Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Using Comics to Teach Literacy

Not too long ago our media specialist began increasing the graphic novel section in our school library. I began seeing more and more students bringing these books back to my class and asking me where to find similar books in my own classroom library. Admittedly, I found little value in this format at the time. Afterall, my goal is to increase student reading and how can I do that when comic books hold so few words? My recent study of various literacies has show me just how wrong I was!

These ladies were reading graphic novels in the media center.
He brought this book from home and read it every chance he had!

Comics, graphic novels, and political cartoons can be used to teach students valuable components of visual literacy. Since there are so few words, the author must use images to communicate a message and readers can work to uncover the meaning behind each panel. The reader must continually think and use their mind to complete the picture and draw conclusions.

I know that my own students are motivated to read these books, so next year I am planning to incorporate this format into my instruction. Here are a few ways I plan to incorporate a graphic novel and political cartoons with my fourth graders. As with my last post, Literacy 2.0, I will reference the five essential elements of digital and media literacy as described by Hobbs and Moore in their book, Discovering Media Literacy.
  • Access: locating materials responsibly and understanding those materials
  • Analyze: comprehending messages in a variety of formats and evaluating the credibility and quality of those messages
  • Create: using digital tools and technology to make content in a variety of formats
  • Reflect: making responsible choices and evaluating one’s own behavior and work
  • Act: taking action to solve problems and address social issues

Inferencing with Mysteries

After reviewing several graphic novels for my students, I found Big Break Detectives by Alan Nolan. This graphic novel follows a group of four friends who solve mysteries during their lunch period. When using this text with my class, I will begin with a series of lessons teaching my students how comics strips and graphic novels are read. While some of my students have experience with this format, many do not, so they will need to know how to follow the panels, narration, and speech bubbles. I will also need to show them examples of the difference between the narrator’s voice and the thoughts and feelings of the characters. These skills will enable my students to better comprehend the author’s message (access). If you’re interested in a resource to learn about the various parts of a comic, this review resource gives a nice overview with visuals.

Once my students have a bit of experience reading graphic novels, we can begin using Big Break Detectives to explore the literary conventions of mysteries. I want to teach them to use the features of graphic novels to not only realize that images have meaning, but also have the skills they need to figure out the meaning (access, analyze). To do this, I need to show many of my students how to analyze a section of a comic and pause for reflection, rather than breezing through it. I predict that many of my students would look at the picture, glance at the text, and allow their minds time to perform closure, a skill where the reader takes in parts of the story draws conclusions about the text as a whole.

A major fourth grade skill is making inferences by using both the reader’s background knowledge and the clues left by the author. Big Break Detectives is a great choice for fourth grades because mysteries naturally engage the reader in looking for clues, considering suspects, drawing conclusions and making inferences in order to solve the problem. When reading graphic novels, students must realize that the author must decide what to include in the frames of a comic or graphic novel. Everything left in the gutter, or the spaces between panels, is an opportunity to make an inference.  The story continues beyond the shown frames, and what happens in the gutter should be considered as well as what is seen (analyze).

Creating Comics

In the past, I have used comics as a way for my students to retell parts of a story we have read together. I hadn’t yet used a graphic novel as a main part of my curriculum though, so students struggled to use the format to its full potential. Once students have an idea of how authors force readers to make inferences through reading Big Break Detectives, I will give my students the challenge of creating their own comics (create). They can choose to make a single panel or multiple panels, all focusing around making an inference. As authors, students will make purposeful choices about what to include in a frame and what should be left to the reader's imagination (reflect, act).

Here is an example of a comic that I made using Pixton, a free comic maker. I was really surprised at how easily and quickly I could create a comic. Pixton has numerous backgrounds, characters, and options to easily construct comic panels. I think this web tool will be a hit with my students!

Political Cartoons in Action 

Political cartoons are unique in that there is a lot of information packed into one or two frames. The reader must have some background knowledge of the topic or situation in order to understand the author’s message. If a student is missing background information, they may need to read a few articles to become up-to-date on a topic (access). Political cartoons often include irony, metaphors, caricatures, and symbols. Students must spend time considering each aspect of a cartoon beyond the literal picture (analyze). While the content of many political cartoons may be too mature for my elementary students, the skills required to read and understand them are valuable and absolutely appropriate for teaching visual literacy. Even elementary students benefit from this deep thinking.

Benjamin Franklin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I plan to use Benjamin Franklin’s political cartoon, Join, or Die while teaching a unit on the American Revolution. We will search for the main message of the cartoon and discuss how the author used a metaphor to portray his ideas (analyze). Following that lesson, students will research various other persuasive media during war times, such as Rosie the Riveter and various Uncle Sam images (access). We can discuss how authors use images and very few words to portray their message. Next, students will be given the challenge of using images to make their own war propaganda or political cartoon for the American Revolution in order to persuade colonists to join the revolution movement in some way (create). Students can offer peer feedback, revise to communicate a clear message and publish their work (reflect, act). I think this is a great way to apply content knowledge, persuasive techniques, and visual literacy skills.  

I made this example of a political cartoon for my students as a model for the project they will try. I used a premade background and added a few details to communicate my message through Pixton. The various backgrounds are a great way to make quick and effective comics without needing lots of experience with the program.

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