Tuesday, August 11, 2009


By Tracy Edmunds
Staff Writer

A new non-profit organization called Reading With Pictures is taking its first steps toward providing hard data on the use of comics in the classroom. The project was announced during the Comics in the Classroom panel at the San Diego Comic-Con by founder and Executive Director Joshua Elder. Elder is the author of the all-ages MAIL ORDER NINJA graphic novels and gives workshops on creating comics at schools and libraries. He is strong voice for comics in education, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

The Graphic Classroom interviewed Elder to get the details.

The Graphic Classroom: When you announced your project at Comic-Con, I could hear the collective intake of breath in the room. I think a lot of educators and comics advocates have waited a long time for something like this. Could you give us an overview of what Reading with Pictures hopes to do?

Joshua Elder: The organization’s mission statement is to “Promote and expand the role of comics in the classroom”. That’s a fairly broad remit, and we plan to explore every nook and cranny of it. As someone who learned to read (and more importantly, learned to love reading) from comics, I consider it a moral imperative to bring comics into the classroom in ways that maximize the benefits to all students from pre-K through college.

There’s no shortage of teachers who want to bring graphic novels into their classrooms, but they often lack the resources to properly integrate them into their curriculum since there’s little to no support from publishers or the scholastic establishment. In fact, there’s often outright hostility. Most graphic novel publishers simply don’t get the school/children’s market while most book publishers simply don’t get graphic novels. Then there are the gatekeepers – the administrators, school boards and parents – who feel that comics have no place in education.

In order to overcome these institutional barriers, Reading With Pictures plans to initiate the largest and most comprehensive clinical study on comics in the classroom ever attempted. Working in conjunction with the Learning Sciences Department at Northwestern University, Reading With Pictures plans to develop testable, comic-centric curriculum that we can place in schools across the country. This will allow us to study how students learn from comics in ways that differ from more traditional classroom methods while also providing us with the opportunity to gather massive amounts of clinical data on the effectiveness of using comics in the classroom.

TGC: I understand that you’ll begin the initial research in fifth and eighth grades. What will that research look like?

JE: The project is still in the planning stages, but the general idea is to develop and then provide several comprehensive Language Arts curricula for fifth and eighth grade free of charge to schools all around the country and across various demographic and socioeconomic spectra. These curricula would come with professional development seminars instructing teachers on their proper use. The goal is to provide a turnkey curriculum solution so as to minimize the cost and therefore the risk for participating schools.

We will then test the participating students against control groups in the areas of reading comprehension, visual literacy, critical thinking, creative communication and other outcome-based criteria. We will examine how different types of students (gifted, students with disabilities, etc.) respond to the curricula and hopefully get a much better idea if comics can indeed “reach” certain students where traditional methods have failed.

TGC: If that effort proves successful, where will Reading with Pictures go from there?

JE: Everywhere. The initial research project is only the opening salvo of what we hope will be a massive and ongoing effort to bring comics into the classroom – at every grade and in every course of study. We hope to spark a national discussion on the role of comics in education and to help fund and facilitate further research on the topic. We also hope to create a clear economic incentive for publishers to produce more and higher quality material for children, thus giving schools an even greater reason to bring comics into their classrooms.

Beyond that, we aim to become a clearinghouse for all things related to comics in the classroom. We plan to – among many other things – aggregate graphic novel reviews, build a community for academics working in the field, and provide a comprehensive database of comic-centric lesson plans.

Basically, if it will help get comics into schools, we’re going to do it.

TGC: How close are you to getting started?

JE: Right now we’re still finalizing our non-profit organizational structure and recruiting a board of directors, but depending on how quickly we get all that squared away, we could begin fundraising and applying for grants as early as the end of this year.

We are currently looking to fill out our board of directors and also recruit volunteers (cartoonists, educational professionals, academics, grant writers, etc.) to help us realize all these very lofty goals we’ve set for ourselves. We know there are lots of people out there just as passionate about bringing comics into the classroom as we are, and Reading With Pictures will provide them with an organizational structure in which to channel that passion.

We’re going to do this, and it’s going to change everything.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Graphic Classroom will continue to monitor the work of Elder and Reading With Pictures and keep you updated in the process.)


Mr. Wilson said...


I'm glad you enjoy it. I hope we continue to meet your needs.

Anonymous said...

I am a Special Educator. Students with language learning disabilities benefit tremendously from visuals to accompany dense and/or complex text. Unfortunately, as they move from the primary to the upper elementary and middle school grades, their books do not have many illustrations. The use of comics to support them with fiction as well as content-area non texts is a boon to these students and their teachers.