Application of Comics in the Classroom

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The question of how best to teach our children is both old and constantly developing. In recent years, technology has changed the world drastically, forcefully altering the way we look at education. Youth culture today is increasingly visual, short attention span, and often less willing to invest significant effort in traditional text-based learning. In addition, recent decades have seen both a deeper understanding of different learning styles, as well as a dramatic increase in the diagnosis of learning disabilities, including ADHD and dyslexia, which bring further challenges to a conventional classroom. Classrooms have yet to find strategies or teaching styles that cater towards these different types of students. This essay will focus on one potential solution to these recent demographic changes as well as long misunderstood learning issues: comics. Increased use of graphic novels in the classroom would meaningfully enhance classroom education by being more adaptable to current student demographics and different types of learners.

The invention of the internet, video games, and cinema has created a serious gap between a more fast-paced, interactive visual culture and traditional literature. “With the aid of new digital technologies, film, video and computer games are now much more adept at providing visceral adventures to our country's thrill seekers.” (Sturm) Comics can bridge that gap. As discussed more fully below, in addition to enhancing the learning of the average student, graphic novels can also benefit students with disabilities, such as attentional issues, dyslexia, and autism. Aside from the average short length of a graphic novel furthering its benefits of being able to maintain readers’ attention, the visual components attract enthusiasm, aid in absorption, and help readers connect/identify.

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The graphic novel is a highly evolved visual medium with many strengths that would help to improve education. In recent years, this unique genre has erupted into the public limelight. It started off in newspapers as comic strips that were usually comedic. And matured into longer more story and character-oriented superhero comics. However, the medium was still underappreciated and considered childish until Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Muas paved the way for other graphic novels, such as Persepolis, to expose the potential benefits and enjoyment of this art form to a critical public.

In their current form, comics are a valuable educational tool. One major advantage is that comics use “shortcuts” in human cognition. One such shortcut is comics’ use of abstract forms. McCloud compares that process to an artificially created facial recognition program. In building a recognizable model of a human face, the first step would be to identify the most constant, informative aspects. Furthermore, a simple combination of two dots and a line will almost always indicate a face. The comic book artist’s ability to cartoonize characters is a valuable trick that utilizes psychological mechanisms to draw in the reader. (McCloud 41) Comics provide a unique combination of media that opens the door to many educational opportunities because they perfectly fit with people’s biological means of connecting and interpreting their sensory existence.

Comics also fuse the reader and the protagonist, which helps to bridge history and different cultures. Autobiographical comics can reinforce the idea that the narrator and the observer are one and the same. The “autobiographical pact” (Kukkonen 57) merges the reader’s perspective with the narrator’s, helping the reader feel more closely involved in the story and thus experience more viscerally the author’s intended truth. Because the reader understands the narration as an expansion of their embodied character in the story, it becomes easier to bypass instinctual skepticism. This tool of immersion makes it easier for the reader to look past any schemas they might be holding onto regarding the content of the story, and to have a more innocent, and thus unbiased, perspective. The visual element of graphic novels, with its stylistic capabilities and embodiment strategies, helps to express the subjectivity and authenticity of an experience and can ultimately help to engage students of all different learning types.

The medium’s unique combination of pictures and words means that, compared to traditional literature, comics have a wider assortment of techniques to convey emotion. Using the comic medium to illustrate the horrors of the Holocaust provides a visual channel to connect to the history but also lessens -- and thus makes bearable -- the intensity and pain that comes with it. Graphic novels such as Maus and Persepolis are able to represent a historical event while sparing the reader from experiencing the full force of the terrifying images that accompany it. This allows readers to understand segments of history from a personal point of view instead of a general one while also allowing a much wider range of ages to learn about these events.

One example of the way in which comics can make brutal history more accessible occurs in Persepolis, in the chapter titled “The Heroes.” The main character, Marjane, hears a family friend, Mohsen, who was recently released from prison, explain how another friend was tortured and eventually brutally murdered. The smple yet graphic images of torture are painfully relatable due to the distinct effect of the scarring on Ahmadi’s skin, his gaping screaming mouth, and scorched skin (Satrapi 52), but at the same time are not gory enough to turn a reader away. On the following page is one of the book’s most shocking images: an extremely simplified, childlike depiction of Ahmid neatly chopped up into seven pieces against a plain black background (Satrapi 52). These images demonstrate the graphic novel’s abilities to portray certain things that words alone cannot, as well as its ability to serve as an adequate representation of an individual historical event while softening the horrible experience.

Both Persepolis and Maus illustrate the effective use of comic techniques to achieve educational goals. Each of these books addresses material that is normally covered in history class, only very differently. In Maus, the animated visuals greatly amplify the accounts of events of the Holocaust in a way that is palatable for younger generations, as well as for readers who are less able to extract meaning from traditional textbooks or literature. In both Maus I and Maus II, Spiegelman draws memories in comic panels that feel every bit as terrifying and true as real photographs, but are somehow easier to absorb. For example, as opposed to using real humans, the use of animals makes the tragedy seem ever-so-slightly more distant, and paradoxically, more relatable. The graphic novel is an easily readable format to teach the history of the Holocaust to younger generations. Spiegelman proves that visual representations, speaking louder than words, contribute tremendously to close reading and grasping a story.

