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  • Writer's pictureDani Kachorsky

Digital storytelling, digital comics, and STEM with Dr. Daryl Axelrod

Updated: Feb 6


This episode features a discussion with Dr. Daryl Axelrod focused his work using digital storytelling and digital comics in many different context and content areas.


This image is the cover art for the episode. It features Dr. Daryl Axelrod, a white man in a vest, bowtie, and glasses, standing in front of an empty lecture hall with his arm raised. A speech balloon appears next to his head. In it are the words: Comics are at home in classrooms and lecture halls, not just comfy chairs in living rooms.

Dr. Axelrod received his PhD in education from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL and is currently a Research Assistant Professor in the FIU Embrace Center for Advancing Inclusive Communities at Florida International University in Miami, FL. His collaborative learning with digital literacies research covers two primary areas of interest. One is emergent bi/multilingual students’ multimodal composing practices, such as how adolescents use mobile devices to compose digital comics for literacy learning. He also examines youth and families’ storytelling practices that incorporate data visualization tools, such as families telling migration stories while examining related census data maps. His other line of inquiry concerns qualitative and quantitative research design accessibility, specifically for young adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities and autism.

 

Note: The following transcript has been edited for coherence. Excessive "ums", unnecessary "likes”, and the like, have been removed for your convenience. Fragmented sentences and missing words have been edited to make the podcast transcript more readable.


[Opening Music]


Dani Kachorsky

Hi everyone. Welcome back to Reading in the Gutter, a podcast that tries to bridge the gap between comics and education. I am your host for today, Dani Kachorsky, and we are here with Dr. Daryl Axelrod. Hi Daryl. How you doing?


[00:00:21]


Daryl Axelrod

I'm doing fantastic. You?


Dani

I'm good, thanks.


Daryl is with us from the University of Miami, is that correct?--no, sorry--International University in Miami. You got your PhD from the University of Miami at Coral Gables. We've invited Daryl on today because of his interest in digital storytelling, digital comics, and multimodality. You have recently been working on a project that combines STEM and comics, correct?


Daryl

Yes, that's correct.


Dani

Awesome. Well, then, can you tell us a little bit about what is this project that you're working on? How you were inspired to pursue this? What exactly are you in the works with these days?


Daryl

Okay, so the sort of upcoming implementation of this is really fantastic. It's in conjunction with a nonprofit lending--not lending library--literacy spreading organization. Basically, they exist to give away books, not to lend them and get them back. They serve a library desert near the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, Florida. They're called Bookleggers Library, and they are going to be putting on the second of this thing called Adventure-Leggers, which is a giant... Think of it as a literacy and STEM fair, where all different artists and researchers and teachers and community partners and a magician and storm troopers and things come together to interact in different ways.


Last year, I did a piece where we had all these different kids come in and we read a poem about rocks in the earth, and then we had all these different backgrounds with different kinds of scenery that have the different rocks in them, and then all kinds of props and costumes. We gave the kids iPads that had Comic Life 3 loaded into it, and they had to basically show themselves--create comics of them discovering the types of rocks and things like that.


Well, this year is going to be a space theme, so I'm positioning the students as space rangers or space explorers. They're going to use Snapchat filters and stickers and Comic Life 3 to show them completing their mission, exploring the solar system to be able to save the solar system. Their mission brief will be clues about what planets to go to that'll relate to an information sheet and mission brief where we tell them about the solar system beforehand. So, that's what they're going to be doing, and I'm incredibly excited about it because, well, it's fun and it gives me a chance to get back into a more chaotic and entertaining education space than academia normally provides.


[00:03:33]


Dani

Sure. What's the name of the event again?


Daryl

Adventure-Leggers.


Dani

Adventure Leggers.


Daryl

Because they're the Bookleggers Library.


Dani

Gotcha, gotcha. So it sounds like, basically kind of like, a mini Comic-Con, but more literacy focused. Is that true?


Daryl

Yeah, so their original idea was, a couple of years ago, to do a small but kid focused comics theme, and then, it just kind of expanded. Last year, there was a 3D printing station by a robotics team from--I think it was... they were from FIU--that printed, in real time, superhero bracelets for kids, and there was all kinds of stuff. This year there's a team from FIU that's going to be doing literacy and robotics about space that the kids are going to be able to interact with.


