Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Jaunt at C2E2 2011...Departing the Text: Teaching Inference with Graphic Novels

I just got back from  C2E2 2011.  Not only did the panel go well,  I love conventions...walking around...getting free books...and pitching mine. It's all about books (at least for me).  I own a kindle and read it (and love it when traveling), but there is something about the touch, feel and smell of books and paper in your hand...

At the request of some of my readers, let me tell you about the presentation Talia Hurwich and I made, "Departing the Text:  Teaching Inference With Graphic Novels." (Katie Monnin who also contributed could not make it).  The turnout was good and the audience was as passionate about teaching kids,  reaching kids, reaching teachers and introducing the right graphic novels into classrooms as we were. 

Presentation highlights:
Getting to know the page: While I'm not sure there is a 'typical' graphic novel page since page design is actually part of the art, each page contains the following elements:
  • Panels - boxes of various shape, size and borders that contain varying amounts of text and art.
  • Text varies in size, shape and in presentations. Typically, the text is presented in narrative or dialogue form (and dialogue is often in a 'text bubble').
  • When there is more than one panel to a page (which is usually the case), the panels are separated by lines or space called "gutters." Gutters are actually important.
Gutters are where a lot of critical thinking takes place.  For one, they provide opportunities to pause,  reflect and digest the previous panel and "fill in" the gaps of time, action and emotion.  Gutters also allow readers to pause and fill chunks of 'data' that the author/illustrator did not provide which are also necessary for comprehension.

In order to read and comprehend graphic novels, readers must:
  • Attend to the text's content;
  • Attend to details in art - the foreground and the background, facial expressions, spacing and placing of objects;
  • Attend to the shape, size and presentation of  text (in and out of) the panels; and
  • Attend to the panel borders and the choice of color in the backgrounds.
Learning is most effective when it is personal, meaningful and interactive. Here's how graphic novels can play a huge role:
  • Graphic novels are particularly suited for learning because they involve the reader as s/he constantly engages with the medium - switching from verbal to visual stimuli and constructing his/her level of understanding.
  • Aside from the art often being literally stunning, it pops out at you and invites the reader to participate in the action.  TRIBES:  The Dog Years (by Michael Geszel, Peter Spinetta; art by Inaki Miranda - IDW Publishers) is one example. 
  • Readers are constantly making inferences when they read graphic novels.  
  •  Critical to reading and learning from graphic novels is that information is given everywhere, and "art" can include the use of illustrations, the design of the page, the font, size, shape, and presentation of the text.
Readers Must make INFERENCES in order to comprehend:

  • We make them when we leap - figuring out what happened within and between panels.
  • We must infer character emotions from faces,  from the color of the panel background, from body stances, from text (content, shape, size), and from panel borders and shapes.
  • We must infer motives from faces, body posture, text (content, shape, size) and from panel borders and shapes.
  • We make inferences in the use of figure/ground and foreground/background.
  • We make inferences about author/illustrator 'choices'.
  • Time is often 'weird' in graphic novels.  The art and design allows the author/illustrator to jump from one period of time to another, often with no formal 'direction'.  As a result, readers must infer 'where' they are 'when' integrating the art, the shading, the panel borders, the color and the text provided.
A special note about teaching social cognition - how to read faces, understand boundaries and personal space, validate emotions... graphic novels are a power house:  In social interactions, reading verbal and nonverbal cues is essential.  Graphic novels clearly can help. The facial expressions, how people are standing or interacting together, the color of the background, the tension in the bodies, smooth or jagged panel borders, text size-shape-and font, ALL show and teach us how one expression, word, stance can lead to a particular emotion or reaction in others.  SEEING is often so much more power than just reading or being told, and graphic novels do both.

Talia outlined a sample lesson plan for introducing Greek mythology using Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess by George O'Connor, published by First Second. For anyone interested, please let me know, we can email a copy to you.

Questions/concerns from the audience [Note each bullet is a topic for an upcoming post so stay tuned]:
  • How do parents, teachers, librarians know what to buy?  As with prose novels, there are junk and gems all around.  How do we know what to buy/read/recommend?
  • How can parent/teachers learn more about using and reading graphic novels to build inference skills?
  • Can I provide further examples of how to read graphic novel panels, pointing out opportunities for inference?
  • Do you have questions?  Please let me know in the comments.
Graphic novels are rife with teaching opportunities for kids with all kinds of strengths and weaknesses and they should be integrated in classrooms and read at home.  The key is finding the right ones to use.  I have made some recommendations in previous posts, and will continue to do so.

