Category Archives: Comics in Education

Comics in Education: Teaching Figurative Language with Comics and Graphic Novels

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

I still remember my first year teaching in the classroom. What a fun, challenging, and eye-opening experience that was. I eagerly anticipated the students I would get to know, and how (with all the naive enthusiasm of a newbie), I would light the fire of inspiration under each and every one of them. I dutifully reported to campus, accepted the key to my classroom, and received from my principal a very tall stack of teacher’s manuals.

I started the year with gusto, following the pacing plans given to me by the district and the sequence of lesson plans laid out in the manuals. Before I knew it the end of the first trimester arrived and it was time to complete the report cards for my lovely young 4th graders. It was my first time ever filling out a report card, and I was excited to engage in this next new step of my teaching career.

The report cards were the newly designed, standards-based kind. As a result, I did not see one until it was time to fill it out. Had I gotten my hot little hands on one at the beginning of the year, my teaching might have been entirely different – for the “key” standards listed on the report card had very little to do with what I had been teaching from the teaching manuals and district assignments.

Understanding figurative language (similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, etc) was one of the important skills that I was to report on. How well had they mastered this knowledge? Were they able to demonstrate and apply their understanding? I experienced a moment of panic as I realized that my current prescribed curriculum did not even cover figurative language – yet here it was on the report card. And I was responsible for holding my students accountable for this knowledge.

I realize this is a lengthy introduction, but here I arrive at my point. With absolutely no tools in my classroom to teach figurative language (and I was determined to do so before I completed those report cards), I raided my comics and graphic novels collection for teaching ideas.


Green Arrow #13 by Kevin Smith and Phil Hester

The first experience with using comics in my classroom was a little rough. I barely knew what I was doing – but I knew that the kids were engaged, and excited to learn. And because they were engaged and interested, their retention of the concepts I was teaching was even stronger.

The next year, I was determined to be much more prepared. My collection of superhero comics was not large at this time (and, I wasn’t sure how manhandled I wanted my issues to get). So to limit some wear and tear, I saved up all the Sunday comics for months, and added them to my lessons on onomatopoeia. Handing out stacks of colored newspaper comics with my DC and Marvel issues elicited tons of “oohs” and “aahs” from my class. With highlighters and post-its they eagerly dug into the comics determined to find every last pop, bang, and pow.

In the coming years I continued to add to my comics collection. My lessons on personification moved to include the amazing comics series Babymouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm, and also Owly by Andy Runton.

Similes and metaphors are found everywhere in comics. But as teachers, we want our students to move beyond simply identifying to creating their own. Comics provided the perfect stepping stone for such skills. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man were all larger than life characters that made it easy for my students to develop figurative comparisons: he was fast as a speeding train, or he fought like an enraged lion, etc.


Babymouse: Queen of the World by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

We moved from writing figuratively about established characters, to having students develop their own characters. I invited my students to create their own comics; tell their own stories – and include all of the examples of figurative that they had learned about. Together we created rubrics and criteria lists, through which the students assessed the work of their peers as well as their own. We had a “wall of fame” where students put up the best examples of similes, metaphors, and inventive onomatopoeia that they had found – in the commercial comics as well as the work generated by the class.

It was many years ago, but I realize looking back that these experiences with teaching figurative language launched what would become a very long love affair with using comics in the classroom. Not only did my students learn everything I wanted them to, they learned so much more. We continued to use the comics throughout the year – to teach elements of narrative, fiction, the hero’s journey and more. And because my students had learned all of these skills using a medium they loved and found engaging, they were more willing and ready to apply that learning to the text-only literature we read.

Using comics in the classroom can be as simple as bringing in the Sunday “Funnies” or the latest issue of Spider-Man or Teen Titans. Don’t be afraid to try – it opens a world of awesome opportunities.

Homework (for you to do on your own, with your kids, or with your students): Pick up any handy Marvel or DC comic and count the instances of onomatopoeia you find. Do the same with the Sunday Comics. Which has more? Which has more “rare” onomatopoeia? What purpose does the onomatopoeia server? How would the experience of the comic change if it wasn’t there? When is it effective? When is it not effective? How can you effectively use onomatopoeia in your own writing?


Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: Comics as a Tool for Writing

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

In past columns we have spent a lot of time talking about how to use comics in the classroom. We’ve discussed everything from using wordless comics to teach elements of narrative, to using graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare, to experimenting with comics based on poetry. What we haven’t really talked about is how to use the medium of comics to help students tell their own stories, or demonstrate their own learning.

Using the comics format as a way to get kids writing couldn’t be more natural. Students love to tell stories, especially their own stories, and the comics media is a perfect vehicle for doing so. But kid-created comics can do so much more than just tell stories. In this month’s column, we are going to spend some time talking about all the ways you can use comics in your classroom to help students to share their voice and “show what they know” – in other words, as a vehicle for expression.

“Essay” Comics

Perhaps the most natural way to have your students create their own comics is through the process of creative writing. Unfortunately, in our testing obsessed education culture, creative writing is often the first part of the English curriculum to go. Teachers are often compelled to have their students spend time writing essays, such as expository, response to literature, persuasive / opinion essays, etc. But did you ever think that perhaps combining these genres of writing with comics could be another tool in your motivation toolbox? Why not invite your students to create a Response to Literature as a conversation between the speaker and the reader – in comics form? Or, why not create a persuasive argument as a visual essay with two characters debating both sides of the issue? There are innumerable ways to have your students employ a visual component to their essay writing. Neither the teacher nor the students should be intimidated by the drawing component either. Students need not be able to draw; stick figures work well, as do shapes (think of Flatland).

Consider this example…


By Richard Korzekwa, first place winner of Florida Citizens for Science’s 2009 Stick Science Cartoon Contest (click for larger image)

Using comics to help students learn about a topic, and then demonstrate that learning just makes sense. Some of you out there might be thinking that having students create “persuasion” comics (like the one above) is not the same or as rigorous as having them write conventional essays on the topic. But I would argue that’s simply not true. A student created comic can certainly be as rigorous and sophisticated as a prose essay – it’s all up to the teacher to set high expectations, and provide many models for students to review. And for most students, creating comics is a heck of a lot more fun and motivating than mere writing alone. If essay writing is the ultimate goal, then creating a comic as an interim step is a great way to get students involved in the writing, bringing out their voice and passion. It’s just a hop, skip, and jump away to turn that comic into a full-blown essay – should the need arise.


Airline safety brochure using comics

“How to” Comics

Much like the “essay” comics described above, “how to” comics can be used at any grade level to help students demonstrate what they have learned about a topic. There is the added advantage of authenticity to this project, since “how to” comics are a part of the world we live in. From the safety instruction pamphlet on an airplane, to the building instructions that come with Ikea furniture –“how to” comics are everywhere.

Writing “how to” books is a common part of many elementary school writing programs – and can even be found in many state standards. Instead of your standard “how to” text only writing assignment, why not have your students illustrate their text and turn it into a comic? Once again, adding in the visual/artistic component builds motivation and investment in the project, and creates a student work product that is both pleasing and instructional. With your older students, it can even be fun to have them create such “How to” comics to give to younger classmates at school (i.e. through a book buddies program). A fun adaptation of this project would be to model it on the popular TV show, “How its made” – inviting your students to explain how something is made…. Like a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. Yum!

Comics that Explain

The “How to” and “How its Made” comics mentioned above both explain how to do something, or how something is made. But there are other ways to explain things as well. I’ve known many math teachers over the years that invite their students to use the comics format to explain a math procedure, rule, or proof. I remember one year a student, after receiving such an assignment, used her comic to explain why a negative times a negative (or positive time a positive) is always positive; while a negative times a positive is a negative. She created an entire story about how when you put a negative person with a negative person, they are happy (i.e. positive) to be negative together, and when you put a negative with positive person, he just ended up bringing her down… (making her a negative in the end…). Ok, not perfect math, but it was creative, awesome and ultimately, the student came away with a better understanding of the rule – and never forgot it.