Dani

That's amazing.


Daryl

Yeah, it's so fun. And it's at the longest running artist community in Miami, at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood, which is just a really cool space in general.


Dani

Very cool. Yeah, make sure you send the links to these things. We can put them on the website for anybody who wants to go. I'm not sure if the episode will be out in time for them to go to this year, but maybe next year kind of a thing.


Daryl

Yeah, that's in October.


Dani

Oh, yeah, then this should be out by then. Awesome. That's amazing.


How did you get involved in this? What brought you into this space to do this work?


[00:05:05]


Daryl

So, they stumbled upon me because a bunch of years ago I figured out that if I wanted to go to the Comic Con that we hold down in Miami for free, I could just propose to do a panel and if they liked it, then they would give me a three day speaker badge that would allow me to skip all the lines and not have to pay to go. So, I basically figured, okay, well, I'll just present my dissertation work, but as a more fun activity because my dissertation was a project where I was in a high school where the students made digital comics interpretations of traditional texts. So, I just basically positioned the thing as a fun way to get resources to kids and parents and whatever, and they said yes. I did that for several years, and then, two years ago, the folks from Bookleggers attended my panel and came up to me afterward and said, "Hey, we're going to be doing this thing and we think the thing that you've been doing for a bunch of years would fit really well. Do you want to do it?" And I went, "Yeah, of course I do."


Dani

Yeah, so that's a pro tip everyone, if you want to go to Comic Con for free or something like a Comic Con... I think that's copyrighted now. Thanks, San Diego. You can present and you do get a speaker pass. I do that here at Phoenix Fan Fusion all the time, too.


Daryl

Yeah.


Dani

That's awesome.


Okay, so the two topics that you kind of just talked about where the kids are making digital comics, one's focused on rocks, one was focused on space--that's the upcoming one--and then you mentioned your dissertation work focusing on adaptations. Did you say classic kind of novels or did I misunderstand?


Daryl

So, we did a bunch of different ones. The first year, which was the actual dissertation study, was A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which is an novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; "Death and the Compass," a short story by [Jorge] Luis Borges; and then "Yoke and Star" by Jose Marti, which is a poem. And then, the second year, I was in a different class and we did The Great Gatsby. So it works for all different kinds of literature and the piece that's coming out in probably a few weeks in Educational Technology Research and Development is about The Great Gatsby activity.



[00:07:21]


Dani

Cool.


Can you talk to us a little bit about what this process looks like when you're going to have kids make a digital comic, whether it's original material or an adaptation, what sorts of things do you do to get them ready to produce that?


Daryl

The first thing we do is we teach...we do a lesson about the grammar of comics. Essentially, what the gutter is, what speech balloons are--things along those lines--what panels are. Not just what the vocabulary is, but also how comics themselves function. Because a big misconception especially, well, just a big misconception in general is that all kids know how to read comics. They don't, and even many who do, there's a difference between being able to read--and this was something the teacher pointed out, he loved comics, and he's like, as we've been going through this, he goes, "There's a big difference between knowing how to read a comic and knowing how to break down why you know how to read a comic and then how to get others to do that." The pedagogy that he felt he was missing was really interesting to work on.


But so for the kids, it's literally a day where... I am a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan.



Dani

Me too!


Daryl

So for the study, I guess it would've been for the second year, we used... because Boom Studios rebooted Buffy and has been doing a pretty great comic series on it for a few years now.


Dani

I have it somewhere here.


Daryl

So we just taught them how to read comics using Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1 because it dealt with teenagers and also the arts really cool and it's complex storytelling, but it's not as complex as certain other things in terms of the way the medium is being screwed around with. So we do that. That lesson is how to read comics, what the different elements are. Then we do a lesson where I built a comic book formatted how to use a comics app handout. So the kids then just have to make a short six panel, not even, I think we gave them the option of four to six panels of just them doing a thing in class. It wasn't a graded assignment. It was just getting them used to how panels interact and how the app works. And so that was a second day.


