Thinking aloud about comic Strips as teaching tools

We are busily establishing learning targets with our students for literacy, two areas we have highlighted to work on for development are sustained writing and use of punctuation. The students might not be alone in the latter, as any regular reader of my blog can attest to. However in blogging I am doing something I enjoy, I am playing again with word 2007 as a tool this afternoon, have an identified purpose and hopefully an audience to write for; have allowed myself an extended period of time and space to do this and because of the affordances of the tools I am using, have opportunities to walk away, and come back to my work when I get tired of it, to reread, revise, review and edit what I am writing, before, if and when I am happy with my labours pushing the publish button. As a companion this afternoon Stevie Nicks is playing in the background. This is not always the case for our students, and for some sustained writing is about more than time and space. In addition to purpose and context it can be an uncomfortable process, with groans and whinces accompanying them on their authorship journey, as in some cases muscles not yet fully trained to form letters accurately, represent sound pictures mechanically. One of the most exciting things for me this term has been students asking on Mondays who will be blogging this week, or recently whether we will be producing a video or sound file for the podcast. A sure sign that my students are beginning to see their writing as something more than the outcome of a big write or the end of a literacy hour, so what has this got to do with comic strips and this post?

Reflecting on Writing and Multimodality

As an adult beyond school, I write because I want to, and blog in order to share things I want to "say" and am interested in. I have established a purpose and created a context for what I want to write, and so sustaining my interest and engagement with the process as a whole is not difficult. Learning to punctuate is a part of the process, and as an experienced writer, aware of the multimodal nature of text, I understand the role these strange additional marks have to play in my expressions. I recognise that the symbols and words I am using are tools to mediate my meaning making, the graphemes I use, represent the sounds in the words I am thinking and can hear in my mind or am saying. I draw on my understanding of how the phonemes I hear as units of sound, relate to these graphemes, how choice and organisation of these enable me to represent my ideas as words. A host of other learned and familiar spelling and reading strategies help me spell uncommon structures, and enable me to decide if how I am saying things is the way I want my reader to receive them. As an experienced writer I also recognise that the spaces in my text are as important as the marks I make, changing clusters of these symbols into words, and representing breaks in my thoughts and speech, as well as how the punctuation marks I use within these spaces, help my reader with interpretations, representations and expression of my thoughts and words as they engage with them as part of the whole text I lay down. What I am presenting is by no means a flattened expression of ideas but a symbolic, perhaps even pictorial/iconic representation of thoughts and speech. Through a textual format that seeks to involve my reader, I ask them to hear what I am trying to say, in the way I want them to hear them. In "writing" them down in this way, I seek to share my meanings as accurately as I can to evoke response. I choose my words carefully, frequently rearranging phrases and making additions as I reread and hear what I want to say using additional marks, as I seek to share meaning in a common form. Sometimes I revise my punctuation, or insert it later, having not done so in the first place, caught up in the flow of the write. Because my blog is a representation of my thinking, sometimes ideas are displaced, disjointed or in making additions I leave ideas or parts of ideas behind. My "written text" is to me an "oral text" or conversation I seek to have with my reader, and something that emerges as I write in order to involve my reader as a listener too.

As a teacher, and so hopefully an experienced reader and writer I have, I suppose, always recognised this link as an inherent part of my practice, but it was not until I engaged with an introduction to semiotics at University a couple of years ago, that these ideas became more transparent in my thinking, and I actually began to see the importance of making these ideas explicit in how I engage children as learners in understanding the why as well as the how when we write and read. Writing and reading, is a process of making meaning from or creating meaning through any media and are multimodal acts by design (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000).. These ideas have only recently been recognised explicitly within the Primary Literacy Framework. What concerns me however is how easily we can interpret from documentation that only certain text types are multimodal. As I hope I have begun to express above, the written form we use everyday is in itself multimodal, a visual representation of sound; and I feel it is important that we recognise this if we are to exploit multimodality as a concept in the classroom.

