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Creating comics is an engaging cross-curricular activity that levels the playing field, helps students demonstrate learning, and scaffolds bigger projects in any subject

Using comics across the curriculum

Creating comics is an engaging cross-curricular activity that levels the playing field, helps students demonstrate learning, and scaffolds bigger projects in any subject

These days, we’re all pretty accustomed to seeing Marvel dominate the box office. But when I tell people that comics also dominate my classroom, they’re often taken a little aback–especially if they know I teach geography.

Comics are a fantastic tool for inspiring student engagement, leveling the playing field so students can demonstrate their learning even if they aren’t great writers, and scaffolding intimidating projects. While it might be easier to see how comics would fit into an English language arts class, there’s no great trick to incorporating them across the curriculum.

Why comics?

The most obvious reason to have students create comics in class is because they’re fun. From the private school where I started teaching to my current position at Toby Farms Intermediate School, a Title I school with a large population of at-risk students, comics have helped to capture student attention so much that they create their own fun along the way, no matter how dry the topic is.

I’ve also come to feel that there’s an area of success for everyone to achieve in comics, whether it’s the anime master who’s not great at explaining the ideas but draws a beautiful tableau, or the student who never progressed beyond stick figures but nails the concepts cold. Similarly, comics level the playing field because socioeconomic background has little to do with drawing ability—the rich kids and the poor kids are all starting at the same place.

Giving students a character to talk through who isn’t actually them can also be a good way to bring them out of their shells. Because their comics are displayed mostly anonymously—they put their name on the back and I hang them up against the wall—they can get some feedback and even the occasional confidence boost as they hear other students talking about their comics on the bulletin board.

Comics are also a great scaffolding tool! A student may feel intimidated if you ask them to write a lab report, for example, especially if they’re a middle schooler who reads and writes at a 4th-grade level, as many of my students do. However, when I taught science, if I asked them to write a comic strip about the steps they took to perform an experiment, they didn’t bat an eyelash. Of course, once they’ve done that and I ask for a lab report, they understand they’ve already done most of the work and it’s just a question of filling in some gaps and formalizing their language.

How to get started

My first teaching job was as a 6th-grade teacher at a strict Catholic school. The administration had particular ideas about how to teach, and little tolerance for deviation from those ideas. It was easy to empathize with those students because, frankly, the curriculum was boring.

I was looking for new ways to do things and I had a bunch of kids in that class who liked to draw, even if they weren’t very good at it. After trying a few activities like sketch notes that didn’t feel quite right, I eventually decided to try comics. I made a blank template with four panels, photocopied a stack, and gave my students their first vocabulary comics assignment.

On that first one, I had everyone draw stick figures no matter what they were capable of. Partly it was because students were scared about doing something new. I also wanted them to focus more on communicating the concepts than on elaborate drawing and figured limiting them to stick figures would even the playing field for those with less artistic ability.

After that, it just grew. I started having them draw dialogues between characters. I gave them an assignment where their character had to explain a concept and the background behind them needed to change to help illustrate the message. I began using comics for social studies vocabulary because some of those words, like “hemisphere,” are not just unusual but abstract, though they can be easy to explain in images.

Learning with your students

Some assignments are really easy to convert to a comic book format. Students have to use spelling and vocabulary words in sentences, for example, so it’s easy enough to ask them to make those sentences into a dialogue between characters—and suddenly a boring old assignment is something a little more exciting. But sometimes my students wanted to try something a little trickier, and that’s where I got to learn alongside them.

When some students wanted to make a graphic novel, I didn’t think we had the time, so I suggested a graphic paragraph. I had them start with their topic sentences, and I found it was a great tool for helping students to drill down into the main ideas. Kids love to go down rabbit holes, but they have to be very specific about what they include in a comic, because no matter how small you write, there are only so many words you can cram into a panel.

When it came to math, some of my students didn’t think we could use comics, but when I hear a student say “can’t” I immediately think, “Well, of course we can!” So we started using comics to explain concepts. Instead of having them explain how to solve for x to someone next to them, I asked them to explain it to the students in the classroom next door.

After that, it just became an option in my classes. If you don’t want to draw and you want to turn in a more traditionally formatted assignment, that is fine, but if you can demonstrate what you’ve learned through a comic strip, that’s also great!

Going digital

In September of last year, before the pandemic, I moved my classes to an online format. We had Chromebooks on carts, but I still had students draw comics by hand to experience tactile learning. However, when the pandemic hit, we had to try something new.

Using the tiny touchpad on their Chromebooks to draw wasn’t feasible, so at first, I had them drawing their pictures and then holding them up for the camera. It was hard to see, though. We also tried cobbling together comics with Google Slides by making blocky characters out of the shapes they provide, but that wasn’t quite right either.

But then, over the summer, I came across Pixton, a web-app designed specifically for students to make digital comic books. I showed them a quick video on how to use it, but students today are digital natives, so they just dove in and started seeing what it could do.

The first couple days they just played and made their avatars and got used to the program, but after I gave them their first two-panel assignment, they were off to the races. All I heard was “Mrs. McLuckie, look what I made, Mrs. McLuckie! Look what I made, Mrs. McLuckie! I made a four-strip story, and I’ve got more coming!”

They had that same level of excitement as they had with hand-drawn comics, but now they all have that same level of polish on the finished product, even if they aren’t artistically inclined. On the other end, it kind of reins in the artistic students because instead of focusing on elaborate drawings they have a more defined world to work within. I’ve found that as a result, students are making their comics much faster and I’m getting much more out of them concept-wise.

When we go back to the classroom, I plan to use a mix of hand-drawn comics and digital comics made using Pixton, and I can’t wait to see what my students come up with.

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