[00:09:59]


Then it's [about] providing scaffolding on how to break down the text they want to transmediate, and then how to sort of build it up. So basically teaching them how to do a script, come up with/find the main ideas of the thing you want to transmediate, how to build a script into it, how to plan images. Then a day of them creating images. Most of them tried to try to use--they asked if they could use their phones and Snapchat to do it. They felt that was their most comfortable way of actually composing the images. Then they took those images, they pulled them into the iPads we provided, and then they were able to compose the panels and create the speech balloons and things based on the scripts that they had written.


That isn't the only way to do it. You can also do things like... We did a really fun activity in an AP Research class a couple years ago, I guess about a year and a half ago, where students made comics that were TikTok based. They made four to six short TikTok videos that were then embedded in PowerPoint in sequential panels that interacted with each other and also had overlaid animations with speech balloons and other comics elements to be able to create a place-based storytelling activity that was looking at authentic expressions or performative expressions of culture in one of the tourist neighborhoods in Miami.


[00:11:38]


Dani

Wow.


Daryl

Yeah.


Dani

You mentioned a comics app that you were using, and I think you named one earlier when we were talking about the literacy Comic Con thing. Sorry, I cannot remember this. Something Legger, I'm sorry.


Daryl

Yeah, no, it's fine. The Booklegger Library.


Dani

Booklegger Library.


So which apps have you used? Are there particular ones that you find beneficial? Maybe why was or how was Snapchat used? Because I'm not super familiar with Snapchat.


Daryl

Okay.


Dani

What are the digital tools you're using and which ones do you prefer, I suppose?


Daryl

Alright, I like Comic Life 3 because its five bucks and it functions on any mobile device, and they also have a desktop version of it that's a little more pricey and a lot more powerful. So not really necessary for these kinds of things. The user interface on a phone is very clear, but it is more powerful than the free apps that are out there and they're not harvesting your data and trying to microtransaction you to death like a lot of the free ones do, which I guess... There are positives and negatives to drawbacks. You have to make sure that either you're given access to the devices that the classroom has to be able to put them on there or that the students have the financial, families have the financial ability to spend five bucks on an app because to some folks, that's not an insubstantial amount of money to just randomly spend without expecting to, which is why other things like being able to use TikTok and Snapchat and PowerPoint, which everyone has on their phones for free and PowerPoint is generally available in most classrooms.


[00:13:32]


I like the combination of Snapchat and Comic Life though. Snapchat's really great because the students really love to doing this. You can create stickers of yourself. So you take the picture and then you can legit cut yourself out of that picture and then paste your new thing onto other images. So you can create multi-layer composites just on your phone and then download it into your photos. And then Comic Life has access to your photos and you can pull those into panels and that's fantastic. And anytime kids are allowed to use their preferred social media for learning, they go, "Yeah, we want to do that again." We didn't think to do Snapchat. That was the student's ideas and we said, "sure, if that's a thing you want to do, go for it." And it ended up being fantastic.


Dani

Wow, that's really interesting. Like I said, I am not super familiar with Snapchat, so I would never have come up with that. I think it's awesome when the kids see the affordances of the tool that maybe you're not aware [of] and then they take over the classroom a little bit with [it] and own the projects themselves. That's great.


So this kind of work, what are the benefits and then maybe what are some of the challenges that you've experienced? I think let's start with benefits. I think there are clearly some, but spelling it out for our audience is never a bad idea. And then let's talk about some of the maybe challenging realities of doing this kind of work.


[00:15:16]


So honestly, the biggest benefit is not--people assume the biggest benefit would be that students are engaged and excited about it, but frankly, I don't view that necessarily as a benefit in and of itself because there are lots of ways to get students engaged in learning. But the increase in accessibility and multiple affordances of meaning making are the biggest benefits, especially for students who are emerging bi- and multi-linguals. That is massive.


Because kids are smart. But, if you're not super familiar with academic English or you're not super familiar with the American structure of writing essays, because it is very different across the world what an appropriate academic essay is. I thought it was funny. The French students and French teachers would look down in a very snooty way on the American system of academic writing in high schools, which for good reason, but it was just always very funny to me that just even structurally things are very different.


So being able to bring in social English, being able to bring in embodied learning and acting out and facial expressions into meaning making, being able to bring in sequence of images or color schemes, things like that, end up giving students multiple additional tools and avenues to get their ideas and understandings across that you wouldn't have available in just a traditional essay or a terrible multiple choice quiz.