Each "mode" in "text" is more than the representational or media form we see, it is often one of several representational devices used and embedded within it that allow shared meaning to be made. In video for example, this may include, the visual resources, the images, movement, how the camera is placed, panning, zooming in or out, developing close ups, creating context through changing vista or perhaps timelapse, capturing character gesture; choice of elements in the sound track, music providing mood, what is said, and how it is said by the characters, the expression as well as the content; the inclusion of written word through titling, subtitling and captioning. These elements are not placed by accident, but by design, through the actions of their author or director, and how we relate and link these elements determines how as an audience we interpret the content, how we make sense of it, read it. Likewise how we use, draw on and place these elements in the creation of an animated story, a comic strip, a podcast, a poster, or playscript in class, will demonstrate our understanding or confirm the value we place on particular elements of the widening textual world that we and our students are part of. Viewing text and textuality in this way affords an opportunity to view the apparently passive media, many of us mistakenly perceive children to engage with everyday, as a valuable classroom device. Seeing students as plugged into their playstation, sat in front of TV, when they should be reading a "good Book," model perhaps more our naivity regarding what they are doing, than enabling us to engage meaningfully with the emerging literacies they need to engage with and may be bringing to school with them. Viewing texts multimodally enables a change in perception surrounding the engagements of students with TV and Computer games, as meaningful acts. Are our students merely plugged in? James Paul Gee's work for example suggests not. Are they tuned in? He would probably suggest yes. Viewing computer games as text, he suggests is an alien idea to many of us, we do not understand the nature or attraction of games and gaming, since many of us do not play ourselves, and so we are unable to see them textually. A large number of our students participate in gaming, not as a plug in process, but as a social pastime, they engage with friends in active narrative construction through the discussions that surround their game play. As they play they solve problems, overcome dilemmas, ask questions, infer potential outcomes as part of the playing process, seek resolutions in order to move forward in the story they share. All of these are issues in the development of writing as we see it in the classroom, and may offer ways of engaging some of our more reluctant writers and readers. Perhaps this is evidenced in practice through creative uses of such media, by colleagues like Tim Rylands, who has adopted and adapted the visual and atmospheric environment of Myst, to support writing in the classroom, exploiting the multimodal nature of this gaming world to inspirational effect. Rather than assuming our less motivated writers to be uninterested, perhaps they are just differently so, perhaps as disconnected from the purpose and role of our "traditional literacies," as we are from theirs. In developing reading and writing as a teacher these issues and ideas must be seen as increasingly important as we seek to raise standards in literacy. But whose literacy? and how do we link the traditional and the emerging? We do not need to see either as more important than the other, but rather as interrelated and mutually supportive. Taking a multimodal view of text and textuality is helping me to visualise my students as emergent readers and writers, to make links between and sense of what my students bring to literacy sessions and the resources they may have to offer that can be exploited in order to engage them with the content I am required to deliver.

What has this got to do with comic strips?

Our "could" target, referring back to my opening paragraph, involves the students not just remembering to include punctuation to mark sentences, but also their beginning to use of internal punctuation in the form of speech marks. This cannot be developed on its own, and as part of the VCOP programme, will also require introductions to and variation in their choice and use of speech verbs. Exercises in books although valuable are frequently uninspiring, and probably haven't changed that much since I was at school. There are a few more "comic strips" perhaps, but more or less the same. It is not the exercises, that concern me, students tend to see the focus of these, and include what is expected from the WILF presented, it is rather how we link this in a relevant a purposeful way, enabling transfer of the skills practiced, to the real texts they will be expected to work on and develop afterwards independently. I have been pondering on how the use of comic strips might help with this, and how in the process I might also encourage colleagues to see this undervalued literary form as a potential tool in supporting engagement with texts and literacy development.

Comics are complex textual forms, though often dismissed as being an "easy read," and something some of us may dabble with as an "in" for our reluctant readers or writers. Personal experiences and sharing these with students have shown that not everyone accesses or reads comic strips in the same way, and modelled how it is usually my more able writers who have problems not in reading them but in creating comics or storyboard type texts themselves. Attendance at a conference a while back saw us as an audience invited to engage with a comic strip sample, that had been designed by its author purposely to facilitate multiple levels of engagement and access to the same storyline via different routes, modelling how in using comic strips we are not only designers as we create them, but also as readers how we actively construct our own meaning as we go. The narrative and storyline in a comic strip is carried multimodally, through designed relationships between image choice and captions created by the author. Dialogue is presented in bubbles within the ongoing visual narrative. By combining these elements in different ways, readers make sense of the story being presented. The narratives presented within comic strips are layered or textured and in constructing meaning as intended by the author must be accessed on multiple levels. When I read a comic strip I often begin with the visual elements, and then use the captions to set context before following the speech, linking the pieces together to construct my own version of events, in using the text in this way I am take personal control of the meaning I am making, designing my own story from what is being presented as I go. Some of my students who have difficulty accessing written (oral) text, tend to use the images alone to tell each other stories, while others will use speech bubbles and use the images infer contexts for what is being said. Writing in this format is not as easy as we might think either. A while back I was involved in a Creative Partnerships animation Project, and was interested to see how problematic some students found developing visual and oral storytelling activity when using storyboards and comic strips to script their intended outcomes. Transferring their knowledge and experience from traditional scripting forms, to the storyboard context necessary to plan the outcomes they were hoping to realise was a real challenge. We had recently engaged with playscripts, but in realising a similar outcome in this visual and physical form it was interesting to see how students who would be seen as "emergent writers" were more able to successfully engage with the storyboarding process, that many of my "more able" writers found problematic.

As teachers using the comic strip format as a multimodal text we have the potential to present explore and discuss a number of aspects important to presenting spoken language, and linking this to the more widely accepted formats expected within the school curriculum. In thinking about narrative we can present and explore plot and setting visually, and use this as a frame to explore and link other multimedia texts to the traditional, through frame capture and annotation enabling rehearsal and sharing of ideas among the student group.

