Thursday, April 30, 2009

Age Appropriate Comics

My friend Sarah is an elementary teacher with a dilemma. Sarah is interested in using comics in her classroom, but she finds it hard to acquire age-appropriate books from the graphic novel section of her local library and bookstore. Sound familiar?

I've met a lot of teachers who have expressed this same problem. At it's heart the issue is one of generalization- Almost all graphic novels at a bookstore or library are often times lumped together in one section. Like any other genre of literature, there is a rich diversity in comic book content, and until booksellers catch on to the fact that educators (and the general population) would appreciate a more elaborate organization system, it is up to parents and teachers to preview comics and deem content acceptable (or not) for their children and students.

That said, there is some good news. Many sites dedicated to comic books offer age-appropriate suggestions. Aside from those sites listed in the link section on the right hand side of this page, I would also encourage parents and educators to check out Lyga & Lyga's book Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide (Greenwood, 2004) as a great "road map" to the world of comic books in education.

If you find yourself still struggling over a particular book, take a look at these selection tips from the University of Buffalo's Library site (link on right):

  1. To avoid unpleasant surprises, preview all comics before putting them out for the public. Many titles popular with older teens may be inappropriate for younger readers.

  2. Be particularly wary of publishers with a reputation for controversial materials (e.g., DC's Vertigo imprint).

  3. Learn to recognize authors known for using mature themes and language (e.g., Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis).

  4. Learn as much about the comics industry as you can by reading comics journals, visiting Web sites, and participating in online SIGs and discussion groups.

  5. Once again, get to know a local comics retailer you can trust. Most retailers are extremely sensitive to age-appropriate concerns and will be happy to share their views.

  6. Include a statement about comics and graphic novels in your collection development policy, specifying what types of materials will be considered off-limits for your library.

  7. Be prepared to address censorship challenges, should they arise.

-Hope this helps Sarah!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Looking at Adaptation and Characterization With Marvel's Hercules

Rationale: Like many high schools, the one I work for requires English/language arts teachers to provide some introduction to mythology as literature. As a lover of myths, it bothers me greatly to hear students complain about how boring these classic stories are. If you are an educator who can relate, I'd like to suggest adding a little graphic novel reading to "spice up" your mythology lesson plans and draw in a few of those reluctant readers.

There are many graphic novel adaptations of mythology out there, but I like to use Marvel Comics' "Hercules: The New Labors." Why this text? I enjoy this book so much because it is a modern day retelling of the Greco-Roman Myth with the classic old-world protagonist attempting to adjust to our reality-television-addicted society.

That said, what I really like about reading this text is that it provides ample opportunity to talk about key literary terms like "adaptation" and "characterization." I like to merge this comic with the reading of the actual Twelve Labors of Hercules and discuss what the word "adaptation" or "re-imagining" real means and how they are similar and different from the original text (which also leads into discussions of theme and the nature of sequels). I also like to spend some time analyzing the Marvel Comics version of Hercules, who is a seemingly happy-go-lucky drunkard who is quite humorous and hold that up to the archetypal portrayal of the hero.

Grade Levels/ Content Area(s): High School (grades 11-12)/ Language Arts- English

Objective: Students will be able to analyze the literary nature of adaptations and discuss variations in characterization.

Time Alloted: Depending on class length. Two 90 minute classes or four 45 minute classes.

Materials: Hercules: The New Labors (Marvel Comics)

Vocabulary: mythology, characterization, adaptation, characterization, sequel

Direct Teaching: Have students read a selected number of the Twelve Labors of Hercules (usually 2-4) and then have them read "The New Labors." Ask them to record how the stories have changed. I like to focus questions which require the students to compare the classic text to the modern re-telling (such as how the creatures were portrayed, or how other gods, like Pluto, were characterized in each text). -This is a perfect time to present the word "adaptation" and discuss how it relates to literature.

