Comics and Educational Technology?

That was the gist of question that a friend asked me this week. A meandering conversation at a cafe led to me THE question: What’t the connection between my professional activities as an educational technologist, and my dissertation about teaching about social justice in schools using graphic literature.

Actually, I see all sorts of natural connections. I suppose that the confusion may stem from an idea that educational technology always implies digital technology. But it is more than just digital. I felt that I had to look up the formal  definition of technology, and looked at :

  1. the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and theirinterrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects asindustrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.
  2. the application of this knowledge for practical ends.
  3. the terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature

What an interesting and cool word! And no mention of “digital”. So I suppose that this is probably the first connection- digital and analog are both tools and ways that can be used separately or together to teach and tell stories.

Graphic literature and comics are great tools for learning: they are excellent ways to engage visual thinkers, as well as other types of learners in visual literacy and critical thinking. Comics and graphic literature can be used to teach languages, customs, medicine, philosophy, math, art, just about anything. The beauty and power of them is that they are a great medium to reach out across disciplines to provide and share basic understandings of each discipline. For example: there is a Manga introduction to statistics; a graphic pocket book series about major philosophers (I have Introduction to Nietzsche); an more recent and really interesting genre called graphic medicine; comics are used to teach ESL or any language. I’m sure that you get the drift. Comics and graphic literature are another great technology that teachers can use.

Now where does that digital technology part come in? Simple- in production and distribution. There are all sorts of really cool tools and apps  on mobile phones and computers  to make all sorts of different styles of comics. Some cost (not much), some are free and there are ways to mix and match tools and processes from one device to another. But that, dear reader is for next week!

Posted in Civil rights, Comics, David Greenfield Dissertation, Education, ESL, Graphic Medicine, Graphic Novels, Innovation, Language learning, Learning, Manga, Peace, Pocketbook philosophers, Social Justice, Training | Leave a comment

Late & Redbeard

Due to circumstances caused by aliens from beyond the 8th dimension, as well as a minor technology melt-down, I’m a bit late with this blog. Sorry, ardent readers…

I just finished watching  Kurosawa’s Red Beard, one of my three all-time favorite movies (the other two are still out to vote, but one is by Chaplin and the other by Tati). I’ve seen this great film a bunch of times, usually through one complete viewing at a time. But this time, I decided to savor it, and watch it over a period of two months. Red Beard is truly a masterpiece. The story, acting, cinematography- everything together create a compelling, engaging, beautiful film that celebrates the best aspects of the human  spirit living in a far from perfect world.


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Learning with comics

I love to tell people that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on graphic novels and comics!

But I am not the first to do this (for example, Nick Sousanis wrote his brilliant graphic novel, Unflattening, a meditation on the relationship between text and as his PhD dissertation. I took a a different approach and investigated and wrote about ways that graphic novels can be used to teach students about social justice.  Yet, there is more to comics than philosophy, history and cognitive development. Studying graphic literature, specifically how to create comics provides many doorways to practical careers. The first, and most obvious is it teaches students how to make their own comics. Like other forms of art and literature, there is no guarantee to success. But, it is important to know that over the past 20-30 years, there is a steady increase in comic sales. Graphic literature is cheaper than making a movie, and easier to distribute than books (especially because of the web).

But there are other career options:

  • Storyboard artists for movies and TV.
  • Storyboard artists are also important for:
    • creating corporate and academic presentations.
    • Walkthroughs for large properties, amusement parks, architectural  models,  etc.
    • Other activities requiring planning for movement.
  • Graphic literature, especially comics are excellent media for creating training media for time and sequence based activities .
  • This media is also very effective for building learning material for visual learners.
  • Comics are excellent for teaching language (teachers can create their own learning materials based on the specific needs of their students).
  • Graphic journalism to record events and reflections.
  • Graphic medicine for medical students, practices and providing knowledge to different communities.

