National Writing Project

Digital Comics Spur Students' Interest in Writing

By: Grant Faulkner
Date: January 29, 2009

Summary: Fourth grade teacher Glen Bledsoe has his students create comic strips together, which engages their creativity and teaches them writing, critical thinking, and other skills.

 

Glen Bledsoe
Glen Bledsoe uses comic
books—and comedy—to
teach writing.

Kids don’t have to sneak comic books into Glen Bledsoe’s fourth grade class in Molalla, Oregon and hide them behind text books to read them. In fact, they craft their own digital comics in the classroom.

Like any good teacher, Bledsoe is always looking for buttons to push to inspire his students beyond their routine school work—and the buttons he pushes often involve using technology to create complex digital writing projects.

Bledsoe has been deeply involved in teaching writing with technology, first as a technology liaison with the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette, where he was involved in integrating technology into writing instruction with NWP’s Technology Initiative, and then in his leadership role at NWP’s Writing and Technology writing retreats, where he and others have explored the many ways technology has changed what it means to write.

He’s also presented on his classroom practice at NWP Annual Meeting sessions and is an avid contributor to the Technology Liaison Network discussion forum on a panoply of technology and teaching issues.

“Technology pushes writing to mean more than just putting down words; it expands what it means to write—not just how to write—because it changes the possibilities in the media,” said Bledsoe. “No longer are students confined to blots of pencil or ink on paper as the medium to preserve their words and ideas.”

He knows well from his own experience that learning to write and read can take different forms, and that the supposedly lowbrow art form of comics shouldn’t be underestimated (or called lowbrow, for that matter).

Bledsoe began reading comics as a pre-reader when his mother gave him a dime to buy a Daffy Duck comic book so that he would know the value of money. As it turned out, the lesson wasn’t just about money, but about reading and writing.

“My initial experience with comics was confined to looking at the pictures and imagining what the characters were saying in the word balloons. Comics helped me learn to read and expanded my vocabulary. For example, I knew what invulnerable meant from reading Superman comics,” Bledsoe said.

No longer are students confined to blots of pencil or ink on paper as the medium to preserve their words and ideas.

You might guess that the Dick and Jane books were not equally compelling for Bledsoe. “At home I read about the Flash running fast enough to crack the sound barrier at 761 miles per hour. The school texts were boring.”

Bledsoe wants to make sure his students aren’t bored, which is one reason that he uses digital comics and technology as a way to teach writing and much more.

Creating Digital Comics in the Classroom

Teaching writing in the realm of visual media comes naturally for Bledsoe, who graduated from Indiana University with a BA in fine arts and then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for several years. He’s combined that interest with an autodidact’s passion for technology and the helpful ideas—“sometimes just seeds, sometimes coal-hot”—he’s picked up from his writing project colleagues.

Bledsoe first had his students do such things as slideshow-style digital stories, podcasts, and computer animations. From there it was a small step to digital comics, which he had used to create narratives or debrief field trips.

Although sometimes Bledsoe’s students work independently on comic projects, creating comics together as a class is often more meaningful from an instructional standpoint.

Bledsoe uses Comic Life software, which is so easy to use that “nearly anyone can create a comic with only a few minutes of instruction,” he says. Comic Life allows users to drag in photos and images, write captions, and create speech balloons.

Bledsoe will lead the discussion and do the typing for the sake of speed, but the entire class makes suggestions about characters, plot, and setting during an open discussion where students “leap frog each other's ideas” in the frissons of creative collaboration.

“My role is more that of a director than a writer or even a teacher,” he says. “I make connections between different students' ideas that they might not see themselves.”

The comic is projected so that students can help lay out the panels to get a sense of the look of the page, and then, based on what they want to have happen on the page, they will drop word balloons into each panel and enter the dialogue.

The pictures are dropped directly into the comic, using filters built into Comic Life that give the pictures a more comic-like appearance.

The last step is to add captions if students believe that more words are necessary to convey the action.

“We think of captions as a kind of narrator. The more skillful the writing, the less we need of a narrator or captions,” said Bledsoe.

Show, don’t tell, in other words.

Pow! Kablooey! Kabam! . . . Good Writing?

For those who favor a more traditional approach to teaching reading and writing, the question is how do comics instruct?

Bledsoe points out that all of the elements of a good story are present—visibly so—in a comic.

“Comics have beginnings, middles, and endings. Pointing out these similarities to students helps reinforce those ideas,” says Bledsoe. “Students understand that a story about a picnic is not a story until there's a thunderstorm or an attack of ants or something goes terribly wrong.”

Bledsoe also notes that, despite their reputation, comics aren’t necessarily easy reading, but rather a multimodal experience that combines images, captions, and dialogue in layers that the reader must link together to construct meaning on multiple levels.

“Comics can be very sophisticated, especially when words and images are juxtaposed so that they seem to contradict one another. Take for example a picture of a city in ruins. The caption reads: ‘The city was peaceful.’ There is so much implied in that. Yeah, it's peaceful, but it's peaceful because all the life in it has been driven away. The implied question is 'Could the city be peaceful with people in it?' There is inferential thinking going on, irony, all sorts of rich possibilities.”

These foundational skills of literary interpretation are augmented by the editorial types of decisions that writers make.

The fun part is deciding how much the images will convey and how much text will convey.

“A comic writer has to decide what the image will be and how the image will be created,” said Bledsoe. “The fun part is deciding how much the images will convey and how much text will convey. Because there isn't much space for text in a comic, the challenge is to find the best image and add just enough words for it to make sense.”

In other words, the kinds of “writing” decisions students make in this media go far beyond text. “If they have the skills, students can create movies, podcasts, digital stories which are ‘written’ but are recorded in other media than text,” said Bledsoe. “These skills have to be learned and are as essential, to my way of thinking, as learning to spell correctly or organize thoughts into paragraphs.”

Students also get a sense of writing for an audience because the class shows their comics at School Night at the Apple Store every year and Bledsoe also posts them to the Web.

Teacher as Comic Artist

After introducing his students to Comic Life, Bledsoe began creating—and publishing—his own comics. Bledsoe has now created two online comic strips for the Salem News, Nota Bene by Leonardo , which ran for 100 installments starting in August 2006, and Benny and Sid’s Your Public Service Announcements , which succeeded Nota Bene.

Tim King of the Salem News says, “Glen may have a ton of fun with his cartoon series, but the subjects it touches on are as serious as they can be. It seems everything in the world is going that way, so this vibrant comic series is a good way to get the story while keeping a smile—sort of like our own version of The Daily Show.”

Read more about Bledsoe’s strips in the Salem News . Read more about his other projects on his website .

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