All in all, there isn’t really anything out there that couldn’t be explained in a comic if you just give your students a chance to do so. Plus, it gives your students an opportunity to use their artistic intelligence, not just mathematical or linguistic.


Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

Comics as Journalism

This is actually a genre that exists in the comics publishing world. Whether you are a fan of the works of Joe Sacco (Palestine), Guy Delisle (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea), or Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón (The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation) – there are plenty of great models for students to look at, and be inspired by. Encourage students to find an issue they are passionate about, and investigate it. Then, invite them to use the comic format to report out on that issue. Comics writers have been doing this for ages, and it’s a legitimate form of reporting. Again, such visual reporting can be extended in so many ways – use as a launching point for having students create their own film documentaries. Or, have them create a comics newspaper on the issues that matter most to them. This particular assignment also offers numerous opportunities to teach the writing conventions of the journalism genre (who, what, when, where, why… etc.). Again, if text only writing is the goal, well-written, high quality text can be lifted directly from the comics.


Healing from the P.E.V. by Riva Jalipa, addressing post-election violence in Kenya

“Activism” Comics

And last but not least, using comics as a form of activism, or for promoting social change is a great way to channel student writing. Combining elements of all the types of writing we’ve already discussed (persuasion, how –to, explanatory, journalism, etc.), Comics Activism takes it a step further, asking students to use their comics to compel the reader to act.

Again, there are real world examples of this. One of my favorite organizations to share with students is World Comics. World Comics specializes in teaching individuals (both kids and adults), how to use the comics format as a way to speak out on important issues. Basically, World Comics uses comics to give voice to those who would have been otherwise silenced. Students in their programs have created comics that “focus on different issues, such as racism, sexual harassment, girl child rights, school drop-outs, hiv/aids, sanitation, and right to education… Any issue, on which one can make a story, can be expressed through grassroots comics.” (World Comics website, “Comics in Action”)

World Comics has a great website with a myriad of tools for running comics workshops, and they have affiliates in numerous countries. Not only can you teach your students how to create comics for social change, but through World Comics (and other organizations like them) you can partner your class with other students around the world who are doing the same thing.

Comics have the power to change things. They have the power to change reluctant readers into avid readers. They have the power to motivate lackluster writing into writing filled with voice and passion. When created by empassioned students on topics that matter, comics have the power to change minds and motivate people to act. Much like those archetypal characters that transform from average, everyday regular “Joe’s” into crime fighting, butt kicking superheroes, comics—the literal underdog of the literary world—have the power to do a little butt kicking of their own.

So get busy and get your students to write comics. Like World Comics’ tagline says, “If you have something to say, say it with comics.”

Homework: Check out the myriad of tools at the World Comics website, and maybe even start a World Comics Club at your own school!

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: The Case for Comics in Classrooms – Refuting the Naysayers

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

The Case for Comics in Classrooms: Refuting the Naysayers

I read an article recently that dredged up some unpleasant feelings for me. Well alright, it actually made me mad, but I’m trying to be professional here. After ranting a bit to my family, my daughter pointed out that the article was written two years ago, and that things have surely changed in that amount of time. But I asked myself, “have they really?” I’m not so sure.

The article, “Wondering (Worrying) About Graphic Novels”, was written by Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade language arts teacher, and teacher of the year for his region. In his article (in which his tone is quite condescending), Ferriter “worries” about the growing use of comics in the classroom, and the ways in which such use surely must be preventing students from having the quality learning experiences they deserve.

I hesitated before writing this response, because I didn’t want to give his article any more attention than necessary. But its two weeks later, I’m still incensed, and this topic is too important to let such ignorant opinions run rampant ‘round the Internet. That and, I know there are a LOT of teachers and librarians out there still hanging on to these same misinformed (even if naive) points of view. So, let the debunking begin…

Comics do all of the “imagining” for students.

It’s true that comics do contain pictures. A LOT of them. But to say that pictures take the opportunity to imagine away from the reader is completely false. I would venture to guess that good comics require more imagination on the part of the reader. The reader must not only read and interpret the images presented in the panels, but they must further imagine the action taking place between the panels. Unlike prose, which contain necessarily frequent amounts of exposition, quality comics leave much up to the imagination of the reader where inference is a critical skill. The reader has to work relentlessly to interpret the images, and infer information from the ways in which the images and text work together to communicate a message.

Furthermore, there are a multitude of comics out there that have as much, or even more text than many prose-only books that our students are reading – not to mention more rare vocabulary. Consider the following…


Excerpt from The Teen Titans: The Judas Contract by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez

“The Judas Contract” story arc from The Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman… nearly every page of that arc is literally covered with text, with a reading level at times superseding that of most high school texts. Another example: The new “Death of the Family” Batman story arc has over 690 pages with word counts ranging from between 50 to 250 per page. Even if we estimated the average words-per-page count for the series to be 150 words per page, that’s still over 100,000 words all totaled. That’s more words than: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Slaughter House Five, Lord of the Flies, and many, many other classics as well.

And that’s just addressing the sheer quantities of words present in Comics. Nevermind the fact that research has shown comics to have more rare vocabulary words in them than even most adult books – outmatched only by Scientific Abstracts, Newspapers, and popular trade magazines (Selected Statistics for Major Sources of Spoken and Written Language, Rare Words per 1000. University of Oregon).

With text that prolific and challenging, why are the images even an issue? The images provide the comprehension support needed to ensure that students can do the work of imagining everything that is going on in that world. Moving on…

Comics don’t require thinking.

In many ways, comics require more thinking than mere prose. A quality comic contains text and images seamlessly interwoven. More thinking is involved, because the reader must actually “study” the complement of words and images to make meaning. This is why so many students will return to a favorite comic again and again – because they are gaining new information each time, information they missed in the last go round. It is a multilayered experience that allows for continued enjoyment and “aha’s” throughout repeated readings.

Comics are often figurative and metaphorical. Not only must the reader employ keen observational skills to comprehend the literal representation of the images and words, but the reader must reflect on their figurative meanings as well. I recall in a recent reading of the No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet graphic novel with a student, encountering an opportunity to teach about metaphor. In a series of panels showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inquiring of Hamlet, the artist Neil Babra chooses to show them as puppets, whose strings are being manipulated by King Claudius. The student and I had an extensive discussion about this artistic choice and what it communicates to the reader. We talked about metaphor, and how it can be used to help us achieve a deeper understanding of characters and their motives. The rigor of this discussion was a direct result of using the graphic novel, rather than just the text version of the play alone.


Blankets by Craig Thompson

Another great novel for teaching literary elements is Blankets by Craig Thompson. I’ve used the opening sequences to teach tone and mood, and visual metaphors abound throughout. The panel where the angry father punishes Craig’s little brother by putting him in “the cubby” is particularly terrifying, especially with the gaping mouth full of menacing teeth standing in for the cot.

I’ve used Bone by Jeff Smith to teach almost all the elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I’ve used The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho to teach allegory – the graphic novel version adapted by Daniel Sampere is much more accessible than the novel itself. I’ve used Calvin and Hobbes to teach tone (i.e. write this series of panels in a… nostalgic… sarcastic… playful… bitter… tone). I’ve used The Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown to teach parody and satire. I’ve used wordless panels of Owly by Andy Runton for a myriad of things, from dialogue writing, to oral language development, to descriptive language generation, to writing action, and so much more.

These are just a few examples…. I could fill an entire article with examples like this.

Comics are good for reading-challenged kids, but not for more sophisticated readers.

