Getting Students to Write Using Comics. By: Crilley, Mark, Teacher Librarian, 14811782, Oct2009, Vol. 37, Issue 1
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Getting Students to Write Using Comics


Building Conflict
Write What You Know
And, Have Fun Doing It
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Drawing is easier for me than writing, but writing is more important.
Help your child to write if you want that child to: Do well in school, enjoy self-expression, and become more self-reliant (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, April, 1993, http://www.ed.gov.ez-proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu:2048/pubs/parents/Writing/index.html).
Recently, I spoke to students at a school library in Neenah, Wisconsin. As is my custom in those settings, I had an easel beside me with a nice big drawing pad so I could work on an illustration as I spoke. I worked on the illustration, adding some color here and some shading there as I gave the students advice on coming up with story ideas, giving characters voices, and bracing themselves for the all-important rewrites that their teachers and my editors are so very fond of requesting. When I ended my presentation and opened for questions, a young lady raised her hand and asked, "What do you like more, writing or illustrating?"
That is a great question. I was wearing my author's hat that day and so my answer was that drawing is easier for me than writing, however, because of what I do for a living, writing is more important. Everyone knows who wrote Harry Potter. Not so many remember the name of the illustrator. As a graphic novelist, I say, "I don't have to choose between writing and illustrating. I do comics!"
Graphic novels are the perfect meeting place of words and pictures and as such offer an excellent way of getting visually-oriented students to read (let's face it, these days most students are visually oriented). Teacher-librarians picked up on this a long time ago and have been adding graphic novels to their collection in ever increasing numbers. Of course, students have always loved reading comics, so it is not difficult to get them to bury their noses in a copy of Bone (2004) or the latest installment of the Naruto series. But how can teachers and librarians tap into comics as a way of getting students into writing? We can get students to read comics, no problem. But can we get them to pull out the paper and pencil to start creating comics of their own?
It may seem to be a daunting task: All those panels, word balloons and sound effects, and all those spandex-clad figures to draw. Surely you may think one will need a graduate degree in design and an encyclopedic knowledge of human anatomy to get started. Happily, the answer is no. One peek at the mock comics found in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series proves that you do not need the drawing skills of Jack Kirby or Charles Schulz to make a comic book story that will be cheerfully gobbled up by thousands of readers. It is all about the writing.
Teachers and librarians often ask me to conduct writing workshops and I find that devoting a portion of the time to graphic novel storytelling guarantees the students' rapt attention and is also a fantastic way of teaching them some of the fundamentals about writing. They learn the importance of conflict, the use of dialogue to reveal character, and how crucial rewriting is to the writing process.
Word balloons that sprout from every comic book character's mouth are just waiting to be filled with words, and students will be more excited about loading up those word balloons than they would be about simply writing sentences on blank paper.
So how do we give students the chance to hone their skills in writing word balloon dialogue without the distraction of comic book page layouts? Easy: Get some of the details out of the way for them by providing fill-in-the-blanks comic panels.
I always like to keep it simple. Take a standard letter-sized paper and create a six-panel grid. (You may print a sample for classroom use at www.markcrilley.com.) Draw two simple characters in the first panel--upper left corner--and have them say something to each other using word balloons. Or, you may prefer to have the students do all the drawing and you indicate where you would like them to begin. In either case, give the students a head start on the dialogue by penning the first few word balloons for them. It could be as basic as:
Character 1: Can I borrow your pen?
Character 2: No way.
That takes care of panel one. In panel two, redraw the characters, and draw two more word balloons.
Character 1: Why not? It's just a pen, dude.
Character 2: This is no ordinary pen. It's very special.
We have taken our potentially bland pen-borrowing scenario into more interesting territory. One more panel and we are ready for the class of creative writers to take over by filling the empty word balloon:
Character 1: Special? What's so special about it?
Character 2: [Large empty word balloon.]
I have used this exercise with elementary school students and one student suggested the pen had been given to the kid by her dying grandfather. Another said the pen once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. And a third said the pen was not a pen at all but a secret door key to a rocket ship parked in the playground.
This exercise shows students they do not need a plot idea worthy of William Shakespeare to start writing an interesting story. Dialogue has a way of transforming even the dullest occurrence into something dramatic and comics are a wonderfully painless way to get students to understand this principle.
Building Conflict
Another cornerstone of my school and library presentation is teaching students the importance of building conflict in a story.
Of course comics have featured over-the-top conflict--Superman vs. Lex Luthor, the Incredible Hulk vs. everybody--since their inception. I have designed an exercise to teach conflict in a way that is so much fun they may well think you have given them the hour off. (You will find my version of the exercise at www.markcrilley.com. Feel free to print the pages out as is or rearrange them any way you like.)
Start with a handout that has two complete comics on it. The first should be a brief two-panel comic representing "ZERO CONFLICT." Draw a figure standing in a park. Then nearby, another figure seated on a bench.
Narration Box, upper left: One day at the park…
Standing Character: Nice weather we're having, isn't it?
In the second panel draw the same picture, depicting the bench sitter's response.
Seated Character: Yup!
Narration Box, lower right: The End
Students will chuckle at how pathetic this so-called story is. They'll think, "Jeez, I can do better than that." They can, of course, and that is the point.
