JUST A SIMPLE COMIC
By Sherry Alvarez
GOING ONLINE FOR A CHANGE
As I hunted online in pursuit of quality learning activities for my English language learners, I found myself feeling delighted yet overwhelmed and frustrated at the same time. There are tons of ‘resources’ out there: some dull; many overly detailed and too complicated; and most lacking HOTS (higher order thinking skills). But there are some, a special few, which are just right!
I had made a commitment to myself this school year to make a concerted effort to authentically integrate technology into my classes. I designed my own website and began requiring my middle school English language learners to use it to polish their listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills each week. In addition to the website, they were also required to participate on our class blog. To my surprise, this brought much groaning and none of the joyful rejoicing from the Digital Natives, who, I had been told, were yearning to learn via technology. While I spent hours online each week researching, uploading, and linking activities that I thought would be appropriate and motivating to finicky teens, they refused to be impressed.
When I came across a grammar comic on YouTube, I thought it would be something different to try. The kids watched the video comic strip. They smiled. They laughed. They jammed out to the soundtrack. And then they did something else. They watched it again. And again. Finally, I hoped, I was on to something.
It took me a few more days, being a Digital Immigrant myself, to find out that Grammarman had his own website with many more comics and a variety of activities for learning English. Grammarman became a weekly staple … both online and in print. The students quickly grew to love the superhero and his quirky, trusty sidekicks, and they eagerly looked forward to learning from them each week. Discussions and debates based on Grammarman’s adventures began springing up in class. The kids wanted to know about the problems he encountered and the grammar topics he so boldly and cleverly addressed, and I began relying on Grammarman to help introduce and review skills taught in class.
AND SO IT BEGAN
One random evening, my Gmail purported to contain a message from none other than Grammarman himself. As it turned out, Brian Boyd, the author of Grammarman, was writing to thank my class for visiting his website. I threw caution to the wind and sheepishly wrote back asking him if he would be willing to post a message to my students on our class blog. To my surprise and delight, he agreed. I had no idea that this simple invitation would grow to bare much more important fruit.
The correspondence began: questions and answers flying back and forth across the globe via the internet. The kids were motivated to hear from someone other than me, and I was happy they were using their English skills in a new context. Then Mr. Boyd suggested that we work together to create something that could be both fun and educational for other kids to access online. And although Mr. Boyd presented a variety of exciting ideas, the kids decided on … a comic. Their reasoning: a comic had to be much simpler to make than a story would be to write! As with many things in life, however, none of us realized at that point how NOT simple it would be; nor how rewarding.
OPENING THE TAP
So, using the blog as a conduit for ideas and information, Brian and I attempted to get the kids brainstorming. Right away we had a problem: how to develop something from scratch with kids who had limited practice with such a process. What they had failed to realize in choosing to create a ‘simple’ comic, was the truth that they would, in fact, be telling a story … the very thing they had hoped to avoid! There were story elements to consider; how to create and solve problems within a story, and how to use the characters authentically. The first few days were spent staring at one another, wide-eyed and waiting, so it seemed, for the Answer Fairy to show up and lead the way. This ‘simple’ comic was actually going to require some work. Thankfully we had the encouraging support and knowledge of a real-life author! Through well-worded questions and the sharing of his own writing process, Mr. Boyd helped the kids to begin experiencing how creative thinking looks, sounds, feels, and develops. They started to realize that there were no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ideas.
Once we had a basic storyline in place, Grammarman (aka Mr. Boyd … Brian and Grammarman are one-and-the-same to my kids) hit us with the trick to comic making: representing a story in frames. Because our comic would be a Powerpoint presentation, we had to start conceptualizing our narrative storyline in terms of frames (or slides) … about twenty of them. This process of shrinking without lessening required a great deal of creative thinking on the part of the students. They had to be able to recognize the important points of the plot and find ways to represent everything without being too wordy; while at the same time effectively utilizing graphics.
As a starting point, we drew twenty boxes on the whiteboard and gave each box a title that discriminated the part of the story to be contained within it. Then the kids volunteered to design the individual frames. This was done on scrap paper, using stick figures on top of background sketches, which included ideas about the dialogue to be used (figuring out how to tell a narrative story through natural dialogue between characters proved to be whole different kettle of fish).
The first time the students returned to class with their sketched slides, we discovered in our midst existed an amazingly-talented cartoonist: Elisa! The other kids suggested she draw the entire cartoon portions of the slides, and agreed to work on the other details of the comic if she would draw the cartoons accordingly. The students described what Grammarman and his buddies needed to be doing in each slide. Elisa took the orders, and produced the black and white artwork. In the meantime, photos were found, from personal albums and online resources, and the slides began to take shape.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now came the next learning opportunity available through creating a comic (at least a digital one). We had the story. We had the art. We had the photos. Now where was that magic wand that turned them into amazing comic slides? The wand we chose came in the form of a free Open Source image-editing program called gimp (http://www.gimp.org/). While it did take a number of evenings (and help from my husband) to get the tools of the program figured out, it was easy enough to learn, install on the school computers, and allow the kids to do most of the editing themselves. I scanned in Elisa’s art and the kids used the program to paint her drawings and layer them on top of the photos.
I would love to say that from this point on the whole process took a linear, ‘follow-these-five-easy-steps-to-your-own-online-comic’ format, but it didn’t. And I’m glad. Each day involved looking back to the storyline; working on the artwork; stopping to look at what we had created so far; adding details to the pictures and asking Elisa for redraws; putting in dialogue and then taking it back out to be reworded. At any moment during this project our classroom would have appeared as chaos to the outside observer, and, to be honest, many days it was. But it was also the most real-life application of creative problem solving in which I’ve ever been involved. It was messy and frustrating and beautiful and surprising all at once. Just as in real life, there was no magic for making this ‘simple’ comic; no spell for how to make that story fit itself into those tiny frames. There was trial and error. There was reading and rereading, writing and rewriting. There was seeking advice. There was arguing and there was compromising. And, in the end, there was much learned about many diverse topics on a variety of levels.
IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING!
If I were pressed to relate succinctly my goal as an educator, it would be this: to help kids be able to communicate effectively so that they might work to serve others. I would never have imagined, however, that creating a ‘simple’ comic could have done so much toward achieving this goal.
Developing this comic forced these kids to use their English in brand-new situations, both in and out of class. They had to rely on their verbal skills to discuss things they had never done before; programs they had never used before; ideas they had never explored before. They had to communicate in writing with someone who didn’t know them well but still needed to understand their thoughts and ideas clearly. They learned what makes a story, and what makes a story better; how to be precise whilst also being concise with language … which in turn led them to discover new vocabulary. For many, this was their first experience with writing dialogue, and they had to create that dialogue not only so that it made sense to the listening ear of the reader, but also so that it sounded natural coming from different characters! And, of course, not to be overlooked, there was the unparalleled contribution that developing this comic made toward the creative thinking skills of these kids.
But it isn’t the mechanics of how this comic came to be that have impressed me the most. In fact, it’s not even the extent to which the kids developed their English skills which tops my list of pluses. The greatest gift this ‘simple’ comic offered was teaching my kids, (in their own words) that “working together is hard”. They told me that they recognized how each one of them had special gifts and talents, which in turn caused them to realize that they needed each other in order to succeed. They learned how to agree with one another and settle conflicts through votes and compromise. They even explained, in their own way, how learning to work together can make it is possible for a sum to be greater than its parts. Or, as one student put it …
“Impossible is nothing!”