I have to admit, Ferriter’s implication that comics are only good for struggling readers probably made me the most angry. What is he really saying here? Oh those picture books are fine for those kinds of students, but certainly not for everyone. It’s completely insulting.

I’ve had every kind of student imaginable – including those for whom reading text was torture. Because of their multilayered nature, comics and graphic novels provided an entry point through which any student could explore literature, literary themes, and elements. It leveled the playing field in my classroom, by enabling ALL students– whether struggling or high gifted, to engage with the text at increasingly deeper levels. It allowed me to move beyond teaching mere comprehension, to the higher cognition levels of: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As a result, the rigor of my classes was pushed in such a way as to meet the needs of even my most advanced students, while not leaving others behind.

Comics will prevent kids from reading “real” literature.

This is absolutely false. It is true that some readers of comics may always prefer to read comics to prose-only literature. But it is equally true that some readers of comics will gravitate to other forms of literature just as easily as any thing else.


Batman: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder, et al.

The NCTE Council Chronicle article, “Using Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom”, included the following quote from John Lowe, the Sequential Arts Chair at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia:

“I started reading comics, and then I got into other types of fiction and literature. I stopped reading comics a little later, but I don’t think I would have made the leap [to literature] if it weren’t for comics.” In his case, Lowe says, he literally went from reading “Batman to Faulkner.”

I’ve been privileged to witness this phenomenon over and over again with my own students – students who may have gravitated toward simple comics and graphic novels at first, then as they gained more confidence in their reading abilities, branching out to more challenging texts. To be clear, those challenging texts included both prose-only as well as more sophisticated comics and graphic novels.

Which brings me to a very important point. Not all comics are created equal…

Comics are content shallow, the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore”.

It is true that some comics are definitely the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore.” But the same is true for a lot of prose-only books as well. Selecting strong literature for the classroom and for use as lesson content is the responsibility of the teacher and/or librarian. Let me say that again, it’s the responsibility of the teacher. If you have crappy, low quality literature in your classroom, that’s your choice. Do not blame an entire category of literature for your own inability to seek out, identify, and procure quality literature for your classroom, lessons, or library. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. I’ve met too many teachers who want to blame the “tool” when their lessons go awry. That’s like the builder blaming the hammer for poor construction. The teachers that Ferriter quotes in his article, and I would also include Ferriter himself in this, clearly are not experienced enough with comics or graphic novels to make an informed judgment.

Which is why I find the next two points particularly alarming…

One – this guy was selected as a teacher of the year for his region, and two – the article he wrote got picked up by ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) – a national organization dedicated to leadership in education. If people or organizations in positions of educational leadership are touting such misinformed and dare I say ignorant opinions as Ferriter, or even if people are just listening to such blather, we have a much longer way to go than we thought.

And in the end, that’s why I wrote this article. But my voice alone means nothing. Now it’s your turn.

For your homework: Comment with your opinions below, and LIGHT UP TWITTER with your support for comics in the classroom! #READCOMICS #COMICSWORK #COMICSINCLASSROOMS #TEACHCOMICS

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: Environmentally Themed Comics

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

I realize its only January, and many of our readers, trapped inside by snow storms or other inclement weather, are enjoying hot chocolate and the warmth of their snuggies… But Earth Day is coming, and it’s never too early to think about good literature that can help you teach the importance of earth stewardship.

Earth Day isn’t until April, but most teachers will soon be thinking of the books and activities they want to utilize. Instead of the same old same old, why not shake it up a bit and introduce a graphic novel or comic on the topic? There are plenty out there and today’s column is devoted to introducing you to some of my favorites.


A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

There are many different ways to talk about and teach environmental issues in the classroom. If you are interested in getting away from the usual reduce, reuse, and recycle mantras that usually surround the celebration of Earth Day, then you might take a look at Josh Neufeld’s beautiful book A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. This book about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, focuses on the stories of several real life characters who lived through the storm and worked to rebuild their lives afterwards. Though After the Deluge falls in the comics journalism genre, and the author works to report the events as well as the consequences for the people who faced the storm, there are many teaching extensions connected to the impact climate change is having on our weather, opportunities to connect to more recent super storms (such as Sandy), as well as other extreme weather events like the mid-western drought of last summer. If you are looking for additional teaching ideas, there is an awesome teaching guide here.

Also, if you can’t afford class copies of After the Deluge (which is hard bound, beautiful, and can be pricey), you can have your students view most of the original comic online, since it was first published as a webcomic.


I’m Not a Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison

In Rachel Hope Allison‘s new graphic novel I’m Not a Plastic Bag, she envisions the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a sad and lonely monster, looking for its place in a world that has abandoned it. Whimsical and imaginative, Allison’s narrative makes the reader aware that the everyday items that are part of our lives, however briefly, have a life of their own beyond our immediate consumption. The idea that there is a garbage patch the size of Texas just 1000 miles north of Hawaii may come as a surprise to your students. But it opens up a number of fantastic learning opportunities to explore and extend student learning beyond the reading of the graphic novel itself. Additionally, this particular graphic novel also includes several pages of educational material on related environmental topics that can help guide your lesson planning.


H2O by Grant Calof and Jeevan J. Kang

Another newer graphic novel that is getting some attention is H2O by writer Grant Calof and artist Jeevan J. Kang. The story is set a couple hundred years in the future in a world that has lost all of its water. That’s right, even the oceans have burned off. Billions of people have died and the rest have moved further and further away from the equator forming entirely new composite nations from the remnants of humanity. The conflict emerges when a previously unknown glacier is found buried just under the surface in the mountains of Patagonia in South America. All of the nations rush to be the first to claim this badly needed water source.

The novel presents an interesting take on our near future if humankind does not manage to turn climate change around. After reading the comic, I did some further digging on some of the ideas put forth and it turns out that Calof did a lot of research to ensure that the book would be scientifically accurate. There are a lot of teaching opportunities here, not the least of which is to ask students to give some actual thought to what would happen if the water of the earth actually did begin to disappear. The novel itself alludes to the “water wars” that are sure to have taken place, but that is all. It would be a great idea to talk about the water wars that are already taking place around the world, and even have your students look more deeply at some specific case studies pulled from places like Kenya. You can read up on the water wars in Africa from this article on the BBC.


As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan

Another great book is the comic satire As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan. One of the things I really like about this book (and also really hate) is the point that it makes about how little what we do individually really matters. The book’s main premise is that changing all of your light bulbs, or recycling, or reducing – none of that is going to amount to enough change to reverse the climate change trajectory that we are on. Even if everyone in the country did all of these things, it’s still not enough. OK, that can make a reader really sad – and the book even makes fun of this despair with their very own optimistic do-gooder who thinks she is “doing her part” by buying less stuff, using her own grocery bags, and changing her lightbulbs. But as the other, more savvy, characters in the novel point out, if things are really going to change it has to happen at the corporate and state/government level. This is why I also like this book. It doesn’t pull any punches and it lets the students know that hey, if you really want to make a different CALL UP YOUR SENATOR, VOTE, get involved in making change happen at the state, national, and international level…. In addition to changing your lightbulbs. Just using portions of this book can help you launch a campaign in your classroom, and encourage your students to become more civically minded.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Volume 1 by Hayao Miyazaki

And who can talk about environmentally themed books without talking about Hayao Miyazaki’s serialized novel Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Set in a post-apocalyptic world, a princess sets out to save her people by trying to promote peace in a time of war – peace between people but also between people and nature. The environmental themes here largely focus on the harmful effects of pollution, and the challenges of trying to “purify” a world that is already contaminated. This a beautiful and deep story, and offers a wealth of discussion topics for your students around the idea of responding to a world that is already polluted. There are many literature and historical tie-ins as well, including the idea of post-apocalyptic literature as a genre in Japan.

