I’ve learnt a lot from Sanjiv Bawa over several meetings, both formal and informal, over the last year and a half – especially about business. He reminded me, in his comment on Arts at the Core, an earlier post that comics can be a very useful tool of learning.
I couldn’t agree more. Comics have a potential to be a great tool for teachers in the classroom, if used intelligently and innovatively. I was introduced to Amar Chitra Katha comics- popular work for children that centred around mythology and ancient literature as a child. I learnt about the Ramayana through Comics. They made Ram and Sita (part of the Hindu pantheon of Deities) cool for a six-year old kid. It laid the foundation for my understanding of Religion.
Given their immense popularity with children and adults, a well-meaning class with comics as teacher’s aids can go downhill if either the content is not age-appropriate or if the teacher is not able to channel the enthusiasm of the kids. I would be nervous before handing out Garfield and Peanuts or Holy Textbook- the Batman Series to the kids.
Some suggestions on how comics could be used in the classroom:
1. With Struggling English Learners or Readers: A child who is struggling to read has to be scaffolded. Have you ever tried learning a new language? You know reading can be difficult enough, without it being made dull.
a) Comics have pictures. The pictures often have quirky characters. That makes reading more interesting.
b) Comics reduce the amount of text on a given page. At the same time, comics lessen the amount of text in a complete story to a manageable level. Moreover, they often use similar terms, ensuring that students keep connecting the dots. Hence, students are able to read and complete whole stories in a reasonable amount of time. This means that a student has followed a narrative from start to end and created used his knowledge to link panels to each other and string together meaning all within a short time. That is a big plus.
c) Pictures go beyond making things interesting. They provide visual clues to the struggling reader, specially when he is reading independently, allowing him to keep persevering with reading.
d) At a later stage, comics provide a bridge between the struggling – but – becoming – slightly-confident reader and more complex material. e.g. A student reading about TinTin and Snoopy in Alaska may be keen to know about the Arctic Circle in greater depth. This can lead him to non-comic reading with more complex sentence structure at a higher grade level.
2. As a tool in other classes:
a) Comics can also be used in Creative Writing Classes in various activities: E.g. Remove the last panel of a 10 panel comic strip. Let the children give their recommendations. Or, remove the text from the voice balloons, let the children fill it in based on the story they see developing.
b) Remember doing character sketches you did as a child? Write a character sketch of Uriah Heep. Yikes! Write a Character Sketch of Sinbad the Sailor. Wow! As a teacher i’m interest in the quality, depth and complexity of your analysis, not who you are analysing. At least not in Upper Primaries.
c) As hinted at earlier, they can be used as bridge texts for more complex subjects in the Social Sciences.
d) Art class- there are several opportunities in this domain.
Comics can also help to cultivate a general interest in reading. Research in the US has shown that 60% of children read comics outside of school. Only 12-15% of them read any other kind of literature. I would posit that comics and its older cousin the graphic novel (type of comic book, usually with a lengthy and complex storyline similar to those of novels, often aimed at mature audiences. The term is commonly used to disassociate works from the juvenile or humorous connotations of the terms “comics” and “comic book”, implying that the work is more serious, mature, or literary than traditional comics) with its theme borrowed from classic literature & contemporary children’s novels, could be used to push up reading levels in children even while keeping them entertained with their brand of reading.
In finality, I would say that comics and their use in classrooms should, initially for a teacher, be with the lower forms and struggling readers. As teachers become more versed with the nuances of comics as teaching tools and the school more comfortable with this brand of teaching, they could graduate to senior and more advanced classes and to more developed themes. As i noted, one can do a MA or PhD in Comics (called Sequential Art in the academic circles) too, nowadays!
Lessons in History for readers of the blog: Comics, that were more popular in America and Japan before they were in India, went into the Dark Ages in the 1950s. After World War II, comics in America tended to have more blood and gore than ever, prompting psychologist Dr. Frederick Wertham’s infamous book, “The Seduction of the Innocent.” The book criticized crime, superhero and horror comics genres, in particular those by William Gaines (who later started and ran MAD magazine). The book claimed that comics glorified sex, violence and drugs – and that these texts were one of the prime causes of juvenile delinquency. Read more about this here.
Coming to India: This country has a more recent history of Comics. The staple fare for children in India was Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and Chacha Chaudhary, though the new generation is unlikely to recognise most of these titles. Archie and his friends from Riverdale rule here now. In fact most of India’s comic heroes are American imports, it has very few of its own creations. Branson’s Virgin in association with Gotham Comics released India’s first attempt at a Manga-type comic- lush illustration and a more-real superhero. Meet- Devi a striking superheroine but sadly one who still has to catch the fancy of the masses. Maybe an Anglican name would help.
Teachers who are keen to know more and find activities for their classroom can follow download a free chapter from Stephen Cary’s new book Going Graphic- Comics at work in the Multilingual Classroom right here.