in your classroom, don’t be afraid to let your students draw, create, and construct comics. Even though creating comics doesn’t look like traditional forms of essay writing, making comics teaches students an enormous amount about narrative structure, organization, clarity, as well as style, word choice, imagery, and other conventions of composition. It requires a great deal of thinking, organization, and planning, too. Finally, talk with other teachers who use comics with their students for additional ideas and support.

What unexpected topics would people be surprised to learn you can use comics to teach about?
People are always surprised by the topics found in the graphic novels I use in my course, which includes the role of art in culture, propaganda, gender studies, the Holocaust, cultural identity, religion, the universal human condition, and existentialism.

When it comes to the length of reading assignments and how much you expect your students to read in a certain amount of time, how do you compare your comic assignments with prose literature?
I think about quality rather than quantity when it comes to teaching ELA. Length of (reading) time doesn’t necessarily determine the richness of a learning experience. The stereotype associated with reading comics is that because it takes less time to read them (which it does not in every case—it often takes longer to read image and read text/image combinations), they must not be as complex or sophisticated as a novel like War and Peace. I would argue that my students read more in my graphic novel course than students reading classic novels in other courses because a large percentage of those students are not really reading the novels deeply or they are reading the online “SparkNotes” versions of stories. I believe that deeper reading is much more valuable than a surface-type of reading of more pages and words. My own students tell me that they have read more in their graphic novel course than in any other English class, and I believe this has much to do with the success and enjoyment they feel reading graphic novels.
Some comics seem to be more “male-oriented,” and some skew more to females. Do you use comics geared toward males and females equally in your classroom? Or is it even a consideration?
It is a consideration, and I would say the balance in my graphic novel curriculum is roughly equal, though most of the protagonists in the stories I teach are male; however, that doesn’t mean girls can’t relate to them. The issues characters deal with in the comics I use are rather universal and not necessarily limited by gender.

Is a literature class devoted entirely to comics a good idea, in your opinion, or would you prefer to see a class that mixes comics and prose together?
A good literature class shouldn’t exclude anything that can foster reading, writing, listening, speaking, and critical thinking. A literature class devoted entirely to one type of reading or one genre is probably, in most cases, a poor idea, though it also depends on your students, the learning goals you hope to reach, your administration’s demands, and other mandated requirements in your school and state. If the goal is to understand literature, then you necessarily must include multiple media forms and a variety of genre and styles in your curriculum. In my particular case, the graphic novel course here at Masconomet is entirely comics-based where I use prose and poetry as supplements to graphic novels and other shorter comics narratives. This is, however, part of a twelfth-grade electives-based curriculum where students are required to take a full-year of English, but they may choose one of the following course offerings: Gothic literature, poetry, global literature, or the graphic novel. Obviously, in the case involving choice, I think a class devoted entirely to comics is a wonderful idea, but an even better idea would be to integrate graphic novels across the ELA curriculum throughout K-12. I think of graphic novels and other narratives in the comics medium as another great tool in the teacher’s toolbox for not only literature teachers but for just about any subject area.