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Friday, September 17, 2010

Adventures in Graphica by Terry Thompson

Adventures in Graphica: Using comics and graphic novels to teach [reading] comprehension, 2-6 by Terry Thompson.


Thompson, a media specialist and literacy coach addresses the essential topics for any elementary teacher who proposes to use comics in the classroom. A teacher can refer to the chapters as needed, Thompson has created an easy to use reference that covers the essentials and suggests appropriate lessons.

Chapters cover the appeal of comics, a very brief (but concise) review of the essential research, teaching the conventions of comics and how to read words and pictures together, as well as the comprehension of vocabulary, sequential images and the magic that happens in the gutter, between the frames.

As I did research on making comics I found that telling a story in words and images was not transparent cultural knowledge. My childhood was filled with sibling rivalry as I attempted to read the comics first, in newspapers that came morning and evening. The seven and eight year old students I taught watched cartoons, read ordinary books, the occasional comic, and played video games. In every case but one these influences appeared as they made comics. Only one student, who I called Gracie (a pseudonym), understood how to make comics without my assistance.

Comics and graphic novels have taken on more challenging material, have hired master artists and talented writers, as well as improving the quality of paper and printing. Yet this lush and highly polished style of cartooning may present an opaque and unreadable surface to the young viewer. Newspaper funnies used to be the comic strip primer that taught us how to read the medium, that is, before circulation dwindled leaving us with advertising circulars thinly wrapped in news.

Chapter 4: “Teaching the Conventions of Graphica,” wisely suggest teachers explain the conventions of layout, panels, speech bubbles, narrative boxes, lettering, directionality, the importance of pictures and the gutter. If teachers do not explicitly teach this material, students must labor on their own to figure out the mechanics this “invisible art” (McCloud, Understanding Comics 1994).

Chapter 7: “In the Mind’s Eye: Making Mental Images and Inferring,” addresses the holistic experience of reading comics. It asks students and teachers the important question; How is it, we know what we know? This reading encompasses all of the elements of comics and recognizes that the story is visualized by the reader. The prosaic details of vocabulary and reading comprehension are professionally addressed in Chapter 8: “Vocabulary, Visually.”

Thompson wraps up the book with a word on choosing comics and graphic novels for the classroom. He also addresses the pitfalls and missteps in a chapter on troubleshooting.

Teachers, this is the book that will allow you to plan, implement and knowledgeably defend your choice of teaching with comics in the classroom. BUY IT!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Focal Points and Sequential Reading of Images

Sorry I've been neglected this... blame it on my index toe puffing up like a sausage back in the winter.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

REVIEW: Buzz! Whiz! Bang! Using Comic Books to Teach Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia: Teaching the Concept with Comics.

This article reviews a lesson plan from READ WRITE THINK by Maureen Gerard

Using comics as a means to teach onomatopoeia appears to be an intuitive connection. Comics are filled with examples of words that convey sound such as POW! and BAM! Squiggles, motion lines, exclamation points and other marks are also used to show motion and narrate a story (Eisner, 2000; Marion, 1993; Stoermer, 2010).

Although comics are a medium which is rich, dramatic, and possibly filled with (imaginary) sound (McCloud, 1994) it is primarily a story telling medium.

The planning guide includes categories for “characters present” and “actions that occur.” I recommend adding and emphasizing traditional elements of plot, such as conflict and resolution.

The lesson directs the teacher to a prepared planning guide, comic strip maker and rubric. The comic strip maker uses static images, and the comic will consequently rely on words rather than movement to tell a story.

In my experience, classroom generalists at the elementary level are often reluctant to allow students to draw. Perhaps because children’s drawings appear unfinished to an adult eye or that maybe drawing skill is viewed as a natural talent. Still I would recommend producing original drawings as the means to approach this lesson. At the planning stage, allow students to write or draw story elements.