Similarly, n Persepolis, Satrapi uses a simplistic style with the potential to teach students who have text based learning issues, about a story/event. Her style is monochromatic, which means that she only uses flat black and white, no shading. For peak immersion one must try to experience Marjane's memory as their own. As Kate Flint says, remembering “may be elicited by the depiction of deliberately empty spaces, inviting the projection of that which can only be seen in the mind's eye on an inviting vacancy” (Chute 98). Satrapi uses blank white backgrounds and also strikingly black backgrounds as well. However, instead of emptiness, the blackness shows depth. The recollection of a specific event with a focused image is a memory, (Chute 144), and, just as a cartoonist draws a simplified face to make it more comprehensible to the reader, Satrapi draws her memories in a simplified manner in order to further immerse the reader. This illustrates McCloud’s observation that using a simple model increases a person’s interaction with the apparent message and makes it more accessible to a wide variety of readers. (Chute 155-156) This simplistic atmospheric format is a visual tool that would greatly enhance a struggling reader’s investment and comprehension, as well as open the door to a deeper and more tangible understanding of an educational topic.

For these and other reasons, comics can act as an equalizer between different levels of readers. The visual aspect that accompanies the story act as a bridge for beginner and more advanced readers. The link between the students that the comic format allows leads to the development of group discussions that integrate troubled learners. There are various types of learners. Visual learners learn best from what they see, while logical learners learn best from abstract visual information. There are many other types of learners such as, verbal, personal, rhythmic,but they all benefit from the format, design, sequential illustrations, facial expressions, pacing, and contextual repetition involved in a graphic novel.

Pictures also help support comprehension. A lot of students with reading issues are visual learners. The goal is teaching these students how to utilize every clue they can find to decipher meaning. Images coupled with words offers a platform for a more accessible understanding of the text. If a struggling reader recognizes a word but forgets the meaning, the image can hint at the right direction. Moreover, as opposed to a traditional, more rational learning form, graphic novels have a “playful element” that makes children more eager to participate. For the reluctant reader, literacy is most easily attained when the reader is most absorbed and naturally interested.

Comics can help readers with special needs as well. Students with attention-deficit issues often have a hard time sitting through a full class, or focusing on a long book. Comics can help such students by engaging children with short attention spans, keeping them hooked with the visual stimuli and eye-popping graphics. Similarly, students on the autism spectrum can gain comprehension from the increased availability of contextual cues that go far beyond simple text on a page.

Graphic novels are also specifically beneficial for students with dyslexia or other language-based learning issues because they offer many different cues to the story. The illustrated format offers contextual cues that make it much easier for a struggling reader to recover from an issue with vocabulary, or to understand a storyline and deduce meaning. Graphic novels are not only a great way to expand a dyslexic student’s vocabulary and strengthen his or her reading confidence, they are also -- due to their accessibility and enjoyable format -- a valuable tool for helping struggling readers in a classroom setting be part of the conversation and appreciate the art of storytelling. (Redford) These benefits are not limited to comics, because understanding traditional literature is about more than just developing a good vocabulary or technical reading skills. Comic books still require students to exercise their mind and use mental effort to understand a story's plot, characters and resolution. And these skills, when developed through comics, translate to traditional literature as well.

Aside from the technical benefits of reading comic books that aid in building students’ awareness and reading skills, comics are a more approachable form of literature for children. They give readers the experience of a complete story without the fear of hundreds of pages of words. Instead, they offer a fun and interesting images. Not only is a struggling student going to be much more willing to pick up a graphic novel, but they will also be able to feel the accomplishment of finishing a complete story and increase their reading confidence.

The background materials and graphic novels we have covered in this class demonstrated convincingly that comics are a great educational tool. But I also know this first-hand. I was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade, and comics have played a crucial role in my developing love for literature and in overcoming this life-long disability. Reading was nearly impossible for me as a child, and is still a struggle for me today. My parents made the difficult decision to remove me from my regular school, and to send me for two years to the Windward School -- a school specializing in teaching students with language-based learning disabilities. Windward taught me strategies to cope with my disability, and I still use them today. Not being able to read until fourth grade was embarrassing to say the least. I felt left out of classroom discussions, couldn’t complete any of my assignments, and felt incredibly down on myself. Being torn away from my closest friends and the learning environment I was used to was painful enough, without adding on the fact that I felt dumb and illiterate. Yet before, and through that process, comic books helped me stay intrigued in the art of storytelling, and aided in my process of overcoming my disability. When traditional literature wasn’t a viable option, comics became my refuge. Instead of Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, I related to my friends through Batman and the X-Men. When I couldn’t hold onto a story through words, I could through pictures. Comic books kept me afloat in a world that so intensely focuses on literary storytelling while I figured out how to overcome my dyslexia. This class has helped me to further understand why the medium was so helpful to me, and has furthered my interest in it as well.

Works Cited

  1. Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press, 2010.
  2. Kukkonen, Karin. Studying Comics and Graphic Novels. Wiley Blackwell, 2013.
  3. Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon, 2003.
  4. Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper, 1990
  5. Sturm, James. A Case for Comics. National Association of Comics Art Educators.
  6. Redford, Kyle. “Graphic Novels.” Yale Dyslexia, The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 2017
  7. Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: a Survivor's Tale. New York :Pantheon Books, 19861991.
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