Using graphic literature and comics is similar to using other media (film, tv, radio, etc) for learning and training, but it is more intimate than a film (cheaper to produce too), easier to customize for different languages and audiences and other benefits. All that is required is an imagination, and a desire to teach.

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Graphic literature as a gateway drug ….

One of the coolest attributes of graphic literature in education is that it’s fun!. There, I said it- graphic literature is fun. Even the harshest books about war, racism and other evils of humankind have a basic quality of fun, similar to sitting with family and friends in a kitchen or around a campfire, sharing stories, good and bad, but very real. These are the kinds of stories that engage the listeners, capture their imagination, open their minds, educate and entertain. These stories capture and transmit the histories, observations, culture, and even recipes found in oral traditions everywhere,  all the while promoting and encouraging literacy, and visual thinking.  One of my research subjects, a high school teacher in a very low income area described how he has his students read anything at all for the first 30 minutes of his class, every day. Besides the books in his classroom, he also has several boxes of comic comics from his own collection (and brought in several boxes for the school library. He observed that even with books, most of the students read comics. They will read the first books of a series, get hooked, and read as many books of the series that are in the classroom. When they get to the point where the series continues, but the books are not in the classroom, they want more, so they trek to the library to continue reading the series. For many of the students, this is the first time in their lives that they have entered a library. So while improving their reading skills, they are introduced to  books, and often transition to those (while continuing their love for comics).  So as you see, comics are a gateway drug to literacy, and all that comes with it, such as critical thinking, creativity, and more!

Next week- practical skills acquired from graphic literature, as well as comments about some books recently read. 

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On some of the cognitive benefits of graphic novels and comics in school

When used in school, students begin reading graphic novels during independent reading time in class, take them home to read, and trade volumes with their friends at school. These interactions serve as a basis for instructional conversations about the nature of comics and graphic novels, including the form, or visual/artistic style of the illustrations (e.g., drawings or photographs, black and white or color, realistic or cartoon), as well as the content/genre (e.g., personal narrative, fantasy, historical fiction, biography) of the various texts. Teachers and even librarians, support students by helping them envision and plan how their own graphic stories would take shape, support such discussions. Sones characterized graphic novels as “vehicles with which heir own graphic stories of the school in the improvement of reading, language development, or acquisition of information” (Sones as cited by Conners, 2010, p. 67) and it is possible “to build on students interests’ and use comic books constructively as stepping stones to a lasting interest in good literature” (Sones as cited by Conners, 2010, p. 66).

There are many benefits to using graphic novels in education. For example, Connors (2010) cited the following authors to describe the potential of graphic novels in a classroom, writing that graphic novels can:

  • Scaffold students for whom reading and writing are difficult (Bitz, 2004; Frey & Fisher, 2004; Morrison, Bryan, & Chilcoat, 2002);
  • Foster visual literacy (Frey & Fisher, 2004);
  • Support English language learners (Ranker, 2007);
  • Motivate English language learners (Ranker, 2007);
  • Provide a stepping-stone that leads students to transact with more traditional (and presumably more valuable) forms of literature. (pp. 1-2)

Additionally, student authors can use graphic novels for studying a wide range of topics, including: journalism, history, sociology, literature, the arts and more. These novels are not replacement of traditional text, but a different way to reach out to a wider variety of learners, such as visual thinkers. Through the interconnection of text and images, and sequential or non- linear stories, graphic novels promote critical thinking. The results are stories well suited for the visual learner with rich, detailed images as well as engaging narratives, for all people to understand, enjoy and learn from.

Next week- practical benefits!

Posted in Civil rights, Comics, Education, Graphic Novels, Learning, Social Justice | Leave a comment

vfab is back!

