Making Curriculum Pop


As part of my master's program I have to give a one hour workshop for an English Teacher's Conference. I'd love to talk about the comic book.  I was wondering what the average English teacher needs to know in order to teach this complex medium.   I've been reading comics for over twenty years now and studying them for about four.  Like many of us, I love McCloud and everything he has done for comic studies.  But I'm not sure if an hour of talking about Understanding Comics is the best use of time.   


Right now I'm thinking about looking at teaching comics on a spectrum.  

Print Literacy (Comics = traditional print text)  <---->   Visual Literacy (Comics = image and art)


On the Print Literacy end, you can teach comics in the same way you teach any novel.   Focus on plot and character.  Here you can use graphic novel adaptations to aid struggling readers with the print text version.


As we get closer to the Visual Literacy end of the spectrum, you could look into Understanding Comics and Making Comics, perhaps some of Will Eisner's work and talk about Pictorial Vocabulary, Transitions, Word/Picture Relationships, Page Design, and McCloud's Four Tribes (from Making Comics).   


For the record, I don't believe that comics truly exist on either extreme end of this line, it is a combination of both Print and Visual Literacies that make comics work.  That said, I think that sort of thought process helps people organize their thoughts on how to teach them.


If you were attending a workshop on how to teach a graphic novel, what would you want from it?  Would it be a mistake to talk about comic book theory (McCloud, Groensteen, etc?).  If not, how much is too much?


I'm already working on a resource handout that would point people to both books like Understanding Comics, websites like this one, and good comics to read.   I know that I'll need good examples of how the theory works, feel free to suggest examples.   I'd also like to have a few practical activities and ideas for how to use comics with middle/high school students.  


Any feedback would be great.  Think of this as both helping me with the workshop, and as just a place to post up ideas on how to teach comics in general.   I've posted this in other websites to get the best responses possible, sorry if you've already read this.



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Thanks for this helpful post.  I work with struggling upper elementary and middle school readers, on the one end, and gifted readers, on the other.  I have been using Lerner's Bold Universe myths series with my strugglers to aid and assist them with print concepts, themes, and character development. How readers and artists create and depict these characters adds and interesting element to traditional discussions of character development.  Kids who struggle focus on the combination of visual and word relationships naturally.  They tell me that they don't only look at pictures but look at how the pictures help them understand and enjoy the story. Transitions are hard for them in print and visually. I look forward to examining the theorists you mention (McCloud et al.) to look at making comics and how to read them with students.
I can't recommend McCloud's Understanding and Making Comics highly enough.  Understanding Comics really has redefined comics theory.   There are other comic theorist, but many are too academic.  Their ideas often get lost in the process.  That said, Duncan and Smith's Power of Comics has a lot going for it.  There are chapters in that book I've read a number of times.  There are other chapters that I just don't think were necessary.  Good luck.  Hope this helps.

Besides talking for an hour, could you offer a quick 5 panel exercise of "how I came to this workshop" or something

that students could actively try to work out? Even if it is stick figures, it gives everyone a chance to be visual. You could put them up on a wall at the end, just for mingling and commenting: closure with engagement. Some people will say, "I can't draw!" but in fact, everyone possesses a visual vocabulary whether they realize it or not. Bring it on!

That's a great idea.  I love this.  I wonder how long something like that would take.  I'll look into this and let you know what I find out.  



I'd like to point you to two books out of my own household: 99 Ways to Tell a Story, by Matt Madden, which can allow you to show what comics do very inductively, and Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (as well as our website which has lots of activites and ideas for teaching what comics are and how they work, particularly in the first four chapters, where many of them require little or no drawing. See also this activity, panel lottery, which is a great hands-on thing to do with teachers and students to look at the function of juxtaposition. 


I've done a successful talk for teachers that's kind of like what you're doing: pointing out resources (McCloud, 99 ways, Groeensteen for those who are more ambitious), giving a set of ideas for teaching reading comics, writing with comics, and making comics. It's necessarily an overview, but a lot of fun. 

Thanks Jessica,

I picked up your book a few months ago and I wanted an excuse to let you know how much I enjoyed reading it. I'm really hoping that starting next year I'll be able to form a Comic Book Club at the high school I'll be working with. We have a local mini comics festival here in Athens called the Fluke Festival that happens near the end of the school year. My plan is to get student created mini comics, and use the festival as an end of the year goal. I've always been a comic reader, but I've been looking into making comics for the past year or so. I figure I can't make students do something I'm not also willing to do. I'm not an artist, but I don't think that's the point.

I just ordered a copy of 99 Ways to Tell a Story. I've heard good things about it elsewhere and I've been meaning to pick up a copy.

Thanks for all the ideas. Any other thoughts are appreciated.