I think I’ll end with my new environmental favorite: Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore. Known for his biting socio-political writing, one would expect no less from Alan Moore in his take over of the Swamp Thing franchise. I started reading this on the recommendation of a friend and couldn’t be more pleased with the story of course, but also the clear environmental and political overtones. It’s sophisticated and entertaining, and multilayered enough to keep your high school AP lit classes discussing for hours on end.

Homework: Check out these recommendations for the best environmentally themed graphic novels of 2012, including those for young readers.

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: Teaching Controversial Comics

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Appropriateness is a topic that we all struggle with at one point or another, and is not just limited to the world of comics. As teachers we have to make determinations every day on whether this image, this book, this movie, or this discussion is appropriate for our classroom. For some reason though, comics seem to get a bad rap in terms of classroom “appropriateness”.

It is true that a lot of comics published for entertainment purposes contain content that is inappropriate for classroom use. I can’t count the number of times that I have read a comic and thought, “This is PERFECT for what I want to teach,” only to get halfway through the book and arrive at a scene that would never pass my district censors. Whenever this happens, I am confronted with a dilemma… how can I use a book that I think is incredibly important for students to study, but that contains some content that my colleagues or parents would find controversial?

Barefoot Gen Volume 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa

Let me share an example. Barefoot Gen series is a ten volume comic that tells the story of a young boy who survives the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and the immediate aftermath. Originally this series was published as a serialized comic in a Japanese boys’ manga magazine. The story is closely based on the early life experiences of the author, Keiji Nakazawa, who lived with his family in Hiroshima and experienced the bombing first hand. This series is powerful, moving, and emotional. As a more traditional manga, it contains some of the slapstick conventions that take a little bit of time to get used to. Once you have read past the first few pages, however, you begin to get lost in the story of a family with a pacifist father, an older brother that has enlisted in the military to prevent his family from being targeted as “unpatriotic traitors,” the conflict between this father and son, another young son that has been evacuated to the countryside (where he faces starvation), a sister and a brother still trying to maintain some sense of normalcy by attending grammar school, and a mother who is nine months pregnant caring for her preschool aged son at home. Yes, it’s a large, complicated family.

There is so much going on in this book that I can’t even begin to encapsulate it here. It is, I believe, my most favorite comic of all time. In fact, this book has been translated into over a dozen world languages. It is quiet, unassuming, and childlike. Reading portions of this comic is like watching a very clever child’s cartoon: entertaining on the surface, but chalked full of meaning if you begin to peel back the layers.

Barefoot Gen Volume 5: The Never-Ending War by Keiji Nakazawa

Considering all of that, why would I have any problem using it in the classroom? Well for one, there is a lot of cartoon, slapstick type violence. This is actually more a manga convention than anything else, and common to a lot of ’70s Japanese comics. It’s similar to the zany antics of Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny – only in the middle of a serious story about people trying to survive a very real war. If you are thinking “wow that’s awkward,” then you get the idea. It seems strange to see characters in the book always punching each other, complete with Batman-style onomatopoeia, like it’s an everyday thing. That being said, I helped my students get past this by using some of the explanation above, and also reminding them that this comic was originally printed in a ‘rough and tumble’ boys’ magazine, and so this type of comic action was expected.

Next, at the end of the book, the author recounts the experience of the bomb drop and immediate aftermath. Obviously many people die, including members of Gen’s family. It is violent, gruesome, dark, and horrific. I can not ever read this part of the book without crying. As disturbing as this part of the book is, it’s not difficult from an educational point of view to develop a rationale for teaching it: We never want this to happen again – and therefore we have to know what happened, in all its tragic detail.

Barefoot Gen Volume 10: Never Give Up by Keiji Nakazawa

So what’s the problem? Well, there is a scene in the middle of the book… school officials (who are angry at the dissent and pacifist attitudes of the family’s father) seek to punish the young daughter. They make her strip down to her underwear, in what amounts to the principal’s office, and make her stand there while they humiliate her. It’s an awful scene, but so critical to the story. I remember when I first read this scene, I had already been thinking seriously about using this comic in my classroom. I couldn’t wait to start building curriculum and lessons around it. But when I read this part of the book, I became seriously worried that I would never be able to use the book because parents and administrators, even students, would be so disturbed by it. That being said, I was reluctant to give the book up. I REALLY wanted to use it. I felt the message was too powerful and too important to just abandon. I began thinking of ways I could use parts of the book. Could I excerpt it? Could I just rip out those pages? I felt slightly insane as I tried to come up with ways to get this past my educational “censors”. In the end, I decided the scene was too important, too pivotal to the overall story to leave out. I would just have to find a way to get others to believe in the story as much as I did, and then prepare my students as best I could to receive it.

The example of Barefoot Gen is not a unique experience for teachers wanting to use significant, yet controversial, works of comic literature. With that in mind, I have developed a list of steps I follow as a result of my experience with Barefoot Gen:

Carefully consider the age group
As a curriculum director, I work with and develop educational content for a variety of ages – from elementary through college. When I first read Barefoot Gen, I felt it would be appropriate for upper elementary – 5th and 6th — through adult. Before deciding to use a particular book, ask yourself, Can my students handle this? For the use of Barefoot Gen in particular, I asked, Are they mature enough to understand the conflict between the oldest son and the father? Are they emotionally mature enough to understand the humiliation scene with the daughter, and the impact that it has on Gen? These are very important questions. If you have any doubt about the ability of your students to handle such questions, or your ability to present the content effectively, I would steer clear.

Develop a clear rationale for use
I always write a rationale for the use of a book such as Barefoot Gen. I want to be very clear about why I am using this book and how it connects to my broader curriculum. If you teach in a standards based classroom, be prepared to share which standards your teaching of this content will help students achieve mastery of. Your administrators will likely ask you why you can’t just use some other more appropriate book. You want to be able to defend your book choice and refute any argument administration might have against its use.

Get approval from administrators or department heads in advance
There’s a saying… “Its easier to obtain forgiveness than permission”. But that’s not always true. Try to teach a controversial book without permission and it may be the last time that book sees the light of day in your district. Don’t put your book in danger of being banned. It is likely that your district or school has protocols for gaining approval for controversial material. Follow them. If no protocols exist, consider talking to your administrators or department heads and get their buy in.

Involve Parents in the Project
Invite your parents to be part of the journey. Use a back to school night, or open house to introduce the project to them, your rationale for using the book, as well as some significant background or historical information. If the parents are able to understand the importance of the book’s message, you are nearly home free.

Have parents sign a waiver or permission slip
Create a permission slip that summarizes the project and questionable content in the book, and invites parents to become more informed. Provide them with websites or links for more information. Make yourself available to answer their questions. Ultimately, ask them to sign a permission slip allowing their student to participate in the study of the book you have selected. For parents who do not want their child to participate, have an alternate book selection ready as well as accommodations for them to attend a different class if necessary.

Create a Parent Book Club
Again, this requires skillful facilitation on the part of the teacher – it could be a blessing or a curse. I’ve found, however, when it works out, it is a brilliant experience for both parents and students, and provides multiple opportunities for in-class and at-home discussion. Establish a reading schedule and periodic discussion meetings. If desired, do both separate and joint discussions with parents and students.

Preteach, preteach, preteach!
Prepare your students for the controversial content by doing some strategic preteaching. In the case of Barefoot Gen, mini lessons on classic manga conventions, as well as sexual harassment (yes we even teach awareness of that to elementary students), and an understanding of the horrors of war, are in order. For historically based books like Barefoot Gen, students will need a series of lessons to increase their background knowledge on the time period and key events. Again, be conscientious about presenting multiple viewpoints to keep students from becoming biased. While Barefoot Gen doesn’t point fingers, it is difficult to read about the family’s experiences and not be critical of the decision to drop the bomb. It is important to make sure that students understand all facets and perspectives of that decisions (i.e. the fear of a prolonged and protracted Japanese mainland invasion resulting in millions of deaths, etc.), so that they can make informed judgments.