After taking an extended hiatus from writing, I am back at the blog. I’ve actually been thinking about this for the past couple of months or so, but truthfully, I was unsure of the direction to take, but kind of like being in a fog that has begun to clear, and a revisiting of the tag line, I will continue to write about life, learning and comics, or more specifically, graphic literature, a great term that I saw on a sign at Sky Light Books in Los Feliz. It seems to me that the term “graphic novels” is more suited to the many great fiction titles such as WatchmenBut many of the great titles are personal memoirs and histories, as well as world histories, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Joe Sacco’s The Great War. Graphic novels also do not address other sub-genre of graphic literature, such as Graphic Journalism such as the brilliant work of Joe Sacco (Palestine, and Journalism), and a new favorite, Sarah Glidden (How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq). Other interesting sub-genre are Graphic Medicine, and books about graphic literature, that are as much philosophical as aesthetic, such as Nick Sousanis’ brilliant Unflattening,   a commentary  on the relationship between text and line, or Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, as well as his other works.

There is so much more too, but that shall have to wait, because I only have a couple of minutes to post this before midnight. Why you may ask? Because View from a blog will continue as a weekly blog, posted every Sunday by 10:00 pm, although from time to time, I may take the liberty to do an update during the week – artistic license.

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Comics, comix, graphic novels or graphic literature?

When I started my dissertation research, I was surprised by the many names used to describe sequential pictorial stories- comics, comix, and graphic novels. Each name is good, and very specific sub-genre, but none really captured the essence of the genre. For example, in general comics and comic books represent the most traditional form- serials designed in a specific comic style filled with super heroes, talking animals, and several other recognizable characters. On the other hand, comix often are edgier in both art and stories, and are often counter-culture.

Graphic novels fall into two categories- one is serial comics with extended stories and complex narratives, and the other, often recognized as graphic novels are often one volume, with more complex narratives that are often personal memoirs, and stories about history, events, and/or society. These are, of course, very general descriptions, and can be argued for one way or the other, but work very well for the purpose of this blog.

Up to now, these titles represent the general categories. Of course there are differences among fans, creators and scholars. For example, there is a an art professor in one art school who states that all pictorial narratives are comics- from the cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain, to Australian Aboriginal paintings, to the Mona Lisa and artists like Van Gough. In a way, he is correct in that these are all image based narrative art. Yet, something about this just does not feel complete. In reflecting on this, I remembered something that I learned a while back, when studying art at UCSC, which is the word “intentionality”. I had an amazing teacher (actually, I had several amazing teachers), who would drill me on the intention of my work. She would quiz me on the meaning as well as what I was doing. Was it a formal, meaning was it exploring some of the formal issues of painting, such as composition, or color, or light and shade? Was it illustrative- telling a story by capturing a moment in time? Identifying and defining the intent is one of critical elements of painting and of art. This is why the notion of defining the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Mona Lisa, Monet’s Water Lilies, or Pollack’s action paintings as “comics” seems to fall short. I somehow think that the artists at Lascaux could have predicted comics, or the Abstract Expressionists of the 50s and 60s would be making comics, especially considering that at that time, comics were generally looked at as base, and without any merit, save for entertaining teen-age boys. I am thankful that this art form developed to the point of acceptance that it is a unique, and powerful media that can be used to express elaborate ideas and narratives, tell meaningful stories, have complex characters in rich relationships (or not), be fiction, or non-fiction, and can be presented in abstract or real ways for multiple audiences. In short, they are just like all other traditional text-based narratives, except that images are all critical components of the story.

Which brings us back to this blog’s title, and what we should call this genre, what it the top-level descriptor. And I discovered the answer last week, when visiting this great bookstore in the Los Feliz neighborhood called Skylight Books. There, in their art and comics annex were two large bookcases filled with comics. One side was labeled “Serial Comics” and had titles published by Marvel, DC and other serial based comics. The label on the other bookcase is “Graphic Literature”, a term that really describes the genre, and includes serials, but really focuses on the unique, innovative, genre-buster stories that are often personal memoirs (such as Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Sacco’s Palestine), history, society, war (Spiegelman’s Maus or Uriarte’s The White Donkey) narratives that explore the medium, such as Nick Sousanis Unflattening, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, or of any of the other genre-bending and/or personal reflections on life, and morality such as Will Eisner’s Contract with God. Graphic literature certainly describes many of my favorite stories, the ones that do not have talking animals (well, except for Maus, or Sfar’s The Rabbi’s cat), or super heroes (although the Monkey King does play an important role in Yang’s American Born Chinese). We can see clearly that the intent of the characters in these examples is different from Superman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think that it is important to remember that there is no judging here, only the recognition that there are different kinds of narratives and that they all fit under the rubric of Graphic Literature.

