Thursday, November 15, 2007

Comics and Community Service, Part 2

(Read Part 1 here.)

Increasing the involvement of webcomic creators with community service projects will serve to increase positive public perception of the medium. There are many things that go into planning a successful community service project. The first thing to consider is the type of activity.

Creating comics, like most art (drawing and writing), is often an individual effort. While collaboration is not uncommon, even when a writer and artist are working together, both often work independently at their respective tasks, communicating mainly where there's intersection. The key is to take what's normally an internal personal process of creation and adapt it to external activities.

Fortunately, there are a number of examples that can be drawn from for how to construct a successful comic service project. The most common way comic creators have engaged with their community is via education. While there are other ways to serve the community through comics (for example, Mike Rouse-Deane's Kid's Book Project raising money for charity), educational projects will be my focus here.

The first educational use is also arguably the most common: teaching others how to express themselves through comics, emphasizing the comic medium and comparing/contrasting it with other art forms. This is how Shaenon Garrity, Tycho and Gabe, and the Create a Comic Project have approached it.

In teaching how to make comics, form will often be emphasized over substance. What's important is that a child or teen understand the tools that go into making a comic. Once they've grasped the basics, it's expected they'll b able to improve their storytelling through self-exploration and practice. With the Create a Comic Project, for example, content is left entirely up to the student - the only guidelines involve instructions on how to utilize captions, thought bubbles, layout, etc.

A second educational use of comics is sequential art as a tool to deliver a message or theme. This is the style used by Michael Bitz's Comic Book Project, Penny Arcade Remix, Robert Anke's classroom activities, and the Create a Comic Project Module. Here, substance is the key, with comics simply being the medium of delivery. The Comic Book Project, for example, uses a single unifying theme each year that all children have to write about. The Create a Comic Project Module is even more generalized, designed to be integrated into any given lecture-centric course to give it an interactive component.

Both of these educational approaches are student-centered, involving active learning - that is, the children are directly participating in the creation of art and applying the general theories presented to them. A third approach to using comics educationally is student-centered and more passive: reading.

In the 90's, it was found that children who read comic books had better reading skills and were more likely to go on to read other forms of literature than those who didn't read anything. Essentially, comics work as a gateway to regular novels. Using graphic novels in the classroom to introduce reading to students, therefore, is an excellent pedagogical tool. Jeff Smith and Scholastic have been working on this for several years.

Reading projects are generally passive because students are absorbing information written by others. Directed discussions of the reading can enhance the experience. Point out how a creator used a particular scene transition or juxtaposition. Casual readers often miss small details. Teaching kids how to interpret and critically analyze comics can help them study professional works.

Each of these three educational approaches has advantages and disadvantages in terms of content, logistics, and feasibility. The first two are far more potent in terms of educational value, because the children are active learners, not passive recipients of others' creations. However, they also require a much greater time investment on the part of the instructor in terms of planning. Also, a reading program can be done in far more environments than an art program.

Some key factors to consider when choosing the form of the project are:

1. Time. How much time do you have to invest? How long do you want the project to last? If you have months, consider one of the first two. If you can only do an occasional Saturday afternoon, a reading project may be better.

2. Resources. This is largely dependent on location. To do either of the first two style of projects, you'll need art supplies, probably a photocopier, and probably a dedicated room. If you're in a poor neighborhood or a developing country, these things may not be available at the location you want to use.

3. Existing programs. Always check what other community service projects are active in your area. It's sometimes possible to merge your idea with theirs and share resources. This can provide the resources you need and save you time with infrastructure development. However, you may need to modify what you do to match the goals of the organization you join, making the second style (thematic instruction) a good one to select in this instance.

4. Audience. For young kids, making their own comics may be beyond their abilities, especially if they haven't learned how to write yet. Older children may scoff at the idea of a reading program as too simple. Know who you're targeting - and what population you have access to - when choosing an approach. (It's also important to consider whether you want a class or one-on-one tutoring.)

5. Your own teaching style. Not every student learns the same way and not every teacher teaches best the same way. Teaching style is intrinsically linked to your personality type. Some people want to be the center of attention, others prefer being in the background. Some prefer dealing with abstract terms, others with concrete examples. If you don't know your preferences, try some mentoring to find out. Experience is the best indicator of what works for you.

The first two types of programs require a personality that can deal with others. While the lecture component is minimal by design (the emphasis is on the students), you need to be able to oversee and consult with the students as they need help. The third style is more hands-off - you direct the reading, but students are largely on their own. Whether you prefer theory or application will largely determine how you structure the lessons: a theory person may spend time pointing out how panel order affects time perception; an applied person may focus on how good layout will improve a page's clarity.

Choosing what form of service to pursue is an important step to getting involved. The three types of educational projects outlined here (active learning with comic form; active learning with theme; passive learning with reading) encompass a broad array of potential projects. Not every detail can be addressed here, because everyone's circumstances will have special situations that only you can anticipate.

After selecting a type of project, the next step is to organize it. But that's a topic for later.

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