Going back to our could target, and the extension of speech verb choice, the visual representation of speech in different types of bubble, or through alteration of font style afford talking points and contexts for thinking together about how things are being said. With Thought bubbles we can think, reflect, look back, imagine or visualise... with speech bubbles we can shout, cry, whisper, whimper query, say and exclaim. These can not only be represented by punctuation but also through the font style, shape and size we use, and encourage inferential engagement with the text even among our youngest students. We can incorporate background effects with the inclusion of coloured shapes, have one person speak and another think and use these instead of punctuation to infer what types of punctuation or verb to use and choose.

Using tools developed with for example Comic Life, within the planning stages of writing as a class or, as part of sentence and word level work we might therefore frame exploratory and investigational tasks that help support and distinguish practically or visually, how and when punctuation devices such as exclamation marks and question marks are used, and how they effect the way in which expressions are made (verb choice). During shared text or sentence level activities, the students could use comic strips developed as a class, perhaps around photographs taken to show expression and mood, and identify "how" a person might be saying things, making reference to feeling and gesture. This might act as a scaffold to explore and collect speech verbs for display on a class WOW word wall, and help demonstrate how feelings too are actions. These prompts could then be used to develop student texts to use with the images, and investigate the effects of verb choice and punctuation on what is being said or thought. Incorporating "rehearse and write" activities these could be used to support and consolidate the teaching and use of sentence structures that include speech marks and choice of speech verbs, engaging students in active peer and class review to support the task. Taking the multimodal view, we might also plan to see one form of representation transformed into another non traditional form, perhaps representing a newspaper report as a podcast, a storyboard as a digital documentary, or an animated short presented through a comic strip as a planning frame, in the form of a short story. It might be interesting also to see how students use comic life with digital images captured through freeze framing, digital photography, the use of a scanner to capture paper based responses to comprehension tasks based on a play script, or a visual text they have shared. Maybe even re-representing whole texts or extracts from other genre types such a newspaper articles, with reported speech, using the format to explore the similarities and differences between the ways in which dialogue and speech can be represented.

Finishing with a brief shout about comic life and its affordances as a publishing tool, the ability to generate directly from within the software, web publishable comics, is another potential boon for the kit. I can't wait to experiment with students as a class, and see what might be achieved through cross curricular use and how we might use this alongside the web 2.0 environments we are currently exploring to share and develop ideas with a wider audience. This may be a wee while down the road and will depend on my ability to fund the licensing, but watch this space.


Anonymous said...

hey there! i have read your article and found it very insightful. am a trainee teacher, who is currecntly researching on strategies to extend and develop a child's writing across a range of genres. i was contemplating using a comic strip, to enhance thier creative writing skills... do you have any strategies on how to extend their writing?
i really appreciated the points and positive aspects in comics that can aid a child's thought process on the story, and the importance of punctuation and visual aids..

TTeacher said...

Hi. I too have found reading your article to be really interesting. As a trainee teacher in my final year of university about to start my dissertation on the use of comics in the primary school I was wondering if you knew of any information I could look for regarding the topic? Any help you could give me would be fantastic.
I'm not sure if you can get my e-mail address by this so it is:

Thank you

Two Whizzy said...

Hi TTeacher, thanks for your comment. I hope you will find this useful. I have referenced a number of texts on multimodality in this post, including one edited by Janet Evans based in the Primary School.
new literacies and multimodality
I have also found MULTILITERACIES: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures (2000)by Bill Cope & Mary Kalantzis, to be a really valuable resource, for thinking about 21st century literacies. Hope you find this useful and best wishes with your dissertation.

Rahayu said...

Dear Simon, I am a secondary school teacher from Singapore who is exploring the use of podcast and comic to teach science to lower ability students. However, I am looking into how students could create these podcast by themselves and at the same time be engaged in the content to be taught. Any ideas?

Two Whizzy said...

Hi Rahayu. Great to hear from you. I use talk to support the writing process a lot in my classroom and increasingly role play type activities too. My feeling is that audio recording can be used in many cases as a writing tool to help capture some of this activity. Its a matter of how we create situations that make its use meaningful and relevant to the students.

I like to use imaginary situations with my students for example when exploring the properties of shapes in maths, I had the children create descriptions of shape characters for a newsflash about how they had escaped from Prison. The children used the properties of these shapes, and role played being news reporters explaining to a worried public how to identify them so they could be recaptured.

How about students scripting and recording audio documentaries that explain a process or series of concepts, using ideas they have been learning about during a unit of work as the basis for the script?

After an experiment making news reports for radio, about how an "exciting discovery" made in the lab today, using their results, and observations to draw conclusions that explain why the discovery is so important.

Imagine explaining to a younger student as a story how a process works. For example the story of melting from the point of view of a water molecule. Or the adventures and ordeals of a meal as it journeys through the alimentary canal.

Don't know how useful these are.

Hope to hear from you again.