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Comix, kids, trauma, and war

Graphic novels are a great way to read and learn about history. Not so much the grand narratives in history books and textbooks. These books describe big events, and as described by Wikipedia “as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events.” When we read history, we read about large movements, both physically and metaphorically. We read about global wars, economics, great people who influenced and led these events and movements. But what I have always found missing in these books is the intimate- about the lives of the populous whose lives are affected by the decisions and philosophies of those who have achieved positions of leadership, of “power”. While learning about the grand events, intimate stories are missing. We read about mass migrations, global wars, the spread of disease and sickness, but only as abstractions, and these abstractions prevent us from learning about empathy- it is simply too difficult and challenging for an individual to feel empathic about the millions of victims of war and other historical horrors. This does not mean that we do not feel, or are not affected by reading about genocides- we do. But the level of abstraction creates a schism between the words and the reality, and unless we have personally experienced them, or know someone who has, they remain abstract.

Some movies have explored some of the horrors of history, such as Steven Spielberg’s intensely powerful and deeply emotional film, Schindler’s list. But, unless you have experienced the Shoah directly, we are left with only the reflection. This is not a bad thing, as we have experienced too many genocides on this planet. But even when watching a movie that draws us into the story, and we become emotionally involved with the characters and the narrative, we also are aware of the general tension with the movie and our basic understanding that in the end, it is just a movie, with actors dressed in costumes, standing in movies sets, saying their lines, often out of order of other lines. We know that no matter how horrible and intense the narrative, each day the actors shower, and change clothes and go home or a hotel to relax and prepare for the next day’s shooting schedule. This knowledge does not mean that as viewers, we will not be emotionally and psychologically involved with the story. Simply put, it is good for our souls to remember that we are not seeing real.

What this means when returning to the grand historical narratives that we read, is that again, we are left without a direct and authentic way of understanding the results of these grand events on humans on an intimate, human scale. Books about historical fiction, and memoirs can provide paths to understanding these grand events. Reading personal stories by people who have lived through and experienced some of the tragedies of life is both valuable and critical for people to understand the effects of grand events on large populations, by personalizing the effects of the events. But, they often leave out a place for the reader to learn and feel empathy. Just reading the words can remove the context of the story. The personal narratives the authors of many graphic novels, along with the merging of text, and images, provide a historical context for the personal. We read, we see, and we learn about the impact of broad historical events on individuals. We begin learn to feel empathy with others, who through no fault of their own, are made into victims, and hopefully, with this understanding, we can start to take the steps needed to initiate the changes that bring about social justice. And graphic novels are a great way to start.

Some of the most powerful books that I have read, look at the effects of war and global trauma on children, describing their lives in and after war, about how they learned to survive unnatural situations by adapting a wide range of coping skills, from games of denial to active participation. No matter the method, the stories that these survivors are real, and compelling and challenge us to rethink our actions as well as the actions of some of our leaders. Another benefit of graphic novels as a media are that they are less expensive to produce and distribute than movies, or even books. They can be created using online tools and distributed using the web. By giving a voice to those with stories to tell, and spreading the word, perhaps people can learn about similarities between different cultures and communities around the world, and we can learn about the empathy that will guide change.

Maus and Persepolis are two of the primary books that tell about results of war and conflict, but there are others that are memoirs of people who have directly experienced and survived and teach us through their own stories. Below is a short list of six of my favorite books.