I'm teaching a course on the Literature of the Graphic Word this summer (and hopefully more often in the future) and the angle I'm taking on the subject is just that: the juxtaposition of the written/printed word and visual cues/storytelling.  I would say go to Jung's Archetypes, Campbells "Hero with a Thousand Faces," and Varnum&Gibbons "The Language of Comics" for good resource materials. And, of course, anything Eisner ever did.  His book "Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative" is excellent for explaining how the two fit together.  Impact  gave away a "learn how to write and draw comics" comic for Free Comic Book Day a couple of years ago.  If you could get your hands on one of those or a .pdf of it, you could make it available as a hand-out to help explain what you are talking about.


When you get it all together, please send me a copy of what you've got for my collection.

Tony O'seland


Hey Tony,


First off thanks for the response.  I've been looking into Campbell and Jung a little bit but I still need to do some more reading.  There's a book called Superheroes: a Modern Mythology by Reynolds that gets mentioned a fair amount.   My only issue with them is that I feel they would work great with superhero comics, of which there are a lot, but I'm not sure what they say to other genres.   One of the things I've learned as I research critical studies of comics is there are a bunch of different ways to view comics.   For the traditional Marvel and DC, you've got what has been called Structural Mythology (Campbell, Jung), a Historical Perspective on Comics, and Cultural Studies.  


Alan Moore has this interesting thought on all fiction, but I think it really makes a cultural studies perspective make sense.   He believes that fiction exists in a Idea Space, sort of a counterpart for the real world.  In this sense, when real life events happen, such as 9/11 or President Obama's election, comic book worlds (primarily Marvel) also respond.


For many comics, a postmodern reading works really well since so many comics are so aware of themselves as comics, and the idea of complicit critique can be found in a number of places.  KickAss, well really the entire canon of Mark Millar, come to mind.  A violent comic that attacks violence in comics by being more violent.   


If you can let me know of a particular Jung book/paper/resource to go to next, I'd appreciate it.  Oh and when I'm finished with whatever I create, I'll send it your way, but it will be a while.

Here's a link to the first rough draft chapter of my thesis:

There might be some stuff there that might help, or spark other questions.  At least, it won't do any harm.  Let me know what you think.  I've lost the original complete file due to computer and drive crashes, so I don't have a copy to share. 


I'm a lifelong comics fan and fellow teacher working on my PhD in Education in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin - Madison focusing on meaningful incorporation of popular culture (specifically graphic novels) into classroom instruction. So, I'm very interested in how this goes and what you're up to. Hope I can help.

I wondered if you knew what the breakdown of the folks you'll be working with might be? I think the approach would be different depending on what you hoped to accomplish with your workshop. From your post it sounds like you're looking at comics as an additive to regular instruction and perhaps making a case for why they should be included in instruction in the first place. Is that a fair assessment?

From an apologist standpoint, I guess I would be most interested in what comics do that "real novels" don't or can't. I would also want to know what "serious issues" comics dealt with apart from good v. evil, or the Monomyth.

From a standpoint of someone who thinks comics are a good idea but has no prior knowledge, I'd be interested to hear not so much how to read them (actually excerpts from McCloud are making their way into English textbooks anyways like McGraw Hill, and Prentice Hall) but where to get started? If I only really know about the Trinity (Supes, Bats, WW) or Spider-Man, I might not know to look for Persepolis, Fax from Sarajevo, Pride of Baghdad, etc.

So I guess, it's a matter of what you wish to accomplish in your hour. Hope it goes well and please hit me back if there's more I can help with.


Well as I prepare and continue to research this, partially for the workshop (which I have no idea who or how many people will come) and partially for myself, I'm trying to look at comics in education in two major ways.  


The first is comics as literature.   And from that standpoint I agree that people need to be aware of websites and publications that give a fair amount of options for comics, not just the superhero type.  The other day, a Shakespeare scholar that I have a lot of respect for was telling me about her opinions on comics in education and I had to point out to her that comics are a medium, not a genre.   To suggest that all comics are about superheroes is like suggesting that all films are action movies.  But whatever.


The other way is comics as an educational tool.   There are few people out there trying to find ways to use comics, both in terms of reading and creating them, in order to help students become better readers and writers.  Visualization scaffolding, Comics as logographic cues for memorization, and making comics to help focus writers.   


So there's a lot to talk about.  


Well thanks for your thoughts.

Enjoyed all the responses, and your initial prompt, Mike, good stuff. As someone doing his dissertation in comics (not on comics), i think in addition to good points about literacy bridging, accessibility, etc., we might also think about the importance of visual thinking not as illustration, but as integral to our making of meaning and significant in its own right. (See Arnheim, Gunther Kress on Multimodality, and others). Comics offer a unique way to present our thoughts with visual verbal resonance. I tackle what i'm talking about in this piece, which might be of use: I'd also echo all the thoughts to get them making a bit, even in a short time - might add "magical life of longtack sam" as a comic one could make even if drawing is not a strong suit.

Good luck with the presentation - Nick 



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