Tie your teaching to a service project or community outreach
There are always ways to tie student learning into some type of action project. Whether you are studying superheroes or war, there is something you can do to make the world outside your classroom a better place. In the case of Barefoot Gen, get your students involved in the Hiroshima Peace Project (of which Barefoot Gen is also part). Invite your students to involve themselves in creating awareness about the proliferation of nuclear weapons today. The horror of Hiroshima will never be far away as long as mankind has the ability to launch a bomb with the press of a button. The only way to prevent tragedies such as this in the future is to promote a culture of peace.

Evaluate and reflect
The importance of having students (and parents if you involved them) evaluate and reflect on their experience reading a book like Barefoot Gen can not be overstated – especially if you ever plan to teach the book again. Create tools to gather perspectives of the participants and to document the meaningful and significant work that is done as a result of the learning. Consider using a survey to capture useful “sound bites” that can be used in future rationales. Invite students to write reflective journal entries detailing how their participation in the project has changed or impacted them.

Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

It’s a lot to think about, I know. But it’s worth it. I have a number of colleagues that avoid books with controversial content. It’s just “easier”, they say. It may be easier, but it doesn’t make the world a better place. True teaching takes courage and persistence. I hope that our tip list above can help you amass the courage and persistence to teach the controversial content that you too believe in.

For homework, check out more information on Barefoot Gen:

The Critical Eye: Barefoot Gen – essay on the animated movie adaptation

You can also take a look at Keiji Nakazawa’s actual autobiography, with comparisons to the Barefoot Gen story in this book:

Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: “Ut Picture Poesis” – The Shared Experience of Poetry Comics

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Comics have long been used to illustrate classic literature. In our last post, we even talked about the ways in which comics have been paired with the likes of Shakespeare to create some amazingly satisfying visual delights (see No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet – its great!). Many other great adaptations of classic texts also exist in comics form.

But today I want to talk about visually adapting another kind of classic literature – poetry. When people think about comics, they naturally think “story”. After all comics are also known as “sequential art”, implying the passage of time, which is an important part of narrative storytelling. Poems, on the other hand, tend to be more abstract, and often exist as moments in time. Additionally, poems use highly sensory language, which calls to mind heightened imagery for the reader. One might ask, does a poem really need visuals added to it? Are the words alone enough?

The relationship between poetry and visual images has been known for ages, however. In ancient Rome, they discussed it a lot – consider for example this phrase: “poema pictura loguens, pictura poema silens,” which roughly translates to “poetry is the verbal picture, and painting is the silent poetry,” which Horace then shortened to “ut picture poesis,” which is simply, “As is painting, so it poetry.”

Basically, both painting (or drawing) and poetry are ways of communicating perception – what one sees in the mind’s eye. Both are liberating forms of expression, unencumbered by the conventions of more formal modes of communication. My students tend to love both for the same reason, they can toss their grammar rules out the window. Which isn’t to say that there are not rules in poetry or comics, just that it’s a much freer form of self-expression.

Comics and poetry are alike in more than just the freedom of expression they offer. As I mentioned before, both are visual mediums. Though poetry often exists in text only, the way the text is displayed on the page is in itself a visual metaphor. Are the lines broken into neat little stanzas? Or, are they displayed staggered across the page? Are the words formed into a particular shape, such as a diamante poem (in the shape of a diamond)? Or, are the words creating their own random path across each page, or even falling off the page altogether?

“Lazy Jane” by Shelf Silverstein, originally published in Where the Sidewalk Ends (click for bigger)

Consider the placement of the words in the poem “Lazy Jane” by Shel Silverstein, at left.

What does the placement evoke? Perhaps a “shower” of words tumbling down into the mouth of Lazy Jane who wants to catch the rain in her mouth? Though Jane is drawn at the bottom of the page, the placement of the words is very intentional and works in harmony with the art to create more than splendid image – its an idea he is communicating.

Silverstein is a master at combining evocative images with poetic text to create a wonderful effect.

Let’s look at another. Consider first, just the text for Silverstein’s poem, “Union for Children’s Rights”:

Strike! Strike!
For Children’s Rights

Longer weekends,
Shorter school hours
Higher allowances,
Less baths and showers!

No Brussel Spouts, more Root Beer
And seventeen summer vacations a year!
If you’re ready to strike, sign up right here.

Now consider that same poem as Shel Silverstein drew it – as poem/comic:

“Union for Children’s Rights” by Shel Silverstein, originally published in A Light in the Attic

There is something instantly magical about the way Silverstein chooses to represent the poem. Instead of stanzas, Silverstein writes the lines as protest signs carried by the children. The art adds a dimension to the poem that text alone does not carry. That little extra something is actually a window into Silverstein himself – his personal vision of his own poem. That is not something we normally have access to when reading poetry. Which is why poetry can be so difficult to interpret at times – so full of allusions, symbolism, and metaphors that may or may not be familiar to us. Having the chance to “see” the poem, instead of merely “reading” the poem, provides an entirely different experience.

Reading poetry comics allows the reader to “experience” the interplay of visuals and language in a way that is different from text alone, or even poetry picture books. There is a rhythm to a comic that mirrors the punctuated nature of poetic verse, with its stops, starts, and flows.

The artist Seth describes it this way:

“When I am writing a comics page (or sequence of pages) I am very aware of the sound and ‘feel’ of how the dialogue or narration is broken down for the panels. If you have to tell a certain amount of story in a page then you have to make decisions on how many panels you need to tell it. You need to arrange these panels — small, big or a combination of the two — and decide how to sit them on the page. All these decisions affect how the viewer reads the strip; there is an inherent rhythm created by how you set up the panels. Thin panel, thin panel, long panel: this rhythm is felt by the reader, especially when you put the words into the panels. When writing a comic strip I am very aware of how I am structuring the sentences: how many words; one sentence in this panel; two in this one; a silent panel; a single word. These choices are ultra-important in the creation of comics storytelling, and this unheard rhythm is the main concern for me when I am working out a strip.”

“I imagine poets feel this same concern. If you read any free verse poetry you can see how the poet has made certain decisions for how to break the thoughts apart and structure them, often in a way that defies a system.”

Reference: Carousel, Volume 19, Spring/Summer Issue 2006, pg. 17-24

Speaking of rhythm and panel placement…

Another comics poet was Kenneth Koch, from the New York School of poetry. Known for his inventive combinations of words and images, Koch released a number of books over the years. One of his last books is The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly without Pictures, which has been called “part journal, part sketchbook”. This collection of visually inventive poems are sure to inspire you and your students and provide for much discussion.

One of my particular favorites from this collection is “Different Kinds of Hemispheres”.

“Different Kinds of Hemispheres” by Kenneth Koch, originally published in The Art of Possible: Comics Mainly without Pictures (click for bigger)


“Different Kinds of Hemispheres”
By Kenneth Koch

Northern Hemisphere.
Southern Hemisphere.
In every hemisphere, there is a different 
kind of life.
Sometimes this causes problems.
One day a man
From the northern hemisphere
Met and fell in love with
A woman
From the southern hemisphere.
They married and had children
- one boy and one girl-
Who lived on the equator.
They felt they had to.

There is something tremendously poignant and resonant in this poem, especially for children with divorced or separated parents. The text is meaningful, but as text alone it definitely loses some of it power. There is something about the visual, with its abstract lines, stark divisions between north and south, the boxed in phrases that are separated one from another, that lend the theme of the poem a metaphorical punch that isn’t there in the text alone.