Let us raise the bar a little for them before we send them on their way. Draw another two-panel comic, entitled "CONFLICT: OVER TOO SOON." Draw a woman standing in the park and a thief running off with her purse.
Narration Box, upper left: One day at the park…
Woman: Thief!
In the second panel draw the thief running into the arms of a policeman.
Policeman: Gotcha!
Thief: Drat!
Narration Box, lower right: The End
By now the students will be excited to show you they can do a better job than you have done.
On a second page create a six-panel grid, entitled "REAL CONFLICT." See Figure 2. Notice in the fourth panel we add a second layer of conflict before putting the students in charge to keep the conflict going and give them some ground rules. For example, the thief has to find a way of escaping the policeman. The policeman, of course, must stay in pursuit. Give the students enough blank six-panel pages to allow them plenty of space to go wherever imagination leads them.
I have tried this exercise at schools and libraries and it is amazing how creative students can be with their endings: thief has a secret parachute. The thief has an escape boat waiting in the waters at the bottom of the cliff. The policeman has helicopter blades that pop up from his cap. The possibilities are endless, and given enough panels, students can take the chase in any number of directions, and you can also request a predetermined outcome. I prefer to let the students surprise me (and, hopefully themselves). One way or another, they will learn one of the most important requirements of good storytelling: setting up a good conflict that is not easily resolved. They may even fall in love with the act of writing.
Write What You Know
Of course, writing does not always have to be nonstop action, and graphic novels are no different. Comics can be a great way of teaching students about non-fiction writing and are particularly good for getting students to understand the joys of autobiographical writing. One great thing about having students write about their lives is that to a large degree, the story is already written. For example, the story of "HOW I LOST (AND FOUND) MY DAD'S CAMERA AT THE ZOO" is something that already has its own beginning, middle, and end. The students can stop worrying about what happens next and focus all their energy on simply retelling the tale as vividly as possible.
When I speak to students, I try to steer them away from the too-easy and generalized day-in-my-life kind of story: "I woke up in the morning. I brushed my teeth. I ate breakfast, etc." The key is to get students to write about a specific event that occurred at some point in the recent past. Try to set things up for them by giving them a number of topics to choose from, ones that are bound to spark powerful memories.
If all they do is create narration boxes with drawings under them, then all you have is a picture book rather than a real comic book. So give the students "assigned elements" their autobiographical story must contain:
• dialogue, i.e. word balloons.
• sound effects at least once.
• at least one "wordless panel," a panel in which the story is conveyed entirely by drawing.
• at least three different facial expressions in the story.
Unfortunately you cannot get these stories started for the students; the stories must come from the students' own lives, and as such have to be entirely written by them without the benefit of the "jumpstart" panels we created for the earlier assignments. What you can do, however, is provide an example of what you are looking for by creating a quick autobiographical sketch of your own, either recalled from childhood, or from your more recent experiences as a teacher or parent. If you do not have great illustrations, that is much better because students will know it is the spirit of the story that counts, and no one is expected to deliver topnotch artistry.
If you find that students are really getting into the assignment, turn it into an ongoing project such as The Diaries of the Not-So-Wimpy Kids in Classroom 207. As the various comic-book diaries make their way from student to student, the ones with a natural knack for graphic novel autobiography will inspire the others who find it a bit more challenging. And for once students cannot complain that the subject does not interest them. We all find our own lives fascinating, even if we do not to say it out loud.
These three exercises are built around basic writing skills that are easily transferred from the world of comics to traditional prose fiction: dialogue, conflict, and autobiographical storytelling. You may find, though, that you want to get more into those elements of graphic novels that are unique to the medium: panel-to-panel action, manga-style layouts, even the subtle effects that can be achieved through word balloon placement. A great place to start is by reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1994). This scholarly tome on comic book format is guaranteed to give you a new appreciation for the art of comics creation and, is unquestionably the definitive work on the subject to date. If after that you want to go further, try McCloud's more recent--and much more hands-on-volume, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels (2006). Both books are probably too involved for elementary school students, but it will give teachers and teacher-librarians a firmer footing as they introduce comic book creation into the classroom.
And, Have Fun Doing It
A spirit of whimsy has been at the heart of the comics world from its inception, and the last thing you want is for students to approach their stories with the seriousness of someone sitting down to crack a tough math problem. Comics have a way of taking on a life of their own. The characters start telling you what they want to say. The panels start demanding more drama. Encourage the students to enjoy themselves, to follow the story wherever it goes, and if it takes a turn for the outrageously absurd, so much the better. To me, the point of bringing comics into the classroom is to show students who are convinced "writing is boring" that they are dead wrong. And the best way to do that is to give them the freedom to let the story get just a little bit crazy.
PHOTO (COLOR): Figure 1. Author Mark Crilley often works on an illustration as he addresses his audience.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Figure 2. Sample page from Crilley's manga series.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Figure 2. Sample drawing from Crilley's Miki Falls.
- psarles psarles Aug 20, 2011- psarles psarles Aug 20, 2011
By Mark Crilley
Mark Crilley is the author of the "Akiko" series of chapter books for Random House (http://www.randomhouse.com/kids/akiko/). Crilley's series of graphic novels "Miki Falls," was listed as a YALSA "Great Graphic Novels for Teens," 2008. He may be reached at mark@markcrilley.com.