How Can I Start Teaching Comics to Kids?
Growing up, I envied the kids who were allowed to read comics and graphic novels. “How cool is that super-secret reading skill?”, I thought to myself. Since neither my teachers nor my parents valued comics, I was out of luck as a kid. But today’s students aren’t out of luck. Comics are more popular than ever, and the phenomenally talented writers and artists who are currently creating them have arguably never been better.
When I became interested in comics again as an adult, I had many, many questions about this elusive format that my teachers didn’t see as “real” literature. Some of my questions were exactly those asked in a recent, thoughtful email sent to Pop Culture Classroom (PCC). A teacher wrote in and asked PCC about some of the best ways to teach school age children comics. She wanted to know how to teach comics to kids especially . . .
- In large groups?
- In small groups?
- And, last but not least, with narrative story structure in mind?
After over twenty years of studying and teaching comics to K-12 students, college students, and adult learners in educational settings, I am often asked these same important questions from many teachers who want to explore the literary value of teaching comics in 21st century schools.
To help teachers who have these same questions, I will share a classroom-friendly strategy that builds school-age children’s understanding of the comic book format in each of the above areas. Instead of focusing the students’ reading on what is more familiar to them when they read traditional print-text stories with just words, a Visual Reader’s Theatre will teach students how to successfully read and comprehend a comic book’s formatting, focus on telling stories with both visuals and print-text, balancing the reader’s attention equally between both the words and the images while reading a comic.
Reading Comics in Large and Small Groups, Aloud, & With an Emphasis on Story Structure: A Visual Reader’s Theatre
Since World War II, teachers have had success teaching both large and small groups of school-age children to practice reading aloud and enacting stories with a strategy called “Reader’s Theatre.” While the traditional use of a Reader’s Theatre strategy is focused on reading with print-text alone, a comic reading experience with Reader’s Theatre must place equal emphasis on both the print-text and the visual-text. I call this strategy a “Visual Reader’s Theatre.” A Visual Reader’s Theatre asks students and educators to follow these steps:
- First, teachers assign a comic book reading and students organize (into either large or small groups) to read and familiarize themselves with the text and images. Note: Teachers should take time to inform students about two key terms before reading comics and completing a Visual Reader’s Theatre. This can be accomplished by explaining the two key comic book terms below and pointing them out in a brief picture walk introduction to the comic. A picture walk involves simply leafing through a text and pointing out key images and terms just briefly to acquaint students with the upcoming story. For a Visual Reader’s Theatre picture walk, teachers need to both define and point out the key “panels” and “gutters” students will find in the comic book story.
- Panels – the visual boundary in which an element of story takes place (these elements of story are often focused on setting(s), character(s), plot(s), theme(s), and so on).
- Gutters – the space between the panels where the comic book reader’s imagination takes over and merges one panel idea into the next panel idea in order to move the story forward.
Before moving to step 2, it is imperative that educators assess student understanding of these two key terms: panels and gutters. This can be done informally, by creating a handout with a few panels and gutters on it, at an age appropriate level for your students and asking them to label the panels and the gutters.
- Second, students work (in either their large or small groups) to design multiple square-shaped backdrops with cardboard or poster board. These backdrops need to represent the main visual ideas found in the key panels and gutters from their assigned comic reading. Note: Between each panel, students need to consider the development of the story and create panel-like backdrops that flow in the order of their assigned comic reading, paying attention to how gutters connect panels together in order to make the story flow.
For example, to emphasize story flow in a comic book that has a parent driving a student to school, the first cardboard/poster board panel could show the parent and student coming out of the home and headed to the car. The second panel backdrop can then show the family riding inside the car on the drive to school, perhaps also with some key quotations / text from the story as well for further support. From that second panel in the car – through another gutter that blends the second and now third panels together –a third panel could show the student arriving and getting out of the car at school.
In sum, with three panels (and two gutters connecting them) readers can see a short piece of the original comic book story occurring piece-by-piece. In this regard, I like to sometimes explain that panels and gutters are often like puzzles; they fit together, but you can see how they connect in a small space that exists between them. Each piece (panel) connects to all the others through various lines (gutters) we can visually see in order to get a complete picture.
- Next, students practice reading their comic book assignment with their visual, panel-like boards behind them. Practicing multiple times is key for any Reader’s Theatre strategy with school-aged children. Students need to practice reading their assigned comics with their visual panel-like backdrops behind them in order to emphasize the comic book’s focus on both readable print-text and readable visual-text to tell the story. Practicing also allows students to work on pronunciation, enunciation, dialect, sound effects, vocal expressions, and many more auditory skills needed while reading comics aloud to peers.
- Narrative story structure is created in a Visual Reader’s Theatre when the read-aloud and the visual backdrops simultaneously support each other. In short, while students read the comic book aloud, their panel and gutter backdrops should simultaneously map the story behind them. Note: Educators can assess whether or not the story structure in both words and images was well followed by asking the students who are listening to map the comic book story as their peers’ conduct their Visual Reader’s Theatre. A timeline of visuals on the top and key words that pair with those visuals about the story on the bottom will work very well in this case.
- Finally, and in order to assess each group’s ability to read with words and self-created panel-like backdrops, it’s time for students to enjoy each other’s Visual Readers’ Theatres by performing them aloud for each other either in small and/or large groups. The timelines the listeners fill out can not only be an informal assessment for the educator, but also an opportunity for revision, if given back to each group for continuous improvement.