The poems of Silverstein and Koch contain visuals and text that exists simultaneously, as far as we know without one preceding the other. As we saw when separating out the text from the visuals, the poems lose something. They are not meant to stand apart, but are meant to be experienced together. But that is not the only format for poetry comics. Many comics artists have collaborated with poets to create visual representations of their text-only poems, which in turn creates an entirely different experience. In such cases we are not only experiencing the voice of the original poet, but we are experiencing the poem as filtered through the mind of the artist – his or her own perception of the poem, its themes, and meanings.

The Poetry Foundation hosted a “Poems as Comic Strips” project some years back where they encouraged comics artists to select famous poems and adapt them as comics. The results were nothing if not interesting. Consider the Russel Edson poem “Of Memory and Distance” adapted by one of my favorite comic book artists, Jeffrey Brown.

Of Memory and Distance
By Russel Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will grow 
smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be found with a 
telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a microscope....

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having penetrated the 
distance must disappear entirely without hope of his ever returning, 
leaving only a memory of his ever having been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if it was 
someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or someone made of paper 
and ink....

What I suggest (and I suggest this for your students as well), is for you to read the text only version of Edson’s poem a few times to take in his meaning (or what you interpret his meaning to be). Once you have done so, click the link below to Brown’s comic version of the poem. Brown is known for his “bittersweet” portrayals of failed personal relationships. He is never afraid to be vulnerable or unappealing in his comics, and that also shows in his artwork.


After viewing Brown’s comic, what are your thoughts on his interpretation of the poem? I admit, the first time I experienced the comic, I was surprised. Brown’s interpretation was so different from my own. And yet, by experiencing his mental image of the poem, my own experience of the poem was enriched and enhanced. It became a shared experience – not between two (myself and the poet), but between three human consciousnesses (myself, the poet, and the artist).

The Poetry Foundation actually has a series of these poetry/comics collaborations. I enjoyed some more than others, but all are worth your time. You can read more about the project here.

Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology, edited by Dave Morice

Poetry comics (or comics poetry), have many applications in the classroom. At the very least, comics poetry can be used as a visual support to enhance and strengthen student comprehension. Poems can often be daunting for students, because the meaning is not always apparent – much more so for struggling or readers reluctant to do the work of ‘digging deeper’ to uncover the mysteries there. The visuals may allow for students to feel less intimidated, given that the poem is presented in a format that is appealing and friendly for students. It’s a very easy way to introduce works by Poe, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare and more. It also can provide opportunities from some deep discussion, by inviting students to compare their understandings of text-only poems versus the interpreted poems of the comics artist.

But another, more important strategy (in my opinion), is to invite students to create their own poetry comics – creating their own interpretations of poems using visuals. This requires students to actually do the work of interpreting the poem, and then share that interpretation with others through the format of a comic.

There are many other resources on the marriage between poetry and comics. A good book to check out is Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology by Dave Morice. It combines some of the best classic poetry, re-imagined in comic form. There’s also the newly released Comics as Poetry anthology. There are also many websites, from the “Poem as Comic Strips” project at, to websites completely devoted to the genre of poetry comics.

If you have a chance to use poetry comics in your classroom, we would love to hear from you.

Until then, here is a lovely article on Poetry and Design to read…

Homework: Read “Seth on Peanuts: Comics = Poetry + Graphic Design”

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: Shakin’ up the Bard – Visualizing Shakespeare

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Shakin’ Up the Bard: Visualizing Shakespeare
By Anastasia Betts

Shakespeare today remains one of the most influential and significant writers of all time. Despite what some might see as the “inaccessibility” of Shakespearean language, the study of Shakespeare is a worthwhile endeavor, guaranteed to challenge and inspire, regardless of the age or reading level of students.

I have many colleagues that shy away from Shakespeare, claiming that his work is too difficult, the language too cumbersome, and the stories less than relevant for their student populations. I find myself insisting that nothing could be further from the truth. Shakespeare’s work continues to live on as testament to the triumph of the human spirit, to love, to tragedy, revenge, power, and more. As the intro to his first folio stated, “he is not of an age, but for all time”.

The challenge in Shakespeare, then, is helping students to see the relevance of his timeless tales to their own modern, often urban, lives. Shakespearean text need not be a barrier to comprehension, as there are so many wonderful tools to help promote understanding, not the least of which are graphic novel adaptations.

So what are some ways to use graphic adaptations of Shakespeare with your students?

1.  Generate higher interest by using a multimedia format

It’s no surprise that in the 21st century, teachers recognize the need to make learning more visual. As I’ve said in previous posts, we live in a visual world, and frankly if you want to capture the interest of students, your best bet is to include visuals. Whether that is a graphic novel, animation, live performance, website, or any other multi-media format, its important that we as teachers do not ignore this critical point. Using a graphic novel enables you to provide the visual stimulation that students today are accustomed to, while still immersing them in the classics that so many of us long to teach.

Also keep in mind that Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be “read” in the first place. They were meant to by “viewed” live on stage. Though not as dynamic or inspirational as watching a live performance, comics can provide the best of both worlds – students are able to “view” the play while simultaneously “reading” it.

Macbeth adapted by John McDonald, illustrated by Jon Haward

2.  Support second language learners or reluctant readers

As classrooms continue to grow ever more diverse, today we teach students from a variety of backgrounds – whether that means they come to us speaking a first language other than English, or from a lifestyle or home environment where reading is not a priority activity. Perhaps they prefer to play sports or an exciting video game than to curl up with a good book. Or, perhaps they just never got the help they needed to improve their reading skills, and so now are just simply reluctant to read. Whatever the reason may be, we teachers do everything we can to get our students not only interested in the books we are teaching, but to help them achieve the greatest level of comprehension or understanding. Using a visual Shakespeare format can provide just the hook and the support students need to not only “get into” the text, but to exhibit the stamina needed to persist and finish the book.

One of the best graphic adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that I have seen lately is this interactive motion comic by Classical Comics. They also publish a hard copy version with the original text. However, the online or CD-Rom version is where it’s at. They provide an interactive comic experience with three different levels of text, the original, plain (modern), or quick (ESL). The benefit to this edition is that it is truly multi-media in that it also provides sound effects and an audio track to accompany the visuals and the text.

3.  Use as an introduction prior to studying the actual play

Using graphic adaptations before embarking on a study of the original (or even modern text versions) is another great way to incorporate visual supports that can benefit your students. If you are determined to tackle the challenge of studying the original, you might have an easier time getting the pump primed if you start your students out with a feast for their visual senses. If you do not have time to have them read the whole adaptation, you can send them home with the graphic novel (or portions there of), to whet their appetite for more. You can also use an intro activity such as this to help students gain familiarity with the setting, historical context, plot elements, and characters – in a way that is sure to be comprehensible to them. It’s a great way to help ensure that some of the basics are out of the way so that students are ready to tackle the text unhindered by other questions.

Hamlet adapted by Neil Babra

4.  Use along side the original text as a comprehension aid

Many of my teaching friends are familiar with Shakespeare editions that have built-in literacy support, such as the No Fear Shakespeare series that presents the Shakespearean text side by side with a more modern version of the language. I have used this series effectively in the classroom, but at times I feel it doesn’t always present enough support. I recently came across a new graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet by Neil Babra, published by No Fear Shakespeare. I had previously been unaware that No Fear had ventured into the world of comics, so I happily purchased it to check out it. I am happy to say it’s a great adaptation. The one downside is that the comic does not present the original Shakespeare text – however, even with the use of modern English, it is clear that the writer went to great pains to preserve some of the best lines (i.e. “Brevity is the soul of wit”). The artwork works well with the dialogue and story and the paneling is dynamic and interesting. It’s getting great reviews by the Shakespeare faithful and teachers alike.

