Visual Revolution

Why graphic novels need to move to the front of the classroom

Kaki Flynn
editor, Jacksonville Magazine

Spider-Man needs to get schooled. iPods, graphic-heavy websites and an influx of news sources from short tweets to "YouTubing" everything has altered the way the world communicates. Many schools, however, are lagging behind in this revolution.

Graphic novels and comic books are a great way to bridge that gap, says Dr. Kate Monnin, who has written two books on using graphic novels as a teaching tool at home and in the classroom, and is at work on a third. As an assistant professor at The University of North Florida, she is training the next generation of teachers on how to bring these books into the classroom.

"We are living during one of the greatest communication revolutions of our time. We are a global culture which relies on print text and visual literacy simultaneously, and we aren't teaching that," she says.

We talked to George Scribner, one of the Directors of Animation at Walt Disney Imagineering, who agreed. "It's a much more visual world; look at how much The New York Times Magazine has changed. The world we live in consists of so many languages. At Disney World, half our guests don't speak English, so we need to communicate almost everything visually."

Scribner has also taught at the California Institute of the Arts, a world-renowned school of the visual and performing arts established by Walt and Roy Disney.

Comic books are for fun and entertainment, while graphic novels are considered literary works with deeper context. Both are often looked at with disdain by parents; the image that comes to mind is a kid stuffing a comic book into the pages of a textbook trying to read the latest Spider-Man adventure without getting caught.

Comics are occasionally used for fun or as a supplement to learning - Spider-Man to teach physics, or X-Men to teach chemistry. Some parents use them as a reward to coax struggling students to read, hoping to get kids to move up to traditional books.

Graphic novels need to move to the front of the classroom and share space with Jane Eyre and other classic novels, says Monnin. "The point is to get all kids to think and process information on a broader scale. These two types of novels compliment each other, and allow kids to process information on both a visual-spatial and verbal-linguistic level. Classrooms place almost all value on verbal-linguistic."

Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi that depicts her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, or the Pulitzer-prize winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman, about his father surviving the Holocaust, add a depth and imagery that a movie or a traditional textbook might be missing.

Monnin doesn't just want to change the way kids read, she also wants to change the way kids write. "Kids get information now through rich video and text," she says. "It doesn't make sense to have them only process that through writing."

Kids don't just need to read graphic novels, they can also create them without needing Pixar-level drawing skills.

Edutopia, an organization started by filmmaker George Lucas in response to his own struggles in the traditional classroom as a kid, is looking to revolutionize the school system in the U.S. as well, and targets the text-heavy reliance of classrooms as a problem.

Edutopia recommends, software that allows kids to upload photos and add text to build a graphic novel, or write a "visual" book report.

And Spider-Man? Stan Lee, the creator of the web slinger, wrote an article for Edutopia, and makes it clear that believing that comic books stifle the reader's imagination because readers can see characters and scenes is a fallacy that makes as much sense as saying Shakespeare's plays should only be read.

For parents and students looking for role models that have made a career out of communicating visually, check out The Creative Talent Network, an organization founded by Disney animator Tina Price that includes most of the top talent from the film and animation industry such as Scribner.

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