I’m Dan Conner, a moderately successful and somewhat well-known cartoonist. My comics, including My Gal, the Zombie and Dracula: Graphic Chillers, have been published by Antarctic Press, Abdo, Lamp Post, Hachette Books in Europe and Australia, and Editora Prumo in Brazil. Maybe you’re familiar with my work. What you probably don’t know, however, is that I am also an educator.
It was during my first year as a full time high school special education teacher that I wrote my first “real” published graphic novels, which were adaptations of Shakespeare plays. I’ve worked in comics and education in a variety of forms in the years since then. But, the purpose of this writing is not to detail my own works. It is to describe the importance of visually based sequential storytelling (or comics) in the world of reading.
I could write on end about comicbook theory or about ideas regarding how humans acquire the ability to interpret the arrangement of various lines and shapes as a means of spreading communication (or reading). I would rather, instead, share a practice I began using that first year of teaching and have used in a variety of forms since.
It is a sad “open secret” that there are people who graduate from high school without being what many would consider to be fluent readers (or literate). There are many people who even by high school have not learned this ability, often due a combination of a variety of factors (both nature and nurture). They can also be willing to share with you a statement such as, “I don’t know how to read.” This is a very sad and perhaps misguided statement. They may be repeating what they have been told by others. They may be offering an excuse or placing blame on previous teachers. But, no matter what their motive might be in sharing this with you, they are sharing what they believe to be true.
I was a comic fan and many of my students were at least super hero fans. I knew the value of comics in education and being in the industry and a fan, always had comics and graphic novels available in my classroom. It is quite easy to give someone a comic and ask, “Are there any words on this page that you don’t recognize? Which are the ones that you do?” Due to the arrangement of words on a comic page, this can usually be answered quickly. Your student, who may have found many frustrations in regards to reading, might point out some of the most basic words as those she knows. Even identifying these words is the first victory. (And honestly, forget the words. You could even ask which letters she recognizes.) She also points out words she does not know. You can help her decode the letters in these words to determine phonemes, graphemes, and their meanings. (A variety of activities can stem from this, which I will not detail here.) More importantly, however, you can ask her as she looks at this page, what is happening on that page. She can use a synthesis of the words she recognized, those you discussed, and the pictures, to more adequately describe that the space princess is rescuing her futuristic kitty from an intergalactic monster. Then you can tell her, “You sure did a great job reading that page to me, especially for someone who said she couldn’t read.” That is the more important victory.
During this time, you have not made a new reader. Instead, you have brought light to the fact that your student already is a reader. She used the visual organization of
lines on a page (or on an e-reader or the wall of a cave) to gather and interpret meaning. Cultures have done this since the beginning of written language and much of this has incorporated a synthesis of both pictures and what would be described as letters and words. This is not the last step of your student’s journey as a reader and it may also not be the first. It is, however, a wonderful step and is an important launching point for the journeys you and she may share in the world of meaning gathered from the arrangement of lines on a page (or e-reader or cave wall).
Dan Conner is the author of ten graphic novels, five of which are on the Accelerated Reader books list, and include Graphic Chillers: Dracula (Hachette Books, Editora Prumo), My Gal, the Zombie (Lamp Post), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Graphic Shakespeare (Abdo). He and his art have been featured at the Denver Art Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, Charles M. Shulz Museum and Research Center, and Denver’s 11th Avenue Gallery. He recently served as an assistant colorist on the second volume of Mike Maihack’s Cleopatra in Space, now available from Scholastic. Visit him online at www.crazygoodcomics.com.