Once you feel as though students have a handle on adaptation, ask them to do a character study of each version of Hercules. I like to provide students with a "t-chart" where they record their observations on each with citations to the texts. Students should be able to explain the similarities and differences in characterization by using the exposition, dialogue, and illustrations provided in each text.

*Sometimes I have students write a two page comparison/character analysis as a written product.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Race in Comics: A Character Study Through the Decades

Rationale: Much like other forms of pop culture (television/film), comics haven't always embraced the idea of diversity. In American comics minorities where more often portrayed as antagonists to white heroes up through the early 1960s. While one of the first black heroes was the Batman-like Black Panther (tongue-in-cheek, anyone?), this character was relegated to supporting cast appearances in titles like Fantastic Four and Avengers up through the 70s. It seemed as though comics, like film and tv, were not ready to embrace the idea of minorities as protagonists in popular fiction.
All that changed in the mid-seventies with the rise of Black Cinema, or “Blaxploitation Films,” which featured characters like Shaft and Foxy Brown. These tough-as-nails, street-wise urban characters were often cited as both inspirations AND negative stereotypes.
America's two major comic book publishers (Marvel and DC) followed the lead of the film industry by producing their own minority protagonists in the vein of the aforementioned movie characters. DC Comics (home of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) featured Black Lightning- a passionate, and sometimes hot-headed, inner city teacher who dons a leisure suit get-up by night to combat the drug-pushers who haunt his students. Marvel comics (who publish Spider-man and Wolverine) produced their own leisure-suit wearing hero, Luke Cage: Power Man, who after doing time for a crime here didn't commit, gains super-strength and sets up shop in Harlem to handle the pimps and gang members...all while making a buck as the first “Hero for Hire.”
As fun and original as these characters were, many critics have argued that their stereotypical urban diction and exaggerated dress code only served to perpetuate the beliefs and assumptions many had towards urban blacks at this time in history.
What is interesting is that as film and television have progressed over the past 30 years to embrace minorities as well represented complex characters, comics have also mirrored the changing times by updating the origins and representations of their minority comics, taking them for one-dimensional stereotypes to well-structured heroes with their own rich mythologies. The leisure suits are gone, and while Black Lightning and Luke Cage are still heroes of the urban minorities, they are now presented as core characters in each publishers shared universe.

As a teacher of language arts, stereotypes is a concept I spend a lot of time talking about passed on the readings I do every year with my high school students. Many of us are familiar with talking about how stereotypes relate to Jews during WWII, or towards African Americans for the past 250 years, but what if you could supply your students with a more modern example? By using the original origin tales of these two characters students can see how American culture viewed our minority population only 30 years ago. If you combine these original stories with the updated re-worked origins, students can also see how popular perceptions have changed over time and influenced what we believe and value as a culture.

Grade Levels/ Content Area(s): Middle School, High School/ U.S. History, Civics, Language Arts- English

Objective: Students will be able to analyze how stereotypes are portrayed in pop culture and how they change over time.

Time Alloted: Depending on class length. One 90 minute class or two 45 minute classes.

Materials: Black Lightning Archives #1/ Black Lightning: Year One (both from DC Comics)
Essential Luke Cage/Power Man Vol. 1/ New Avengers Issue #22

Vocabulary: stereotype, origin

Direct Teaching: Ask students to consider the word “stereotype.” I often have my classes do a word association on the board which leads us into a discussion of majority and minority cultures.
Introduce either (or both) the original Black Lightning and Luke Cage texts and have students keep track of the representations of the main characters. You may have them consider questions like:

How would you describe Black Lightning/ Luke Cage's personality?
Do these characters seem believable (why or why not)?
Does anything seem different about these protagonists from others that you've encountered?

If you are a history teacher this would be the perfect time to move into a conversation about the media's perception of minorities during this time period.
After the original text has been read, ask student to consider how our cultures perspective on minorities (specifically Black Americans) has changed over the past thirty years. As students consider this question, have them read the modern re-tellings of the characters origins and respond again to the questions listed above.

