The webcomics blog about webcomics

Ask Them Anything

[Editor’s note: Disclaimer time again. The purpose of these recaps is to get at the gist of what was being said and by whom; to the extent that direct quotes occur, they will be italicized. And just because you don’t see somebody’s name doesn’t mean they weren’t in the middle of the conversation; it just means that I need to learn shorthand, or go back to typing these things.]

So you want to get comics into the classroom (which was a recurring theme of the sessions being held at the San Diego Public Library, which is a magnificent facility bee-tee-dubs), so what better way than to be able to have a nearly entirely question-driven session with creators (Jimmy Gownley and James Parks, with Ben Costa in the audience because the table was full), academics (Talia Hurwich and Meryl Jaffe, authors of Worth A Thousand Words), teachers (Derek Heid and Tracy Edmunds), and publishers (Mark Siegel and Gina Gagliano, who was honored by Publishers Weekly today)?

It was rhetorical, but the answer is There is no better way.

The questions from the audience ranged from the purely physical (How do you keep graphic novels from getting shredded in circulation?, a librarian wanted to know) to the application of theory (Teachers wanted to discuss leveling, the process of determining reading level for materials, and why graphic novels are consistently rated too low), with the ever-popular How do you get buy-in from parents/colleagues/administrators? along the way. Let’s take that last one first.

Jaffe admitted that she used to be one of those parents/teachers who thought that graphic novels weren’t useful in the classroom; she credited the kids in her class who did an intervention with me. She noted that because there is so little text on a page, the vocabulary tends to be advanced, with an extremely high incidence of metaphor. Gownley supported this point, noting that the most garbage Marvel superhero comics are written to the same level as the New York Times. Parks added that comics stretch the reading skills further, in that they — uniquely — allow readers to interpret what happens on a page more broadly than other forms of reading.

We noted a couple recaps back that the Common Core standards require students to examine a work classic literature in at least two different media; Heid stressed that to read text only is not teaching to standard, and Edmunds pointed out that graphic novels are specifically listed in those standards as a media type to be used in¹ fifth grade.

Siegel was happy to note that parents are the last pockets of resistance, when they think that their kids are getting short-changed or being given half measures. Librarians (and this is a recurring theme with Siegel over the years) have been ahead of the curve, obtaining and pushing graphic novels².

When there is still resistance in the community, he recommends putting up a display of books with all the shiny awards stickers on the front — the National Book Awards don’t have a category for graphic literature, after all. But, he allowed, it gets a little tiring to keep having the same conversation about format. Gownley had the ultimate solution: These people will get old and die someday.

Heid remarked that teachers are pretty much onboard, since they saw how large the medium (not genre!) is, but is ticked that at education conferences, there’s no panel on Novels In The Classroom. Nobody even thinks to question their inclusion, but somehow the absolute equivalecy of novel:=literature persists to the detriment of other media.

Let’s jump back to the circulation question; the answer was at least partly to adjust expectations. Gagliano pointed out that the typical graphic novel binding will hold up to about 60 circulations, which is as good or better than prose. The librarian admitted that they’re seeing about 75 circulations, so there you go.

Gagliano also mentioned specialty bindings for libraries from outfits like Perma-Bound and Bound To Stay Bound to increase durability (Gownley chimed in that they aren’t as pleasing to read, but they hold up). Siegel noted there’s an increasing number of simultaneous releases of hardcover and softcover, specifically with libraries in mind.

The discussion around leveling fascinated me, because it was clearly of great interest to nearly everybody in the room, but also completely new to me. The discussion began when a teacher said she had no problems with her elementary principal, librarians, fellow teachers, or parents. Her issue was that the district wants comprehension tests after every book, and she needs both documentation that kids aren’t reading below grade level and a mechanism to evaluate how well the students are reading (NB: The teachers and teacher-adjacent in the room would refer to what I saw as two things almost interchangeably).

Edmunds jumped on the leveling issue: the grade level assigned by the most common leveling rules/services does not accurately reflect the complexity of the reading. The levels, and most tests available to teachers, are algorithmically generated and only take into account the text. Gagliano mentioned that publishers are constantly in communication with the test-generation folks to more accurately reflect the material and the leveling.

Gownley almost hopes that a solution isn’t found — when the books are outside the official curriculum, there’s no test, no proofs of proficiency, a slight hint of being forbidden, then reading becomes more fun.

But returning to why there isn’t a leveling tool that incorporates words+pictures, Edmunds explained that it’s difficult to to. Leveling is the province of computers, not humans; Jaffe added that it’s done by people who aren’t in classrooms. Siegel expressed some sympathy for the lack of accurate leveling, in that the entire idea of visual literacy is hazy right now. As noted a few days ago, we’re all just waiting for McCloud to give us the vocabulary to have the conversation that we need to have in order to come to a consensus on this complex and constantly changing landscape.

The last question of the session³ was about how to incorporate graphic novels along with nongraphic novels, rather than instead of. Heid jumped in to say it depends on what you’re teaching, but using both allows all kinds of discussion. For example, To Kill A Mockingbird presents the climactic verdict scene with a focus on Jem, but the graphic novel adaptation shifts it to Tom Robinson, with each Guilty shifting his expression from shock, to horror, to the sure knowledge it was always going to be this way. After your kids have read both, ask them, Why did Harper Lee focus on Jem and the graphic novel focus on Tom?

Jaffe says the contrast between text-only and graphic novels allows you to explore questions with students that you couldn’t otherwise. Contrasting the different formats allows investigation into concepts like How do you communicate? Gagliano focused on the fact that a lot of literature teachers may not have a background/training in art, but they can learn with their students; you can think about why a page was designed the way it way, why the choice was made to use color or B&W, what job each panel has to do. Asking the questions and seeing what answers they come up with will spur a teacher’s own education.

And that education continues: Hurwich is working on her PhD (graphic novels and other media in the classroom and their effect on student literacy) and Heid his Masters (on education standards and how graphic novels fit); Gagliano and Siegel keep seeking out the best books they can, and Parks and Costa keep figuring out how to make their series more entertaining and relevant for kids. None of them will ever stop trying to do more for their students or their readers.

Spam of the day:

Get Vivint.SmartHome monitoring now and sleep well

You’ve got some damn nerve pushing this on me the same week as a tremendous security disclosure around embedded systems like those featured here? Remember, kids: The S in IoT stands for Security!

¹ Or possibly starting in fifth grade, rather than solely fifth grade. My notes got a little rushed, and any teachers familiar with the Common Core are welcome to clarify for us.

² Asked in a follow-up when the librarians started pushing graphic novels, Gownley perkily answered Thursday! to general laughter. Gagliano remarked that the annual YALSA Great Graphic Novels For Teens list started in 2005, which she described as the tipping point. American Born Chinese would be nominated for the National Book Award the next year, and once SMILE took the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction, the momentum was pretty much irreversible. Edmunds half-lamented that it’s almost not possible to keep up with all the good graphic novels being published today.

³ Well, second to last; the last was Where will we see you after this session?, which prompted the best response from Gownley: The Crowne Plaza sushi bar.

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