Student work and teaching critical reading explicitly via comics

Every holiday season, our local alt-news weekly publication The Flagpole publishes a reader-submitted section to account for a week off.  The submissions are predictably an eclectic mix of writing: some worth reading, and some worth tossing.  Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago as I returned from the holidays with the family to find that one of my students published her own comic in our local newspaper.  This incredibly talented thinker, writer, and artist did this all on her own.  This was not an assignment for class, so I’m even more impressed by her efforts to seek enrichment on her own terms.  Upon reading her piece, I jumped up and nearly logged into my school’s student information database to call home to offer congratulations and praise.  Then I calmed down and read A Nice Day several times over, searching for ways to interpret the piece and trying to decide if it’s a comic, a short children’s book, both, or something else.

More easily consumed that produced, a text like this one can both demonstrate a student's understanding and invite students to analyze text critically.

Upon a surface read, the writer tells a simple tale of an elementary school (or maybe home school) teacher who brings her class out to the country for play time.  The setting appears to be winter time, but in my recollection, searching for four-leaf clovers is more of a spring and summer activity.  The students discover a clover patch, and they insist on searching for four-leaf clovers.  Normally a painstaking task requiring focus and time, one kid returns from the stream with several four-leaf clovers and a five-leaf clover.  As the class searches further and examines the clovers, they find ten-leaved clovers and a 6-leafed one with strange patterns of splotches and what appear to be tiny holes.  The teacher then sits quietly with a female student as the breeze descends over their heads.  Next the teacher looks up with a curious look in her eyes.  She may be stunned, but she could also simply be looking at something specific.  It’s not clear if the student notices what the teacher’s gaze has affixed itself upon at this point, but the student appears disappointed in the next panel as the teacher lays out her palms and then allows the 6-leaf clover to blow into the wind.  The writer shows the clover blow away across four mini-panels, finally showing the clover blow over a curious barrel-looking structure.  The next panel concludes “It was a nice day …” with an ominous set of ellipses further supported by the teacher facing the barrel-structure (with her back turned to the reader) to reveal what appears to be toxic, hazardous waste bins possibly draining into the stream near the clover patch.  The students are no longer present in the panels.  The writer illustrates a valve on the barrel that lays on its side although it’s not clear if she wants the reader to conclude that the barrel is leaking into the stream.  The final panel reads “The End” with a five-leaved clover portraying a skull design and a seven-leaved clover portraying a Rorschach-like pattern that indicates two eyes and an agape mouth that – to me, at least – indicates the need for help due to some kind of torture or violence.  The plot is definitely simple, but the text is more complex.

The writer engages several higher-level literary tools to convey meaning in this easily consumable text.  First, she (possibly unintentionally) uses irony when she portrays students searching for four-leaf clovers in cold weather.  Or is it cold weather?  One student dons a vest, scarf, and winter hat and the teacher wears a jacket, but several female students wear dresses.  These inconsistencies invite the reader to wonder why they’re apparent, or they’re just inconsistencies; these inconsistencies also invite the reader to consider the author’s intent.  Either way, they’ll manifest either consciously or unconsciously amongst a group of readers.  This irony also introduces subtle foreshadowing as the clovers contain unexpected extra leaves and strange patterns that lead up to the final imagery of death and pollution.  Moreover, the irony, foreshadowing, and imagery also inform the author’s use of symbolism.  Anyone can explain that a four-leaf clover represents good luck, but what does a mutated clover with extra leaves and strange patterns represent?  This conclusion is up to the reader, and ultimately this symbol informs the reader’s interpretation of theme in the text.

A fire at a local chemical plant last Summer led to serious pollution of a local stream. Seems like a great writing opportunity for both print-text and comics!

To me, this adolescent writer is pondering the loss of innocence – a common theme throughout adolescent literature as well as canonical texts presented in schools.  But how does the teacher in the comic respond to realizing that the clovers are likely mutations caused by toxic waste?  The writer intentionally omits this piece to the story, so it’s up to the reader to determine how the teacher should respond.  The panels that feature the teacher noticing the waste barrels are devoid of dialogue or speech, so it’s not clear how the teacher addresses the clovers and waste with the students – or if she addresses it at all.  This idea of the loss of innocence is twofold – the child growing older as well as the adults who care for the child figuring out how to address complex evils and dangers appropriately.  In this particular text, the loss of innocence is directly related to environmental issues and toxic waste destroying a symbol of luck and youthful innocence.  The beauty here is the simplicity through which this theme is communicated: ten simple panels that reveal much more depth upon closer reading.

I can’t take any responsibility for this student’s high quality work, and I’m sure I’m way overanalyzing her piece as I write this (sorry!).  My interpretation is also linked to my own biases: my knowledge of the writer and her own biases, of our local community, of the publication that houses the comic, and of literary analysis and comics in general.  Still, my response to this student’s comic is exactly the point of teaching literacy in the 21st century in a democratic society: examining a text critically through multiple lenses to reveal deeper meanings both written and implied, sharing these thoughts amongst a community of other readers and thinkers, discussing the nuances of these interpretations, and then using the text as a mirror to the self to examine one’s own baggage that they bring toward any and all texts.  These processes of critical reading are almost *never explicitly* taught in schools, and they’re certainly not always achieved with print-text, whether canonical, young-adult, high-or-low interest.  When students struggle simply to comprehend a text, it can be difficult to move from surface understanding toward deeper analysis.

This comic can be consumed in less than two minutes, but the discussion that could arise from it could last an entire class period or more, especially in the hands of an instructor who realizes that the same processes used to interpret comics or art can be directly applied to print-text.  I plan to rehearse critical reading skills by using this student-produced text in the future, and I urge anyone else who seeks to find ways to exercise critical reading with students to do the same.  A starting point might be to imitate my own interpretation here by mapping the basic plot and the events in the individual panels.  Given the ease of consumption, students could even cut out the panels to show how they apply to exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.  From there, the images and literary devices can be examined both individually and in layers to consider meaning; additionally, it would be easy to make students more aware of a writer’s strategic placement of a tool such as foreshadowing early in the text.  After that, the possibilities are up to the instructor’s own imagination and the interests of the class.  Fill in the gaps?  Add to the story?  Produce your own similar tale/comic?  Research environmental waste?  Something else perhaps?


About marcginsberg

I teach high school English in Athens, GA. I read graphic novels and catch live music whenever possible. I walk my dog Humphrey and kid myself that I'm a distance runner.
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