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A Higher Level Of Reading

[Editor’s note: As a reminder, there are relatively few direct quotes in these recaps, and those that exist are italicized. Also as a reminder, in these larger panel discussions, I don’t always catch who said what, and the absence of a panelist’s name in the recap doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute to the discussion.]

There’s an energy that you get when librarians and teachers gather together to talk about incorporating comics into the learning process. When they get together to talk about their experiences defending the use of comics and winning over the skeptical? The excitement, the fervor is contagious. Thus, John Shableski (who’s had stints at Diamond, Will Eisner Studios, and UDON Entertainment) had very little difficulty getting his panelists to hold forth about how to get the doubters — administrators, fellow teachers, school boards, and especially parents — on board with the educational value of comics.

At the table: Amy Pitotti (advanced math & science teacher), Joe Onks (6th grade history teacher), Nichole Santangelo (middle school language arts teacher), Lisa Harrison (middle school computer science teacher), and Erin Hill (high school literature teacher), from various SoCal school districts, came prepared with stories and approaches to help teachers and librarians overcome doubt.

Hill uses The Odyssey in graphic novel form side-by-side with text; on the occasion that a parent really, really objects that the pictures aren’t real reading (more on that later), they can still complete lessons using words alone. But her chief argument when a parent or administrator is convinced that comics are worthless?

Come to the room and watch the kids. The ones that are in the office with behavioral issues are nose-deep in the book, taking apart the stories and analyzing them. Add to that the fact that she isn’t teaching comics instead of literature, but as a different form of literature? It’s convincing. Every teacher of Shakespeare knows that you can’t just have kids read the plays — you have to get them to act them out, or watch a performance¹. Same thing with a comics adaptation of a classic — seeing the story instead of reading works on different parts of the brain for all students, but particularly the reluctant readers.

Pitotti noted that her enthusiasm on behalf of her students (not to mention watching kids go from about 3rd grade reading level to 7th or 8th in a year) wins over principals and doubting colleagues. Seeing kids develop a passion for learning provides credibility to the arguments. Not to mention the fact that student will develop their visual literacy skills, which are becoming increasingly important.

Shableski shared that when confronted with reluctant teachers, there’s an exercise he likes to use at school in-service days, where the front three rows are the ones that want to learn about comics in the classroom, the next three are neutral but willing to be persuaded, everybody else hates the idea — that’s who this is directed at. He has resistant teachers come up to the board to do a drawing exercise, to see how difficult it is to convey a page of text in very few words, to decide which words to keep and which to cut, and how to arrange the pictures to get across the idea of all the missing text.

It doesn’t matter if they can’t draw much more than a stick figure, they see that the pictures are carrying a lot of meaning, and that learning to decode the pictures and pick up all the context and nuance from the absent text — which may or may not agree with what the pictures are saying, because sometimes what we think or say contradicts what we do — constitutes a higher, more skilled form of reading.

And if you’re looking for resources to get started with comics in the classroom, Harrison (who works on this with Santangelo) shared a bunch on Google Drive via QR code; she teaches coding, but has her students program stories (think very simple visual novels) that themselves have to meet language arts standards. After a few months on their story projects, the kids are hooked². There’s research at that link, work that her students have done, lesson structures, you name it. She also pointed us towards the open source toolkit called Scratch that her students use. Cool stuff.

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So it’s the phone call-list equivalent of the spam you’re sending me now? Cool, cool.

¹ In a later session, it would be pointed out that current Common Core standards require students to look at classic literature in two different media — only reading the text is not to standard. You can really shut down a doubtful principal by appealing to standards.

² She shared an extra story some of her students created, which dealt with how the teachers (all portrayed as dinosaurs) spend their days — too little sleep, yelling at students, and drinking disturbing amounts of coffee. The teachers in the room nodded their grim agreement.

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