Comics in Education: Interview with Dr. Glen Downey


I found Comics in Education while researching the The Beguiling for my interview. I think I stared at the screen for a couple minutes wondering if I was seeing things correctly and then being insanely jealous of any child lucky enough to be learning through something as exciting as comics. Glen, who runs the Comics in Education site, was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Of course, that’s inbetween him being an award-winning children’s author, educator and academic. He’s a reviewer for PW Comics, editor and oh, happens to serve as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto. He was inspired to create Comics in Education after the wealth of support and interest he received about comics at the Reading for the Love of It Conference this year. In short, he’s a busy man and still managed to find the time for this!

Can you tell us a little about the rise of comics in education? I’ve left my school days long behind and I was so surprised and jealous to learn this was a medium that was accepted in schools!

Comics began to take a foothold in the classroom about a decade ago when educators realized that visual narrative could be used to engage reluctant and struggling readers. Because comics and graphic novels marry the textual with the visual, they help those who find reading challenging by allowing them to see what the vocabulary they are reading looks like. As well, comics and graphic novels break language up into far more manageable units than a traditional text-based novel. At the same time, visual narratives can be just as complex and engaging, so the student gets the benefit of seeing the story unfold, having the text divided into more manageable units, and making connections between new vocabulary words and the images that represent them.

What specifically or how do you envision comics to be used in classrooms?

Much of the writing I have done—specifically the comics and graphic novels I have written—are for ESL, ELL, and both reluctant and struggling readers. Educational publishers like Rubicon Publishing in Canada have been groundbreakers in producing award-winning series that have inspired students and shown the value of comics in the classroom. At the same time, we’ve now reached a point where we must consider the ways in which comics and graphic novels can be used with students who are strong readers as well. To this end, we need to begin teaching comics and graphic novels as a genre and establishing visual narrative as one of number of equally important genres that we teach.

In your experience and work, can you tell us a little about the power of the visual narrative to kids? Or adults? Or both?

Visual narrative is powerful in an educational context. I remember one particular student a number of years ago who opened a novel we were studying, flipped through the pages for a moment, and then quickly closed it.

                “I don’t get it,” she said.

“What don’t you get,” I asked.

“I don’t get this book,” she replied.

“Well, you couldn’t get the book,” I said after taking a moment. “You wouldn’t have had a chance to read any of the words. But it’s not really the story you didn’t get, is it? You just can’t understand why someone would write a book that goes on for 200 pages with no illustrations, nothing to download, and not even on a screen to read from.”

She smiled.

Then I gave her a copy of a graphic novel I wrote called Freedom Train, about a girl named Lizzie who escapes slavery through the Underground Railroad. After about ten or fifteen minutes I looked over and she was absolutely fixated on it.

“You know,” I said, “books that just have writing can be that exciting too. They just don’t look as exciting to you.”

And I think this illustrates a fundamental point. For some readers, young or old, they need scaffolding from the visual to the textual, and graphic novels have done a remarkable job in bridging that gap. But as I said before, we need to see beyond limiting our use of comics and graphic novels in this way and awaken students to the genre of visual narrative.Terminology

What is the most common misconception you’ve come across in your work about comics? And why do you think that is?

The most common misconception about comics and graphic novels is exactly what you’d assume it to be. Many people—teachers, parents, librarians, curriculum specialists, literacy experts—believe we don’t need to be bothered with them because they somehow represent a “lesser” form of writing. And I suppose if I only permitted the teachers in my department to teach Archie, L’il Abner or Marmaduke comics from Grades 6-12 we might run into a bit of a problem after a while.

But no one is actually going to do that.

Comics and graphic novels are part of the broader tradition of visual narrative, a tradition that predates both writing and even the oral tradition. 20,000 to 35,000 years ago, we were drawing beasts in the Caves of Altamira in Spain when no one was writing and I’m pretty sure oral storytelling was somewhat limited. Three thousand years ago and more we had complex hieroglyphics being scribed in Egypt. The Battle of Hastings gave us the Bayeux Tapestry, essentially a 70m long visual narrative. Hogarth provided us with A Rake’s Progress, the story of a wasted inheritance told in a series of paintings. And, oddly enough, the Roman Catholic Church gave us the Stations of the Cross, arguably the most famous visual narrative in history that’s never actually identified as such.

How do you answer those critics who prefer Shakespeare over a graphic novel or comic?

Aye, there’s the rub. For some it is either Shakespeare or comics. And for those people, trust me, it’s Shakespeare. My question is always, Are you that insecure that your precious Shakespeare is actually threatened by comics that you feel the need to disparage them? Or, is it that you think the world is falling into ruin if we stop for a moment and consider visual narrative to be a genre worthy of study? We should all read widely and broadly from a range of genres, and we should understand those genres as well—all of them.

Are there specific comics published for school kids or can any comic be used in teaching?

Educational publishers—I mentioned Rubicon earlier—are a good bet for the classroom, because they will have been levelled, reviewed, and judged to be age and ability-appropriate for a given audience. One thing to realize is that educational publishers understand curriculum far better than most other people on the planet. They live and breathe it. If they didn’t understand curriculum they would constantly lose out on major contracts to educational publishers who did understand it. I have written for a number of series that are highly visual, and of those, there are four graphic novel series. Here they are, with the blurbs being from the publishers themselves.


