Comics in the classroom: supporting female students, part 1

This week, our discussion of comics in the classroom turns to the question of how we can engage female students using comic books.

I’m joined by comics commentator Dee Pirko from Girls Read Comics Too, educator and editor Lisa Fary from Pink Raygun, and Carol Borden, editor of The Cultural Gutter, as well as children’s writer Louie Stowell and Adele Walsh, who runs Melbourne’s Centre for Youth Literature.

Michelle Bai of Alfriston College drawing her own comic

I started by asking the panel, “What are the benefits, and challenges, of using comics in education?”

Lisa: I often run into kids who can decode any word they encounter and read with beautiful fluency, but have no idea what they just read. Giving them something they can see, that doesn’t take so much energy just to decode, is a great option for showing them how to make inferences, how to follow a line of thought in literature. Then, they can turn around and practice applying that to text.  The challenges are primarily the perception of other stakeholders – parents, other teachers, administrators – that comics are silly or otherwise invalid.

Adele: Many children associate reading with fear – the fear that they will interpret what the author means in the incorrect way, or in a different way than what the teacher expects.  A visual format, whether film or a graphic novel, allows the child to decode character and narrative without that fear of being wrong.  They have absorbed so much knowledge of understanding people and situations from what they observe in their everyday life that they can apply this to a comic.  It is a skill they have built and developed like a muscle – one that they have confidence in.  It’s also a skill they can translate into more traditional forms when they are ready.

Carol: Comics, as a more playful medium, can help girls envision themselves and their stories in different ways than completely textual ones do–and can give them a sense of ownership and possibility around their stories and their voices.

Dee: The graphic medium and serial storytelling can be powerful and evocative. Especially with students who are finding plain text books challenging, they can be a great device to encourage reading and interest in storytelling, for girls and boys. Fostering that interest should be a goal at every level and offering books that mix the graphic medium in is an ideal way.

Comic by Althea Daculan, a student at Alfriston College, Auckland, New Zealand
‘Dear Diary’ by students at Alfriston College, Auckland, New Zealand

Young girls often have fantastic imaginations and comics are a brilliant way to encourage that.  In comics a girl can be anything. She can be a superhero or a saviour, a friend and a compatriot. Girls can be brave and strong and not bound by anything. When their lives can be ordinary, comics can show girls they can do anything and believe anything and help give them confidence, hope and encourage their dreams.

Carol: It’s hard to overestimate the value of girls seeing other girls doing things that they had never imagined doing.

Louie:  I think that in all the panic about literacy, it’s often forgotten that visual literacy is a valuable skill in itself. Narrative is narrative, whether it’s embodied in words or images, or both. I do a lot of story writing workshops for kids, and when I’m helping them plot I often suggest they should write the story as a comic, as the sequential nature of comics panels forces you to think in terms of structure and order in a way that a text-based story doesn’t always. Often, I’ve noticed children meandering when they’re writing in text, forgetting where a scene is set and jumping to something else, but when they put it into a comic structure, they’re more in control of where their characters are and what’s happening to them, in which order.

Is the world of comics too male-dominated? What part can educators play in supporting girls who read and create comics?

Dee: There are a lot of women out there creating and reading comics. More and more women are writing and drawing comics, but the major labels are still male-dominated. In webcomics and indies women are a strong force, and you only need to spend a few minutes on the internet to realise how strong female support of comics is.

Educators can encourage girls to read whatever they find interesting. They can offer a variety of graphic options for their students, both girls and boys. They can encourage girls who draw or write, and hold reading groups for comics the same way they would for books.

Carol: The world of comics is certainly male-dominated in the sense of what comics, genres, art and writing styles are valued as serious, worthwhile and mainstream and in who are seen as the readers of comics. Female creators are often assumed to create webcomics and manga with a “cartoonier” look and female readers are assumed to read webcomics and manga, but not superhero comics. Frankly, reading superhero comics as an adult woman is frequently depressing, but the all-ages versions are a lot better in terms of portraying girls and women well while still being written by and often featuring primarily men and boys.

Educators can educate themselves about comics, graphic novels and manga–and explore the online catalogs of comics publishers. While DC and Marvel don’t have extensive catalogs devoted to all ages, YA or children’s comics, small independent companies like Top Shelf
Comix, First Second and Archaia have been putting out gorgeous books for children and young adults.

Educators can also encourage and support girls who read and write comics at the most basic level by expressing interest in what girls read and write. I think supporting comics in school libraries is another good way to help girls get access to comics in the classroom and then bring them up for discussion. In my own experience, having girls create their own comics can be a fantastic way of fostering creativity and exploring narrative form.

I think it’s also worthwhile to keep an eye out for comics that might fit with a given curriculum.

Self-portrait from 2007′s Life Sucks, by Jessica Abel
Self-portrait from 2007′s Life Sucks, by Jessica Abel

Jessica Abel has an excellent book on making comics, exploring the form from every angle, that would be very useful in any creative writing curriculum.

Matt: Jessica recently visited this very site for a discussion about comics and art education!

Carol: George Conner has a series of graphic novels telling the stories of the Olympian gods that could integrate well into a variety of curricula.

Louie: Encouraging more girls to make their own comics is brilliant, but also seeking out comics with female creators or female lead characters.

Click to read the second part of this discussion now.

Thanks to all of today’s participants – Dee Pirko from Girls Read Comics Too, Lisa Fary from Pink Raygun, Carol Borden of The Cultural Gutter, Louie Stowell and Adele Walsh from the Centre for Youth Literature.

3 thoughts on “Comics in the classroom: supporting female students, part 1

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