After reading, have students create a chart where they compare the two tales and discuss how time and changes in culture have influenced our perceptions of minorities in fiction.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Like BONE? Check these out...

BONE, by Jeff Smith, is one of the most popular comics/graphic Linknovels in publication today. Not only is this Tolkien-meets-Disney epic a hit within the traditional comics community, but this story has become a staple on k-12 school bookshelves throughout the world.

What you may not know is that Bone has two lesser-known sister books. "Stupid Stupid Rat Tails" and "Rose" expand upon the unique world of Fone Bone, Thorn, and the rat creatures that so many of us love.

Comics from Maine!

The Pine Tree State has often been considered a home of writers and artists. From E.B. White and Stephen King to the Wyeth family of painters, the state of Maine seems to naturally foster creative people.

Maine also has quite a few professional comic creators.

At the request of a few local teachers, I want to mention a few comic creators who have ties to Maine (whether they live here or just write about it).

NOTE: This is by no means a complete list of creators from Maine. This is just a short list of Maine-related comic-folk who produce work SUITABLE FOR K-12 STUDENTS. -ENJOY!

Maine Book #1: Salt Water Taffy

While Matthew Loux isn't from Maine, he spent a lot of time visiting our coast as a child. Those treks to our shoreline have obviously influenced his amazing new series from Oni Press- "Salt Water Taffy"

"Salt Water Taffy: The Legend of Old Salty" centers around two brothers, Jack and Benny Putnam, who spend their summer vacation in the fictional Maine village "Chowder Bay." In their first adventure they meet up with quite possibly the coolest fisherman ever, mysterious seagulls, and a prehistoric lobster. -This book is labeled as all ages, and it really fits the bill. I have this book on my high school bookcase, but I could also see it used in fourth grade (or anywhere in-between).

-I found that kids really get a kick out of analyzing the stereotypical "Maine coastal village"- which provides for great conversation in class.

Check this book out!

Maine Book #2: Skullboy

Maine Book #1:


I would highly recommend this book for the 5-8 grade level. The story follows the criminally-mischievous Skullboy and his pals (a monkey and a robot) as they attempt to balance world domination with surviving grade school.

Creator Jacob Chabot is from northern Maine, and while he no longer resides here, I've met him before and enjoyed a great conversation about surviving long Maine winters by reading tons of comics. Chabot's art is clean and comical and appeals greatly to the cartoon-addicted middle school population. That said, as an adult I still love his books because the humor is spot-on. To create a humor comic with cross-generational appeal is no easy feat, but Chabot nails it.

I HIGHLY recommend this book for any teacher's classroom library

Monday, April 6, 2009

Science Comics!

Comics in the language arts classroom isn't such a radical idea these days, but what about in your biology lab? I think its well past time we show our science teachers some comic book love...

Last year I introduced a good friend and colleague (who teaches high school biology and physical science) to a great comic called "Two-Fisted Science."

TFS contains a series of vignettes which introduce readers to important scientific minds from throughout history. My friend the science teacher uses this book to introduce relevant scientists at the beginning of new units or topics.

Some of the stories are better than others, but it seems that overall TFS makes for a nice break from the textbook sidebar biography.

*I think its important to mention that my science friend also uses the Mac application "Comic Life" for reports on communicable viruses (see above)...Be sure to check out the link to the "Comic Life Tutorial" under the "Great Sites" section of this blog!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Building Inference Skills Through Comics

One of my favorite things about comics/ graphic novels is that they constantly challenge the reader's ability to make inferences. All teachers of language arts know that in order to be a competent reader a student must first develop their critical thinking and hypothesis-making skills. Consider the following lesson plan as more of a repeatable activity that can be done over and over to strengthen the aforementioned skills will also tapping into visual literacy cues.