Activities which could support drawing and drawing sounds could include:

  • Adding words to motion lines and other marks to existing comics.
  • Word/Pictures which show the meaning of the word, words such as drip, fire, path, and others. Shown above in artwork from the Plymouth State University course, Creativity and the Visual World.
  • Listening to sounds and then drawing them, as seen below, in this video on Foley Artists from YouTube

Revising this activity, will require the teacher to rethink the rubric; The evaluation of a student’s use of landscape and captions is tied to the comic strip maker and can be eliminated. Instead use the requirement proposed by The Comic Book Project, that text be included in every frame and then evaluate the text for story telling, grammar, spelling, onomatopoeia. This will result in a more concise and easy to use rubric. Furthermore, asking fellow students to “read” the comic without prompting or hints from the author can be used to introduce peer editing[1].

Recommended use: As part of a larger unit on fiction. Although the graphic nature of comics will support all learners, it will still be challenging to create and edit a story filled with sound effects.

Recommended comics: Rube Goldberg’s machines, Calvin and Hobbes, Astrix, wordless comics such as Gon (a young dinosaur). Teachers will find only a limited supply of onomatopoetic words on the funny pages.

Recommended artists: Roy Lichtenstein and the artists he borrowed from Jack Kirby, Russ Heath, Tony Abruzzo, Irv Novick and Jerry Granenetti.

Eisner, W. (2000). Comics & sequential art. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press.

Marion, P. (1993). Traces en cases: travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Louvain-la-Neuve, France: Academia.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics. New York: Paradox Press.

McCloud, S. (2009). Dissertation defense: Teaching between the frames: Making comics with seven and eight year old children: A search for craft and pedagogy In M. R. Stoermer (Ed.). Bloomington, IN.

Stoermer, M. R. (2010). Teaching between the frames: Making comics with seven and eight year old children: A search for craft and pedagogy. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

[1] Recently Scott McCloud (2009) reports using this peer editing approach to defuse the hierarchy of the critique.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Essential Guide by Gene Kannenberg Jr.

Graphic novels are presented in categories in this reference book into genres such as Non-Fiction, Crime and Mystery, Horror and Fantasy. Most of these groupings confirm a teacher’s perception that comics are an art form that relies heavily on boy’s life adventure stories.[1] In each section however, are surprising and worthy stories that transcend the genre. In the introduction, Kannenberg notes that works included were necessarily published in English and widely available.

This review will concentrate on the Non-Fiction, General Fiction and, to a lesser extent, the Humor categories as these stories transcend the conventions of adventures and heroic tales.


The top ten works of non-fiction include: Persopolis, Maus, American Splendor, Understanding Comics and other titles normally found on lists of best graphic novels. It is the “honorable mention” section which provides other insightful additions to this list of “bests.” Pedro and Me by Judd Minick is a title I recommend. I have found it is accessible to students because it tells a story students are familiar with. MTV’s Real World has been syndicated and replayed many times; Winnick provides a personal insight into the Real World experience and the loss of his friend Pedro Zamora.

Missing from the non-fiction section is The 911 Report: A Graphic Adaptation adapted by Jacobson and Colón. Kannenberg includes this in the last section of the book which addresses war as the subject of comics and graphic novels. Including The 911 Report on a reading list of non-fiction graphic novels is important for a number of reasons. It appeals to students who would prefer to read something other than a memoir and the use of sequential art explains clearly how the attack on the World Trade Center unfolded.


Over seventy stories are reviewed in this section, including works by Will Eisner, Alison Bechdel, Jaime Hernandez, Alan Moore and others. More than any other section, this is the place to begin reading graphic novels, preferably by cross-referencing Kannenberg’s list with the catalog of the local library. Each educational setting is different, and as teachers we have firsthand knowledge of the communities in which we teach.

Kannenberg’s short reviews are helpful and accurate. They provide a brief cultural context about the work and the style in which the story is told. For example, he notes that The Four Immigrants Manga by Yoshitaka (Henry) Kiyama was designed to be serialized over a year and that Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse is clearly presented and easily understandable.


The section on comedic works is also worth reviewing although humor, in this case, is subjective. The list includes such disparate works as Peter Bagge’s, Buddy Bradley, Watterson’s, Calvin and Hobbes and Kurtzman’s, Little Annie Fanny. It is here the reader will find compilations of comic strips originally published in newspapers.