Because this adaptation is so closely aligned to the original, it’s a great choice for using alongside the original. Consider assigning specific portions of the graphic novel for independent reading, then save the hard work of reading and discussing the original text for class sessions. Activate students’ critical thinking skills by asking them to compare the original to the graphic novel, and to make informed judgments about the graphic artist’s interpretations.

Just as a side note, I would also encourage anyone using this text to contact the graphic novel author, Neil Babra. I read on his webpage that he was really excited about teachers using his adaptation in the classroom, and I’m guessing that he might just be excited to do an author chat with you and your class!

5.  Use in place of the original play

Though I don’t recommend this per se (as I think the Shakespearean text is far too valuable to pass up), there may be occasions when this might be the appropriate choice for you. Perhaps you have limited amounts of time, or you feel that the Shakespearean English is simply too far out of reach for your students. If this is the case, then I would highly suggest that you at least introduce some portions of the original text to use as a companion to the graphic novel version (that is if the graphic novel version is in modern English). For example, when studying the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet, why not go ahead and copy a handout of the original text for students to compare. I’ve found that in small chunks, with the visual support of the graphic novel and the modern English translation, almost any student is able to begin to understand the Shakespearean version. The original text offers multiple opportunities to discuss with students the poetic cadences and the beauty of language.

6.  Have your students create their own “comic” depictions of key Shakespeare scenes

One of the activities I loved the most was encouraging my students to create their own graphic novels from the books they were reading, and Shakespeare was no exception. The easiest way to do this was through the use of photographs. Students do not always feel well equipped to draw, and given the option to photograph instead often helped them overcome any anxiety. Through this activity, students became, in effect, play directors – working to stage scene tableaus that would provide the maximum visual communication. These images were then imported into a comic-making software (i.e. Comic Life, or Strip Designer), where they could add speech or thought bubbles, and text boxes. Student work was evaluated on how well they communicated the intent of the scene, how well the visuals worked with the incorporated dialogue, and how well they utilized such literary devices as foreshadowing, mood, symbolism, and more. Providing students with an opportunity to demonstrate and deepen their comprehension through the creation of their own texts is an opportunity not to be passed up.

Romeo and Juliet adapted by Sonia Leong

Other Recommendations

There are a lot of graphic adaptations of Shakespeare available. I would caution you though, not all adaptations are created equal. Some are much better than others. The two I’ve already mentioned are really great: No Fear Shakespeare, and those by Classical Comics. There is also a series of graphic style interactive apps on the iPad called Shakespeare in Bits which I am pretty fond of. It provides more of the multi-media support through audio sound tracks, and also includes many other tools like articles on theme, plot, setting, act and scene summaries, and more. You can watch a product tour of the app on YouTube.

All of the resources I have mentioned thus far are pretty faithful to the language, setting, and context of the original plays. If, however, you are looking for something more updated, flashy, and trendy – check out Manga Shakespeare. With updated or in some cases futuristic settings, these books might be slightly too removed for a classical study of the Bard. That being said, these make fantastic additions to the class library, and provide a great informal (yes even sneaky) way to get your students reading Shakespeare without even really knowing it. While abridged, they do include much of the original text, interspersed with action sequences typical of manga. Manga remains one of the most popular styles of visual literature, and students are continually drawn (no pun intended) to the dynamic art and stylized characters.

Kill Shakespeare by Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger

Lastly, if you are looking for something Shakespeare themed, but a little more inventive and exciting, and not necessarily based on a specific play – look no further than a comic series called Kill Shakespeare. This is a brand new creation that recasts some of Shakespeare’s best heroes and heroines, and pits them against his best villains. Think of it as the Bard meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It may be that this guilty pleasure is best left for us adults who have the background knowledge of the plays and characters to fully appreciate this series, but I will leave that up to you to decide.

There are many more graphic novel resources out there, and you can pretty much find a graphic text for any of Shakespeare’s plays. Just be wise and carefully review any text you plan to use. Make sure that it’s providing the support you need, and that you have predetermined the ways in which the graphic text can best support your classroom teaching. And, as always, I am here as a resource if you want to send me any questions you might have, or if you want to bounce around potential teaching ideas.

But for now, I must bid you adieu!

Homework: If you plan to use any graphic Shakespeare in your class this year, please take a moment to comment below and share which play/graphic adaptation you plan to use, and any teaching strategies you are thinking of employing. Your ideas might just help one of your colleagues take the plunge!

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: Wordless Comics – Stories for All Ages

Guest-columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Wordless Comics: Stories for All Ages
By Anastasia Betts

I had the privilege this past San Diego Comic Con of visiting the Top Shelf table (as I seem to do every year). Top Shelf is a great producer of books that work well in classrooms, not the least of which is the Owly series by Andy Runton. I enjoyed a brief conversation with Andy himself, and told him how much I appreciate his work on the Owly series. I shared how important the genre of wordless comics is to developing the literacy skills of emergent readers – a fact I am quite sure he is already aware.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, using wordless comics in the classroom is a great way to boost the literacy skills of your students. The Owly series is a fantastic tool for working with younger students, and there are a variety of activities teachers (or parents) can engage youngsters in that will exercise their ‘reading muscle’. Just the simple act of retelling the story in their own words provides students with an opportunity to exercise and develop their oral language skills, descriptive language, as well as both concrete and inferential comprehension. You can download an entire activity guide for working with the Owly series at the Teaching with Owly website as well.

Owly by Andy Runton

It makes sense that a great little series like Owly would be beneficial in early childhood and early elementary classrooms. However, using wordless comics and picture books can actually help develop literacy skills, no matter the age of the reader. The fact is, reading stories that are told entirely through visuals alone requires a much more critical eye, and a keen sense of interpretation. We must not only “read” the visual, but we must bring our own backgrounds, and personal histories to the experience.

Reading visuals differs from reading text in its infinite capacity for extension and discussion. Consider another great visual text, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. This visual text, complex and sophisticated, offers a classroom the meaty substance for rigorous discussions on what the author/artist intended with an image or a series of images. Like the consideration of fine art, interpretations may be focused or boundless, depending on the nature of the visuals. Such discussions are rich and inviting, and require the participant to think critically about their own interpretations. To comprehend such texts, the reader must not only analyze the artistic sequences, but must bring his or her own set of life experiences to bear to make sense of the story. In The Arrival, Tan tells the story of a traveler who arrives in a strange and far-off land, an immigrant to a new world. Through discussion, students are able to stretch beyond retelling the story contained in the images, while having an opportunity to experience and reflect on their own “journeys.” Whether we are immigrants or not, we are all on journeys, some planned, some unexpected – and it is our personal journeys that help us to each uniquely understand the journey of the main character of The Arrival.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Wordless (visual) storytelling is certainly not a new phenomenon. I’m sure many of us might consider cave paintings, ancient hieroglyphs, or even the Bayeux Tapestry precursors to the modern visual texts. Visual storytelling has been part of humanity it seems, since the very beginning. One visual storytelling genre that was lost and then rediscovered is that of the wood cut novels. This genre flourished at the start of the 20th century, but then disappeared for time. Gratefully, some of the best graphic wood cut novels of that era have been rediscovered and republished for contemporary readers.

Wood cut novels offer some sophisticated and complex visual reading that can spark rigorous discussion in your secondary or even adult classrooms. Take a moment to check out the recent release of, Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyd. The artwork is striking and stark, but even more engaging are the stories that focus in on the various trials of humanity. Written just after the first World War, these artists (as well as the rest of the world) used their art and storytelling to make sense of the horrors the world had so recently experienced.