Inference Activity

Rationale: Having a strong inferential reading ability is necessary to successful engagement with (and comprehension of) any and all texts. In order to bolster both the text-based and visual inference skills of my students I often times rely on the segmented structure of comics. When working on inference skills, I ask students to look at and analyze single panels, pages, and eventually whole comics. This “building block” activity (where students build upon the knowledge in prior steps to make new inferences) piques their interest and gives them a digestible amount of information to work with (instead of asking them to make inferences over whole chapters or entire books).

Grade Levels/ Content Area(s): Middle School, High School/ Language Arts- English

Objective: Students will be able to build inference skills

Time Alloted: Depending on class length. One 90 minute class or two 45 minute classes.

Materials: Any comic/ graphic novel. I like to use “American Born Chinese” or the Marvel Comics book “411”.

Vocabulary: inference, hypothesis

Direct Teaching: Display a single panel from your chosen comic on a piece of paper (I like to use a panel with no words, but with a lot of visual information). Ask students to “read the image” by recording what they think the panel means directly on the paper. Have students draw lines to the visual clues they detect. After sharing student hypotheses, repeat the process with the entire page from which the panel comes.
I will use this process as either a frontloading activity for reading, or as a simple, fun inference exercise. The key is to make sure that students are accounting for the context clues they discover.

My Favorite Book

Please excuse this break in the lesson plans... I promise it is for a good reason.

For anyone interested in using comics in the classroom (which is hopefully everyone who visits this site), I cannot recommend Terry Thompson's book "Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension" (Stenhouse) enough.

While the book is billed for the 2-6 grade level, I've found that it is very translatable to high school. Thompson really knows his stuff, and provides a plethora of useful strategies and activities to engage the reader and writer in all of our students.

The Comic Book Research Paper

Rationale: The writing of a research paper can often times be a laborious process for both student and teacher alike. Sadly, many students find the process so mind-numbing that the only long term outcome of the paper is that it scares away many potential writers (who post-research look at writing as a chore).

After reading Minx Comix's “The Plain Janes” with a few of my 11th graders we had a great afternoon conversation about the main character's belief that “ART SAVES.” Within a year this replaced the traditional research paper question.

I found that my students interest in researching different artistic genres to defend their positions really brought new life to the research phase of the paper construction.

Below I'll present my frontloading activities the requirements of my research paper. Our school requires MLA format, but you may substitute any citation style.

Grade Levels/ Content Area(s): Middle School, High School/ Language Arts- English

Objective: Students will be able to construct a research paper on an assigned question with individually collected data.

Time Alloted: Depending on class length. 3 90 minute class or 6 45 minute classes.

Materials: The Plain Janes (vol.1)

Vocabulary: research, data, citation, works cited, reference

Anticipatory Set: Before reading “The Plain Janes,” have students consider/discuss the following questions:

-To you, what does the word “community” mean?

-In your opinion, what is art?

-What kind of art appeals to you?

-In the broadest sense, what does it mean to be saved?

-Can art save a person? If “yes,” how?

*You may also consider showing students images of visual art (architecture, paintings, etc.), or recordings of literature and music before asking the questions above.

Direct Teaching:
After you feel as though students are ready to move on, assign “The Plain Janes.” The reading usually takes my high school students 2 45 minute class periods.

Once students have completed the reading we approach the frontloading questions again. After some discussion, I assign the following papers:

After reading the graphic novel “The Plain Janes,” support or refute the claim made throughout that “ART SAVES.”

To defend your position, select two (3) works of visual art (paintings, illustration, sculpture, architecture), music, or prose (poetry, lyrics, short story, portions of a novel) to defend your stance (or one of each). Each piece must be accompanied by a documented analysis of the work from a reputable source (published reviews are recommended).

Paper Expectations:

-5 page minimum (double-spaced)
-parenthetical reference (the book and research texts)
-reference page in MLA format

*Don't forget to factor in time for research and writing workshops.