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~ Marek ~

Introduction to Comics Education

by Marek Bennett

07his_03.jpgWhat is Comics Education?

Why should we bring comics into our classrooms?

How can teachers and students best harness the prodigious powers of this exciting medium?

Not so long ago, these questions would have sounded ludicrous, laughable, and nonsensical. “Comics? Education?” we might have snickered, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Those days are long gone, folks.

WHAT ARE COMICS?

Comics Educators use both images and words with equal precision. Here’s some vocabulary:

When we say “cartoons,” we’re talking about simplified images. They’re quick to draw, quick to read, and engagingly fun to interact with. Think Mickey Mouse, or Tin-Tin, say, on a poster. Those are cartoons.

When we say “Comics” (and yes, I’m using the capital C on purpose), we mean a series of different images (and usually some text, too) that tell a story. Individual pictures are usually, but not always, contained within “panels.” Take these panels as an example:


A 3-panel stick-figure Comics Workshop scene.

Taken separately, each panel presents a single idea. Read in sequence, the images lead the reader to imagine connections between the panels. Somewhere in your brain, you start to tell yourself a story that makes some sense of the images and words in front of you. Add or remove a panel, or change the order of the panels, and you’ve changed the story.

This stuff carries immense potential for education. Think about it: Comics engage us in the active construction of meaning. At the very heart of Comics we find skills central to literacy and learning — inference, contextual relationships, attention to details of setting, character, dialogue, time, cause and effect… the list goes on and on.

Not only that, but comics present information in a scaffolded, supportive system of interdependent disciplines, the visual and the textual. Maybe you can’t quite read the words, but the pictures can help you make sense of it… or vice versa. Whether you teach science, foreign languages, math, history, or physical education, comics can challenge and support your students in their studies.

Oh yeah — did I mention that kids LOVE comics? Comics can motivate your students, drawing them into their curriculum. Just put out some cartoons or comics in your classroom, and watch how your students gravitate towards them.

And there’s one other HUGE point in comics’ favor, which dwarfs all others in its implications:

Kids can create their own comics.

SUPER-POWERS OF COMICS

In my (blatantly propagandistic) mini-comic, “Why Comics?”, I set forth several arguments in favor of Comics, including:

  • Everyone can do comics. You don’t need to be a great artist. This is an art field to which ALL kids (and even some adults) bring a certain amount of native skill and ability. It’s show and tell, on paper!
  • Comics can be anything. Seriously, there’s no limit to what you can draw. And there’s no budget, given how cheap pencils, ink, and paper are. Your imagination is the only key you need.
  • Comics grab our attention. They’re like books that look back at you!
  • Comics challenge us. This is the key to the educational value of comics. To draw (or read) a comic, you need to employ multiple disciplines, intelligences, and cognitive systems at once. You need to develop mental connections between sequential information encoded in images and text. And you need to pay active attention to that page.
  • Comics are cheap. Yes, that’s right. You can make copies of your latest comic for pennies, and share it with all your friends… Which makes this attractive, versatile art form a democratic medium, too!
  • Comics are FUN. Just read some. You’ll see.

As teachers, we employ the full power of Comics when we design Comics Education programs that balance reading comics with creating comics. For students and teachers alike, there is no artistic experience required to create original comics. We need only be willing to experiment, to try new ideas, and to draw once, twice, a hundred times the images, words, and stories that we want to read and share with the world.

COMICS IN CLASSROOMS07nhng_draw.jpg

Alongside the current popularity of Comics in literary circles, the world of Comics Education has finally entered into mainstream education culture within the past few years. “The biggest change is in the acceptance of the medium by educational experts,” says arts educator and comics creator Andrew Wales. Wales uses simple tools like Sunday newspaper comics to teach his elementary school art classes about topics as diverse as character design, composition, language arts skills, and creative writing. He points to the recent appearance of comics on every imaginable topic, and at various educational and developmental levels.

“There are so many different kinds of comic stories being told,” Wales enthuses. “We’re in the midst of a Renaissance of the art form.”

At the graduate level, Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies now offers one- and two-year degrees, including an MFA program. For younger students, programs like the Comic Book Project and World Comics India demonstrate how young artists can communicate vital information and ideas through comics, informing and enriching their communities with original artwork and stories.

And at the primary school level, teachers like Andrew Wales are helping the creators of tomorrow hone their skills, their powers of observation, and most importantly, their original ideas about this infinitely versatile medium.

Okay, enough words. Let’s go draw some comics.

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