Deirdre Moore | October 2014

How Graphic! Using Comics to Teach and Learn

Is it possible to use graphic using comics to teach and learn? You may be surprised.

I’d never read a graphic novel before last night, but I just finished my first and loved it!  Through a streak of serendipitous events, I ended up following the advice of a comic book writer/teacher I met, Alonso Nunez. I attended an event with a panel of graphic  novelists and comic book writers to discuss the young adult graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  Lucky for us attendees, the author himself was a panelist.  This was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award.

Plus, it was the first to win the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award. Also, it was awarded the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New. (Apparently, this is quite the prestigious award in the comic book/graphic novel world. Just in case you are as ignorant of that as I!). After reading this graphic novel, I understood why.

Arts Integration Possibilities

What caught my interest about comics and graphic novels is, naturally, their Arts Integration possibilities.  Comics and graphic novels, by nature, examples of Arts Integration.  They are visual art and writing seamlessly woven together. Each informing the other. Before I took my Children’s Literature class in college, I had never analyzed a picture book, and appreciated how much artistry and intention are involved in every decision. This situation was no different. I had not examined how creating and reading comics might help students learn other content. In addition to, reflecting deeper on the elements of story before attending this discussion.

I never thought about panels with “establishing shots” and “close-ups”. Let alone considered when a close-up is more appropriate than a broader shot containing a background.  As Nunez mentioned at the event when students are asked to create a comic book, they must consider the strength of each medium. Asking themselves, what aspects can be best represented visually and which aspects are best conveyed in written language.  Through guidance and questioning, students come to understand the essence of their narrative. Thus, finding the most effective way to express it.

Comics Teaching Content?

Not only are graphic using comics useful because students learn so much through creating them, but teachers teach so much by creating a graphic using comics. Or, by finding comics or graphic novels that teach content.  The author of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang, also happens to be a computer science teacher in a high school. (A place where he once also had to teach Algebra).  He talked about how when he had to have a sub for his math class, he discovered creating a graphic using comics covering his lesson became far more successful. It was far more beneficial for students, instead of showing a videotape of him teaching the lesson.

In fact, students asked for comics even when Yang could be there in person!  He surmised the comic book format allowed them to process the information at their own rate. Giving them the ability to go back and look at something again, or take longer on one panel than another. As opposed to the entire class viewing a “one speed fits all” video with no rewind.  Moreover, Alonso Nunez added that comic books contain two sources of information better aid in memory.  We know the more places we can store information in our brains, the better the chances are we will recall and retain the information.

If you would like to take a closer look at graphic using comics in the classroom, the experts tell me to start with Understanding Graphic Using Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. This helps to learn the basics of using that format.  While these are just a few examples of applications for the comic book or graphic novel in the classroom, the possibilities are endless!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.