BOLDPRINT Kids Graphic Readers are engaging, Canadian, leveled little books that are great for early literacy instruction and building the minds of inquiring learners. They allow beginning readers Level A through R the opportunity to interact with this popular and motivating format, and offer teachers the opportunity to easily integrate these fun and functional books into their existing literacy program.





BOLDPRINT Graphic Novels are action-packed and uniquely Canadian. They are great for Literacy and Language Arts Instruction, and developing inquiring minds. Leveled to support junior and intermediate guided reading, these graphic novels combine engaging topics and breathtaking illustrations to support a specific reading strategy. Moreover, each graphic novel also includes questions and activities in Arts, Media, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening.



Graphic poetry


The books of the Graphic Poetry series combine the wit and artistry of classic poems with the rich and vivid imagination of contemporary artists. The high-quality illustrations, bring curriculum-linked poems to life while helping students develop critical skills necessary to achieve a deeper understanding of challenging concepts such as imagery, figurative language, tone, and mood.


timelineWith adventures that take place throughout history—and into the future—Timeline is packed with heroes and villains that will capture the imaginations of both boys and girls. Your students will love them because they are cool and you’ll love them because they are motivational and packed with non-fiction learning. Each title features a young male or female protagonist who is set in a particular historical context. They interact with both real and fictional characters in the narrative that unfolds.


What sparked your thinking this way, that comics had a place in education? 

This comes from my very formative years as a reader. I have written about this on a number of occasions, but I have always been very distrustful of the statement made to strong young readers, Oh you’re capable of reading at such a higher level. Why are you reading that? In the previous sentence, “that” is a picture book or comic book or something that an adult thinks there child is too advanced for. But if you think about it, it’s a ridiculous thing to say. How can a person be too old for a genre? Maybe Thomas Hardy was when he left novel writing to take up poetry, but you can see my point. There are not superior genres and inferior genres. There are just genres.

Comics education2What has the reception for your work and your site been like?

The site has really just gotten started and the response has been overwhelming. There are a lot of great sites out there—many of which can’t be beat for their academic nature and many of which are excellent in terms of being in tune with the latest developments in the industry—but mine is focused really on education and on the broader genre of visual narrative. I love comics, but I also love how the visual can inspire a child to express their understanding using something like visual note-taking, which I discuss on my site.

My own work has been fortunate to receive a number of accolades, but that’s because I have been affiliated with Rubicon, which has shown itself to be arguably the most innovative and dynamic educational publishing company in North America in the last decade. So many of their series have received praise from teachers, students, and industry professionals. Graphic Poetry, for which I served as series editor, won the 2010 Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association in the US and the 2011 Teachers’ Choice Award from Learning Magazine. To date, at least six of the series for which I have written have received major awards, and all of these were written for Rubicon. Serving as the principal editors for many of these series are some of the most prominent names in educational publishing in North America, like David Booth, Joan Green, Kathy Gould Lundy, and Jeffrey Wilhelm. Persepolis

I read on your site, that we as a society tend to undervalue literature and art when they’re combined – like comics – you’re right. Do you think we can change that? Or are we starting to change how we perceive literature and art together in something?

Jacques Derrida said the same thing about the spoken and written word. In the West, there is a tradition of having greater respect for the word. The oral tradition came before the written tradition. An oral agreement has always been considered a kind of sacred thing and a written contract a kind of unfortunate nit-picky necessity involving lawyers. Think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride on the Cliffs of Insanity: I swear on the life of my father, Domingo Montoya, you will reach the top alive. A court asks witnesses to “swear to tell the truth,” rather than sign a statement of integrity. This is a rather long-winded way of saying that we do precisely the same thing with the combination of writing and visual art.

Ask what the greatest work of literature is and people will say Hamlet, or Paradise Lost, or the Divine Comedy. Ask them what the greatest work of art is and you’ll get the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa. But there are very few people, relatively speaking, who could immediately respond to a question about the greatest work of visual narrative with Maus, or The Mysterious Underground Men, or Persepolis, or Watchmen, or Building Stories, or Finder, or Transmetropolitan. As to the question of whether society’s perception is changing, I would say that it is. We are in a Golden Age of visual narrative, and I strongly suspect that many years from now, so much of what is being written today will be held in a significantly higher regard than we might expect.

What are your plans moving forward? transmetropolitan

I am interested in growing and developing the site and seeing where it takes me. I have a lot of work that I do for various companies and organizations. I have written for Rubicon Publishing in Oakville, Ontario for more than a decade and I’m nearing my 100th book in the not-to-distant future. I review for PW Comics World and have done so for the past few years.

I also have a relationship with the Sequart Research and Literacy Organization, a group in the US that publishes scholarship on comics and graphic novels and produces films like Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts and the upcoming documentary, She Makes Comics. During the day, of course, I’m the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto, a leading independent IB world school that has a philosophy of student-centered, inquiry-based learning. Add to that my wife and three boys and I have a pretty busy and exciting life! Going forward, I can only say that I’m just as excited about the road that lies ahead…

I know, such a cliché, but imagine if I said it in a comic or graphic novel—it would probably look pretty cool with me in the foreground staring off into the distance at a sunrise or sunset.

The site, Comics in Education has a wealth of information that teachers and parents can read to understand Glen’s aim. It’s informative and educational and… I’m still utterly jealous I didn’t get to have this in school! 




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