There are so many great wordless texts for the interested reader. You can find lists on as well as from any Google search. Here is another quick list of wordless graphic novels with some of my favorites. For those of you that are thinking of using wordless comics or graphic novels in your classrooms, I’ve included some practical teaching ideas to make the most of this versatile genre:

Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels, edited by George A. Walker

Build Oral Language Skills:
Invite readers to tell/retell what is happening in the story, frame by frame. Encourage them to describe everything they notice using descriptive and sensory details. Use guiding questions to help them find more words to describe what they see. For example, what do you think the character is seeing, thinking, feeling, smelling, hearing, etc. in this frame?

Build literal and inferential comprehension skills:
In addition to retelling stories frame by frame, encourage readers to explain what they think is happening between frames (in the “gutter”). This not only builds their oral language skills, but it also provides them with an opportunity to practice making inferences. Most visual texts make frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. Invite students to discuss what such symbols and metaphors may mean, and why the artist/author may have chosen to include them.

Teach Narrative Elements:
For young or early readers, focus on sequence: beginning, middle, and end. Use oral retelling as an opportunity for the readers to practice incorporating sequencing vocabulary such as “first, next, last…”

For older readers, focus in on character development and motivation. Invite the readers to consider questions such as: How does the author communicate to the reader about this character? What is the connection between how the character is drawn, and what the author/artist wants you to infer about that character?

For more sophisticated readers, there are innumerable opportunities to focus in on more complex literary elements such as foreshadowing, symbolism, suspense, rising action, climax, falling action… and much much more. Wordless novels are perfect for teaching these elements, no matter the ability level of your students. All of these elements are included visually in the story, and are in many cases easier to identify than in text-only books.

Build writing skills:
After practicing oral retelling, describing, and summarizing, try having students write their versions of the story. Invite them to write captions for each frame, or imaginary dialogue between the characters. Or, provide students with several of the frames, leaving out the last frame, and invite them to create an “ending” frame with text.

No matter the age of the reader, wordless comics and graphic novels have something valuable to offer. So as my mother always used to say (and yours probably did too…) – “Try it! You might like it.”

For homework: Read Art Spiegelmans brief review of the wood cut work of Lynd Ward.

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

Comics in Education: On Comics in the Classroom… A Response to a Response to a Response…

Guest-columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts

On Comics in the Classroom…

A Response to a Response to a Response…

By Anastasia Betts

First of all, welcome to all of you comics and teaching enthusiasts and enthusiasts-to-be alike! As a former teacher, administrator, curriculum developer, and comics lover I am thrilled to have been asked to contribute a column to The Comics Observer. You can count on my monthly column to shoot the breeze on any/all topics related to using comics, graphic novels, sequential art, etc. as tools for teaching in the classroom. Comics are a valuable resource for teachers in the classroom and I hope that this column will provide the space for dialogue and sharing of ideas.

That being said, you may be wondering about the very Inception like title for today’s post. By way of explanation, I will say that I am responding partly to Dylan Meconis, who in his online essay, “On Comics in the Classroom” was responding to the reporter Michael Cieply, who in turn was responding to comments made by a panelist (Lisa Vizcarra) during the most recent San Diego Comic Con panel on Comics in Education. I encourage you all to read Meconis’ argument, as it is smart, savvy, and insightful – and I do not want to spend valuable time repeating his solid ideas here. The quote that started all the responding, however, is here for your convenience:

“It’s frightening,” said Lisa Vizcarra, a science teacher at Carquinez Middle School in Crockett, Calif. Ms. Vizcarra, who seemed to set the day’s tone, was speaking to a Comic-Con audience about a looming pedagogical crisis: Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool, even as schools increasingly use them in their curriculums.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, and that’s why we’re here today,” she told a room packed with teachers and other listeners…

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Like Meconis, I couldn’t disagree more with Ms. Vizcarra’s position. Comics are more popular than ever with kids. And like Meconis, I agree that really the responsibility for solid and engaging instruction lays with the teacher, not the comic. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to choose comics and graphic novels that are sophisticated, engaging, and provide the meat needed for serious critical thinking to take place.

I won’t shy away from the fact that there are a lot of comics out there that are just plain bad, inappropriate, or that simply do not work well in the classroom environment. Some teachers, looking for the quick fix, or the “magic pill” to generate interest in their students, may be tempted to just “plug and play” the nearest graphic lit they can get their hands on. But, this is a teaching preparedness problem, not a comics problem.

I used to teach a “comics in the classroom” course for UCLA. As part of this course, my goal was to help teachers understand that they needed to personally and emotionally invest in the comics they taught, and give serious thought to how that comic would not only be integrated into their class content, but what learning objectives it was designed to meet. I cautioned teachers to never, ever, pick a comic based solely on the recommendation of a friend or colleague – even if that colleague was myself (their instructor). Doing so would only lead to chaos in the classroom. As Meconis points out, students are often far more sophisticated connoisseurs of graphic literature than most teaching newbies. That, and they can smell fear – nothing strikes fear in the heart of a teacher more than being cornered mid-discussion by students who know more about the subject matter, genre, or format than the supposed expert in the room.

Whenever I talk about using comics in the classroom, I frequently encounter teachers who are eager to share their use of comics. Unfortunately, these experiences with comics most often mean Maus or American Born Chinese – both excellent, award-winning books, not to mention personal favorites. But there are plenty of great graphic novels and comics out there, as good or better than Maus or ABC – that is, for the teacher willing to explore and immerse him or herself in the medium. Creating great comics related curriculum takes time, effort, creativity, and innovation.

Bart Simpson #71 by Aragonés, Gilbert, Nobori, Costanza, Novin

There are numerous reasons to engage students in graphic or what I sometimes call visual literature – increasing visual literacy and critical thinking for a start. We live in a world where visual literacy is and will continue to be critical to the survival and success of future generations. Every day we are bombarded with images saturated with meaning: literal, figurative, and more and more often – subliminal. Humans, after all, are biologically wired for sight. The eyes are the most powerful conduit to the brain, boasting over 1,000,000 visual nerve fibers to a mere 30,000 auditory nerve fibers. Thirty percent of our brain is devoted to visual processing. And I’m not talking about processing text (which requires a totally different part of the brain) – I’m talking about images and pictures, movies, life…

Consider the power of images and icons. In a recent study on visual literacy, 22% of all US citizens surveyed could name ALL five family members of the popular animated show, The Simpsons. Conversely, only 0.1% could name all five freedoms guaranteed under the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps if each family member wore a t-shirt with a freedom on it, we might remember? Of course I am being ridiculous – or am I? What if after exposing my students to the above statistic, I assigned them the task of renaming each Simpson family member with one of the five freedoms, and then providing a rationale for their choices rooted in their understanding of both the characters and the freedoms? What would Bart’s new name be? Freedom of Speech? I think I know a number of students who could make that argument. How about Homer, Lisa, Maggie, or Marge? For those teachers familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, I’d wager this assignment gets students working well into synthesis and evaluation, which is precisely where any teacher who cares about critical thinking wants students to be operating.

Bloom’s Taxonomy (click for a closer look)

Chances are, if you are reading this column, you are already a fan of comics. If I am lucky, you may even be a classroom teacher. You may be a teacher who is already using comics in your classroom, and so you will have awesome comments to share about your experiences doing so. If I am really lucky, you are a comics lover and a teacher that never thought of merging the two. In that case, this column will be just the “aha” you have been looking for to energize your teaching.

As I said at the beginning, this column will largely be devoted to helping you get familiar with some comics/graphic lit that you may not have been aware of, as well as some tried, true, and not so conventional ideas for teaching those comics, graphic novels, and other visual mediums in your classroom. Oh, and sometimes we may even tackle a little research too…

So, the next time Ms. Vizcarra laments the state of comics in education, and asks, “I just don’t know what we are going to do…” all of you can answer – “Read The Comics Observer and you will know!”

Your Homework: If you haven’t already, read Dylan Meconis’ Blog “On Comics in the Classroom,” and comment on your own experience with using comics as a teaching tool!

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.