What do you think?  Any questions?  Do you want any particular information?  Please let me know.


  1. I used to work at a comic book store back in the 1980s and 1990s. I actually have a vague idea what you're talking about!

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  2. Your post is very interesting, but I still don't understand what is meant by "inferences".
    I learned reading when I was very young and so did my three children and husband. We read anything, partly because we wanted to and partly, in my case, because I had to read a certain number of books for my exams. I actually don't like comic books or cartoon books. But many of my pupils in 5th grade did. Mainly boys read comics.

  3. What a a beautiful take on J!

    Come and see the Joys of our Lives, have a lovely day!

  4. Interesting post for the J day.

  5. Interesting article. I must admit I didn't like graphic novels as a child, I liked dense text with the odd illustration, which I had a propensity to colour in, judging from the books I still have. Today we live in a more visual world so they would be a great teaching aid, also I think graphic novels have improved greatly, or maybe I have now learnt to slow down and look.

  6. I used to work about art and music with kids.Your idea is very interesting, well done!
    Léia - Bonjour Luxembourg

  7. This post brought back memories of my childhood, when my mother bought me a couple of graphic novels. Thinking back, I can attest to the interactive benefits of this type of reading. Love it!

  8. this post is very interesting.

  9. this is some really good stuff...i grew up on comics...a teacher that would have done this would have totally had my attention...

  10. interesting...

    thank you for your visit/comment on my blog.

  11. there is something about the touch, feel and smell of books and paper in your hand...
    Yes, there is!

    Hugs xoxox

  12. Since I started reading I loved to read and read probably thousands of books ever since.

  13. hmmm. i know some teachers, married one, so i can ask around. if a graphic novel can help getting kids to read, then there's totally some merit.

  14. Meryl, thanks for your comment of support yesterday. Through it I discover your blog so full of good things to learn.

  15. Interesting post!
    Love books too;o)

    Have a nice and happy day****

  16. Fascinating -- and reminds me of how much has changed since I learned the skills of teaching reading.

  17. a lot of information...thanks for sharing and thanks for dropping by my place...great to be here!

  18. I agree with you that graphic novels should have a place in the classroom, to be shared and discussed with young children and to be deconstructed by older pupils.
    In a similar vein, books without words caused problems for some parents who could not understand the value of them. For them reading was a subject to be taught, not an integral part of life.
    Graphic novels can present difficult subject matter in an entertaining way. I've just finished Art Spiegelman's 'Maus' - no wonder it won the Pulitzer prize.

  19. My son, who has to be prodded to read at all, has taken a keen interest in graphic novels. I couldn't believe my ears the other day when he said he was excited to go to the library and get a new batch of books. Anything is better than nintendo at this point.

  20. Jabblog and Rosey, you are absolutely right. In terms of worldless picture books, I have friends who hated Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" because they couldn't figure out how to read the two wordless pages.

    Rosey I agree with you, reading is so important for building all kinds of skills.

    As I mention in some of my other posts, there are not so good, good, and great books in all formats be they graphic novels or prose books. Just know what your kids are reading.

  21. There need to be a variety of media for the variety of readers and reading needs. I can see there would be so much value for a number of students through this approach, but I would think it would be used as just one tool.
    Do you see these novels becoming digitally interactive?
    I love the pages and the "real" but it is impossible to ignore the trends.
    Interesting post.

  22. I absolutely agree. Each reading format is important as they address different skill sets. And my advocating for graphic novels in no way should be taken as reading them instead of novels but rather in conjunction with. Thanks for bringing up some really important points.

    Viva le difference!

  23. Interesting concept. Really loved it. I have been thinking on these lines. Going a step ahead, I think games should replace text books. I played this game called 'Civilization'. I learnt so much about different civilization and their histories and scientific discoveries. Similarly I learnt world geography through a game called Railroad Tycoon. Then it stuck me - wouldn't it be a good idea if school curriculums are made into these kind of exams and have winning the game as evaluation rather than old exam system.

  24. I love your ideas. You are certainly no fool! I think school, tests, and homework should be meaningful and thought provoking and not just thought regurgitation. We are raising memorizers not thinkers...

    Thanks for your ideas and support!