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Comics Generators and Literacy: Edtech and Nontech Insights from Bill Zimmerman
Hope you enjoyed the conversation with Chris Wilson. In fact, by way of introduction to today’s expert in comics creation tools, you can read Mr. Wilson’s piece on the benefits of the site that my current interview subject founded. One of the true pioneers in the field, Bill Zimmerman launched MakeBeliefsComix.com only a few years ago, and now it’s in use in countless classrooms, libraries, and technology labs throughout the world. Not content simply to provide one of the premier “comics generators” available, Zimmerman and Make Beliefs are constantly coming out with new, highly topical templates as well as free printables (now numbering 350!) that allow educators to help kids write comics without a computer in sight. Here’s an example of one of these printables:
Want a bit more background on Mr. Zimmerman before we get to it? Well, here you go…
Bill Zimmerman is the author of Your Life in Comics: 100 Things for Guys to Write and Draw and Pocket Doodles for Young Artists, and the creator of MakeBeliefsComix.com, now used by educators in more than 180 countries to teach English. Google and UNESCO selected the site as one of the most innovative in the world to encourage reading and literacy. For many years he created the nationally syndicated Student Briefing Page for Newsday, which was twice nominated for a Pulitzer.
Why do you think in recent years there seems to be a huge interest in comics creation in schools? Has something changed in pedagogy, curriculum, or maybe the presence/role of comics generally in our culture?
All educators are desperately looking for ways to encourage youngsters to read and write and have discovered that comics, with their glorious drawings and the wonderful talk balloons that help move stories along, provide a vital resource to engage young people. We live in a very graphic society where children constantly see moving, comic images – sometimes on television and movies, sometimes on computer games. Kids feel very comfortable with these comic images and are hungry for more. If these images are in a book, that’s even better.
I think back to when I was a kid. The best day in the week was Sunday mornings when my dad left home early to bring back an armload of newspapers, all with their glorious color comics sections. The funnies were my paradise – I’d spend the morning going over each strip, following the adventures of my favorite characters, even flying in the sky with them. I’d look at the dazzling illustrations, be drawn into their colorful worlds and be challenged to decipher the letters in the white balloons coming from the characters’ mouths or floating above their heads. And with help from my father, I’d try my best to sound out the words in the talk balloons and make sense of the stories they told. And that same thrill hasn’t changed with the years.
Smart teachers know that comic strips provide a perfect vehicle for learning and practicing language skills. Each strip’s three or four panels provide a finite, accessible world in which funny, interesting looking characters go about their lives. And children with limited reading skills are not as overwhelmed in dealing with the size of a comic strip as they may be with a book of many pages. Comic strips also don’t require long sentences or paragraphs to tell a good story. Only a few words are necessary for the characters to reveal their stories. And, anyone who sees a blank talk or thought balloon floating over the head of a character wants immediately to fill it in with words and thoughts; doing so is the beginning step to telling a story – and is writing.
Teachers have begun to realize that by creating comics youngsters use a variety of skills – they are thinking concepts, they are organizing information and ideas, they are practicing writing, they are thinking artistically and learning to appreciate what it takes to get something down on paper.
Wow, great answer. To shift gears somewhat, I’m a fan of your book Your Life in Comics, which allows students to complete reader-centered, bite-sized writing assignments by filling in word balloons and thought bubbles. Do you see it as a resource for those who aren’t using or don’t have access to MakeBeliefsComix… or is there value in the same student or class using both technology and pen-and-paper approaches? Does each support different skills, or maybe the same skills differently?
I see both my books and web site as rich media that allow young people to express what is within them, either on paper or on the screen. As an author and as a newspaper editor who for many years created a syndicated page to engage young people in the news, I’ve done much work in developing interactive techniques that encourage young people to write and express their ideas. Most of my books feature question prompts accompanied by fun, interesting illustrations that encourage kids to write and draw. Whether they write in a book or create a story on my MakeBeliefsComix.com web site, I’m happy because they’re expressing their ideas and finding their voices.
What’s something that many educators don’t realize about the value of their students making comics?
I teach writing to students who are learning English, and my goal is always to encourage new writers to enter the richest place in the world, and that is the world of their imagination. Just think back to the time when you were young and the excitement you felt in being given a new box of crayons or a water color set with a sketch pad, and how you would lose yourself for hours as you created your pictures and drawings. I remember growing up in a very chaotic household where there was much economic and financial distress, and the only moments when I felt safe was when I was either writing or drawing. I think many kids today also grow up in very stressful situations, and we living in a very scary world where there is so much war and change. By allowing and encouraging students to create their own comic strips or books, teachers are helping their students find a ‘’safe haven’’ in the world of their imaginations.
By encouraging their students to create comic strips, teachers accomplish important goals: they prepare their students for being able to appreciate art more, to gain visual literacy. By creating comic strips and writing text for them, students are thus encouraged to write more and to appreciate graphic novels and books. Teachers, through comic and graphic novels, also help their students wake up to the possibility that they can be writers and artists, too, that they also have good creative stuff within them. It is empowering to a youngster to realize that she, too, can draw and write, just as artists and writers do. And, by creating comic stories about what they have learned in school or recalling conversations they have overheard, or stories about the problems they are experiencing in their lives helps, students make sense of their complex worlds.
What is useful about web comic generators, like MakeBeliefsComix.com, is that they can be helpful to children who don’t have great drawing skills, but who have ideas they want to express. I am starting to get feedback from some educators and parents who are using the site with youngsters who are disabled. With a specially adapted mouse, they can draw their stories online and print or email them to others. That’s a very powerful thing for them to do – to see their ideas executed in a dramatic form.
Indeed. Anything else you’d like to add? Maybe some practical tips or strategies that are not tech-dependent?
I challenge teachers to set up a daily 20-minute comic strip segment at the end of the day where kids create a comic about something they learned or read or experienced that day. Maybe it’s a new ending for a book that they read, or a deeper exploration of a character in the book. Maybe their comic is about a concept they learned in science or in social studies. Maybe it’s a conversation they overheard. Maybe it’s about something bad that happened to them, such as someone bullying them. Maybe their daily comic is a joke they heard or something funny their mother or father said that morning. Maybe they’re exploring a problem at home that’s bothering them. Maybe theirs is a comic strip utilizing new vocabulary learned that day.
Have students draw their comics in a special notebook or sketch pad. Play some quiet music as they draw and write. And imagine the filled sketch containing daily entries over the course of a year that will trace the child’s thoughts and learning. They’ll have created a comic book that they will treasure the rest of their lives.
Having a 20-minute comic segment each day is doable, is fun, is creative, and something that will make students feel special. By creating comic strips, even with stick figures or with pictures cut out from magazines, students can realize that they can create, too. They will learn that they are capable of generating and creating their own learning materials, their own memoirs, and that their ‘’take’’ on the world is very special.
Most important, they become something much more than passive readers of materials—they become creators as they find their voice.
Terrific—thanks so much for your time.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this series so far. Please check back next week, when the University of Minnesota’s Richard Beach, a true luminary in media education and media literacy, holds forth on the value of comics creation programs. -PG
Filed under: Comics, English, Transliteracy
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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