  • A game for swallows and I remember Beirutboth by Zeina Abirached are her memoirs about growing up directly on the border between the Christian and Moslem neighborhoods in Beirut during the time of the civil war. Although the war completely surrounded them, her two stories are more about how she, her family, friends and neighbors learned to cope with being in the middle of a war-zone, where gun-fire, bombs and explosions, food and power shortages were part of their daily regime. We become acquainted with Zeina, her family and neighbors and see how they manage their day to day lives, struggling to retain any sense of normalcy. The artwork is not detailed, but effective and engaging for the reader.
  •  War brothers: the graphic novel by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel LaFrance, is although not a personal memoir, is an extremely powerful story that is based on true accounts of Ugandan child soldiers that the authors gathered in hospitals and rehab centers for these children in Uganda. This is the story that nightmares are made of, as it covers the experience of the children watching their parents killed by Joseph Kony’s  Lord’s Resistance Army, then being conscripted in the army and taught to kill, maim, and every and any other activity prohibited by the Geneva Convention.
  • We are on our own is Miriam Katin’s memoir about her experience running away from the Nazis  in Hungary with her mother. Katin, now a citizen of America and a respected graphic artist and animator, tells a compelling story of escape, but really focuses on issues of faith during a time when the horrors of the Holocaust caused people to challenge and question their faith and religious beliefs- then and now. She tells her story with artwork in both black and white (then) and color (now).  A deeply personal and meaningful story.
  • In Paracuellos, Carlos Giménez tells about his own experiences growing up in the orphanages of Francisco Franco’s Spain. These were not simply orphanages, as we might understand them, but more like the orphanage of Dicken’s Oliver Twist, but on steroids and managed by the uber-facist government of post-WWII Spain. Powerful is too weak a word to describe his experiences and those of all of the other survivors of these terrible church and government-run  “orphanages”.
  • Barefoot Gen, is a Japanese Manga by Keiji Nakazawa and his a memoir based upon his experiences as a survivor of the atomic bomb blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Told through the eyes of a young boy who saw and survived the blast, and saw its immediate results and affects on the civilian population, such as the shadows on the streets of vaporized people, the walking dead with their skins hanging off of their bodies.  This book should be required reading for all students about the un-winnable, horrific nature of nuclear war.

These six books, and many others expose students to the results of war on human beings, beyond the voices of politicians and historians, but from viewpoint of people who experienced and suffered from war first-hand, and on no desire of their own, but rather from people, “leaders”, far away from the real results of their policies. There are many other books, and please feel free to comment and tell me about them.

Posted in Civil rights, Comics, Education, Graphic Novels, Hiroshima, Holocaust, Joseph Kony, Paracuellos, Peace, Social Justice, War | Leave a comment

Comix in the classroom are cool!

Simply put, comics in the classroom are cool! Everybody knows that they are fun and engaging, But they are so much more, and provide a plethora of benefits for students, especially in high schools and colleges.  For starters, it is easy to see graphic novels promote visual literacy- after all, they are called graphic novels. But there is evidence that shows that many weak readers get turned on to traditional literature through exposure  and assignments with  graphic novels.

The content is rich and varied. There are examples of:

There are two sub-genres of graphic novels that that really interest me. The first are  personal memoirs by immigrants and war refugees, social commentary, and recent historical events. Graphic novels are extremely powerful and effective ways to tell the human side of history. In general, history is taught as big waves, events and movements, but pass over the most basic elements- the effects of these grand narratives on individual humans and communities. Movies are also powerful media for big events, and bring to mind Schindler’s ListSaving Private Ryan12 years a slave, The Loving Story, Argo, Stand and deliver, and more. All extremely powerful films, especially when seen in a theater with an audience. Books are another leg of learning, but as the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and graphic novels are the perfect example when combined with words. They provide an intimate observation into the lives and experiences of those who are living in history, struggling to survive, to find safe havens in order to live, work, raise a family and to live without fear. Along with basic literature, many of these titles can be integrated into the curriculum in many class subjects, such as journalism, sociology, community and ethnic studies, and history. But, it is also possible to design complete classes around graphic novels, especially about the American experience of refugees and immigrants.
Some of my favorites include:

Books about the global migrant and refugee experience:

Memoirs about living in war zones and resolutions:

The American experience

My other favorite sub-genre are Jewish graphic novels. The narratives in these books represent the complexity and richness of the Jewish people, and tell stories about history, personal events, spirituality and religion. The great Will Eisner is probably the first author who tackled the Jewish experience straight on, beginning with his book Contract with God (considered by some to be the first modern graphic novel), and The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was followed by Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Maus. It is interesting to note that for many years, Eli Weisel’s classic memoir Night was the primary source in HS classes about the holocaust, until the publication of Maus, which became the prime resource. But there are other titles about topics other then the Holocaust, such as:

  • The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar. This story is about an Algerian rabbi, his beautiful daughter, and their talking cat, who engages in religious debates with the rabbi, especially his desire for a bar mitzvah.
  • Tales of the wild east, also by Joan Sfar, about the adventures of an itinerant group of Klezmer and Gypsy musicians in eastern Europe.
  • How to understand Israel in 60 day or less by Sarah Glidden
  • Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan (one of my favorite authors)
  • The Property by Rutu Modan
  • Jerusalem: a family portrait by Boaz Yakin (an engaging story about a family’s experience in Jerusalem during the 1940s that tells more about the the tensions between different Jewish communities than about the Jewish-Palestinian issues.
  • Greenberg the vampire by J.M. DeMatteis (the title alone makes it worth reading!).

There are also the meta-books about graphic novels told in graphic novel form, such as:

There is a plethora of other titles that are graphic memoirs, reflections and journalism about critical issues that are engaging and informative and affect global societies. These books are appropriate for a range of classrooms from middle and high schools, and  up to colleges. Data shows that graphic novels promote visual literacy, text-based literacy, and critical thinking skills. One interesting example gleaned from my dissertation came from a HS teacher in South-Central Los Angeles. The teacher assigned daily assignments of 20 minutes of free reading in his class. The students could read anything that they wanted, including comics and graphic novels. Most of the students chose to read comics, and would breeze through series that the teacher had placed in his classroom. But, then things got interesting. After getting hooked on a series, they discovered that the classroom collection was incomplete, and that they needed to go to the library to continue. High school students began to flock to the library, a room that they had never set foot in, to find the continuation of the series. And then, they discovered the world books and literature. who had never set foot in a library began to floc that Data also shows that there are many practical skills that can be lesarned, such as storyboarding (there applications for this skill in multiple fields), professional presentations, and other positions in media and communications.


Posted in Civil rights, Comic Con, Comics, David Greenfield Dissertation, Education, Graphic Novels, John Lewis, Learning, March, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What can the world teach California about arts engagement?

Reporting from another excellent event sponsored by Zocolo. Some notes and thoughts from the conference.

What is a community of shared experiences. A memorable experience is created by surprise. Visitors come to an institution or arts event with an idea in mind, or with specific expectations, but are completely surprised by something else, something unexpected. This is a shared experience that will remain in their mind and soul.

One speaker said that good art that impacts visitors is about debate, conflict, pain and dialogue. My question is: What about delight?

Randi Korn said an important component done by  arts administrators and educators is to help visitors  articulate what they feel.

Many administrators and arts educators feel that a lot of current art is about “share-ability”, and that the current generation chooses activities that they can share in instigram or Facebook.

Art should be about creating a deep experience instead of broad experience.

Steven Tepper, the Dean of ASU Herberger Institute for Design & the Arts said that the millennials are more about living lives of purpose than that of the “me” economy and that we need to create open-source institutions. Regarding art, we need to look at  art as process not as a product. We need to show people how its made. In the past, people made their own music in their homes, or art or even read Shakespeare on their own, in their own living rooms. More pianos were sold in the early 1900s than ever before or since. Everyone had their own piano or guitar.

Artists are trained to to ask questions, in critical thinking and in design methodologies. Even if an art student does not continue as an artist, their training can be used in other disciplines  to great benefit. Artists are imagination partners for every sector in the world.

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