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Andrew Wales on Comics Education

Here’s a quick interview with art teacher and comics educator Andrew Wales.  I met Andrew at the workshop he did for the Norman Rockwell Museum in January 2008.  Recently, I asked him about his experiences bringing comics into the classroom.

Our culture seems to be undergoing an enormous awakening in terms of awareness of Comics. How has Comics Education changed in the past decade?

The biggest change is in the acceptance of the medium by educational experts. I’ve found several references in books by reading experts advocating the use of comics to teach reading. There have also been numerous articles in educational journals describing successful implementation of comics in the classroom.

The challenge now is that not every educator is aware of the research and the material available. Some of us have had a feeling that there was great potential in comics. Now, we don’t need to be reluctant or embarrassed or defensive about using them because the research backs us up.

Another big change is the tremendous wealth of age-appropriate material available. The comics scene in the 90’s seemed to be bent on proving that “comics are not for kids”. It seemed to me to be almost impossible to find a comic that would be appropriate for kids. Everything was edgy and violent. Now we have awesome series like Bone by Jeff Smith, the Baby-sitter’s Club graphic novels, Usagi Yojimbo for the middle school crowd, and so much more. There are so many different kinds of comic stories being told.  In my opinion, we’re in the midst of a Renaissance of the art form.

How do you alter your approach for different age groups (Say, elementary-age and middle-school or teenage students)?

When it comes to making comics or teaching any kind of art, my philosophy has always been to “simplify, simplify, simplify”. Then I build on that foundation. If I’m working with teenagers or adults who haven’t experienced my second grade lessons, then I present lesson one almost the same way. They have to learn the building blocks first. Fortunately, the early lessons are enjoyable for any age.

When it comes to introducing the reading of comics, I start with reading the Sunday newspaper comics with my classes. Then they experiment with making their own. I talked to our school librarian about comics. She was curious, so she attended a workshop about graphic novels at a Librarian Conference and came home excited about graphic novels in the library. Every year we add to our collection. Last year we received forty new ones! We now have graphic novel titles on everything from the Civil War to the science of tornadoes. We even have a biography of Oprah Winfrey created in comic format. The graphic novels they fight over the most, however, is the Bone series.

What do you see as THE main elements of Comics Education? (What’s MOST IMPORTANT to your students? To your school district?)

What’s important to students is that they are fun. They enjoy them for that reason, but to paraphrase Bill Cosby, “if they aren’t careful, they will learn something.” They are highly motivated to read them. When kids get hooked on the reading of any material, they become readers of every kind of book. There is still reluctance on the part of individual educators and I hear things like this is “watering down” or “dumbing down”. I highly disagree. If students can be taught advanced concepts through these, and especially if it’s reaching kids that are not being reached in any other way, I call that “smarting up”. I think some people think if a lesson isn’t boring or a chore, it’s not real learning. I think it’s possible to learn and have fun at the same time. In fact, I think the learning is more likely to be retained that way.

What’s most important to me is that they are inspirational. Someone once told me that “it’s better to inspire than to demand.” Kids today are being spoon fed didactic, joyless learning objectives. We can “force” them to learn this way all day and assign tons of homework. However, I think that if we can inspire them with material like this and they go home and read because they want to, write and draw because they want to, then we will nurtured self-directed learners. Kids bring to me pages of stories they’ve written and drawn. I think if we can show them how much fun it is to play with language and experiment with written and visual communication, then they will voluntarily put down the electronic games and learn because they want to.

Our district doesn’t have an official policy about comics. I’m just an individual educator who has found an effective resource. They’ve allowed me to share it at teacher inservice programs and summer teacher academies. Many of my colleagues have been convinced of the usefulness of comics. Of course, no one’s advocating the replacement of all books and texts with comics. We’re using this as a supplemental resource. It’s another tool in the toolbox.

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