Comic strips however, do not follow a conventional plot line of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Instead comic strips are the basic primers of sequential art and rely heavily on the readers understanding of context, delivered over days and weeks (Schultz, 1973).

James Kolchalka’s works Monkey versus Robot and Peanut Butter and Jeremy’s Best Book Ever appear in this section. Conflict and complex emotions are almost always part of Kolchalka’s funny stories and the teacher may find a lack of resolution disconcerting. Directed at different audiences, his bibliography includes stories such as Johnny Boo, written for K-3, while his American Elf, a daily diary detailing his personal life, is intimate and adult.

Recommended Use: Check it out of the library and start reading graphic novels. Can also be used as a student reference for independent reading although male students will find more of interest (You’ll get tired reading book reports about Frank Miller’s Dark Knight.)

Millard, E. (1997). Differently literate: Boys, girls, and the schooling of literacy. London: Washington, D.C.

Schultz, C. (1973). Forward. In A. A. Berger (Ed.), The comic-stripped American; what Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown tell us about ourselves (pp. xiv-xvi). New York: Walker.

[1] Men and women’s taste in fiction vary significantly. Reading specialists describe boys and girls as differently literate (Millard, 1997) and suggest that libraries offer a wide range of reading material. Although the authorship of comics is changing, a scan of the author’s index suggests that only 10% of the creators listed are women. Sections which are reviewed include a much higher percentage of works by women. Kannenberg makes an effort to maintain a gender neutral writing style which emphasizes the artist/author’s accomplishments.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Book About Design: Complicated Doesn't Make it Good.
by Mark Gonyea

Dedicated to Gonyea's favorite color "blue." The author's biography on the back flap of the dust cover describes a childhood spent consuming popular culture. This childhood was early training for a career in design and cartooning.

My students who weren't art majors were often skeptical of the elements of design and the assessment of "good" design. For good reason! I was asking them to use a language (of design) that was as foreign as asking them to speak using the clicks and whistles by the Bush people of South Africa.

Gonyea quickly makes the point that design is about the relationships of shape, color and size. Chapter one addresses dominant relationships. Chapter three, the ratio of 1:3:9 and chapter four letters and the negative space around them. Other chapters: Contrast (Can you See Me Now,) Color (Schmolor,) Balance (Do I Look Fat on this Side) and others. The last chapters which review the application of the elements of design.

The novice will find the first chapters illuminating. They clearly show how changing one aspect:color, size or shape transforms one design into something completely different.

The latter chapters however, repeat advice which has become apocryphal, such as cool colors retreat and warm colors appear to come forward. The advice on line is similarly embedded in the culture of two dimensional design which we have inherited from the Bauhaus.* Horizontal and Vertical lines can indicate "strength and structure," diagonal lines can indicate "speed and movement."

Experts will catch the weaselly language, which allows exceptions to this rule, but students will think instructors are touched in the head. Lines can't be strong or speedy. Those statements are metaphors.

Gonyea also cheats in his example of complications to simple design. By using high contrast between yellow, a very light color, and a medium value red/orange he breaks up the shapes on the page in the same manner that camouflage obscures the shape of the wearer. If the yellow and orange were close to the same middle value, the sun could still read as a single image or shape.

The understanding, use, and mastery of vocabulary is necessary in any content area. Without the vocabulary of line, shape, texture, etc.; we are reduced to pointing and grunting. Yet my goal in these general classes on art and design is for students to experiment with "different" designs; to be willing to edit or change their work.

A Book About Design is a useful classroom resource because it does compare alternative design and suggest a few simple rules. Teachers should be aware however, that these rules are part of the culture of design and foreign to our students.

Recommended use: Reading Circles

*See James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A HANDBOOK FOR ART STUDENTS, 2001. Elkins draws heavily on Pevsner's book on the history of art academies and describes the influence of the Bauhaus and Romanticism on the art curriculum in higher education.

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* B. Architecture, University of Cincinnati * Teaching Certificate, Art, Portland State University * Education Leadership Coursework, Eastern Washington University * MAT, Art Education, University of Idaho * Ph.D. Indiana University