Something that we found that was kind of surprising in a really good way was the students who were amazingly good at writing the robotic American essay, they said that it was harder, in a good way, to make the comics because they couldn't just zombie their way through. Like, "Okay, we're checking off the boxes that we know that the teacher wants and we don't even have to think." They said that it required them to really put a little bit more effort in because they had to adapt to a new structure of getting their ideas across. Yes.


[00:17:31]


Dani

You've reminded me. I think it's the work of Stephanie Reid and Lindsey Moses. They've done some work with comics and elementary schools in multilingual environments, and the findings that they had--I can't remember the name of the article right now--it's very similar to what you're describing where it's the kids who were good at the traditional literacy or the traditional English Language Arts [way] of presenting of information, even at the elementary level, struggled a little bit with producing something that was more multimodal, more comics based, because they had moved so far away from that kind of creative space, I think. But it also allowed students who were maybe not traditionally the experts or the good students academically in the class to shine and demonstrate that they were just as knowledgeable and just as skilled, but just in different ways that we don't normally value. So I think that's a really important takeaway from the work that you're doing.


Daryl

It is also engaging. And the big thing, especially for an English Language Arts class where you're transmediating a work rather than creating something from scratch is the types of analysis and depth of understanding that the students have to engage in with the traditional texts is much more nuanced and necessary than you would if you're just answering questions. Especially as the students are embodying the characters, they have to understand the character's motivations and expressions and emotions in a way that they would not necessarily have to otherwise. That was something that the students found a lot of joy in. That was something that they reported and we had observed as well. And honestly, one of the funniest things to me was one of the students looked at me and was like, "Axelrod, we hate poetry, but we were actually okay with doing poetry at 7:30 in the morning because we got to do this." And I was like, "Well, if nothing else, this was a success."


[00:19:38]


Dani

That's hilarious.


So, it sounds like the kids actually kind of acted out some of these things. So they were photographing themselves or turning themselves into these stickers. Was there any creation of original art that wasn't them taking the place of a character?


Daryl

Not all students were comfortable being in front of a camera, so some groups drew out their ideas, because they were just fantastic artists, took pictures of the drawings and then made those. Some groups did a combination of images they pulled from the internet and themselves acting out and drawing. There was a whole wide range. And that was something that was incredibly encouraging because not every student is comfortable with X, Y, or Z. So you might have a student that's really great at planning something but isn't comfortable performing. Well, they were the ones that controlled the camera or they want to draw. Just giving all of those options, it really puts a little bit more, it does, it puts more agency... It gives the students more agency.


We also found that it flipped certain power structures in the class, which was really unexpected because some of the students went to their teacher and they were like, "We want you to be in--" Especially in The Great Gatsby, there are more characters than there are students in a group, so they pulled the teacher in and were directing him. There's a security guard on the floor who is... He dates back to my time there. He's a grumpy dude to the students and also to the teachers sometimes, but he loves to confiscate students' cell phones. So the students were like, "Wait, since this is a class activity, he can't take away our phone." And so they had him act out one of the characters in one of the scenes that they were doing. For them it was like, "Well, we get to tell him what to do now with our phones." But also, it was really interesting because they could only direct him so much, and he wasn't going to listen to them to do certain types of acting. So then they had to use additional affordances from the medium to place emotion or intent on a guy basically just sitting there going, "Mmrmmm."


[00:22:21]


Dani

"I want you in my phone comic that I'm making."


Daryl

Yeah, it was amazing.


Dani

Oh my gosh. Okay, we've got about 10 minutes left. This is the drawback of the Zoom free recording links.


Let's talk about some challenges and then maybe your recommendations for teachers if they wanted to start doing this tomorrow. And then as always, we'll end with recommendations for reading. So challenges first, please. What did you encounter that was tough?


Daryl

So I got lucky in that the school that we did these projects in, I've been working at or with in a research capacity since 2010. So they let me do basically whatever I want in terms of... They trust me to do things that are academically rigorous, even if they don't necessarily see the rigor immediately. But that's the challenge, right?


There is still a stigma against not just--in reading comics less so--but making comics. The idea of something being fun and involving phones is still in a lot of ways taboo and, especially in states like Florida, where schools that benefit the most from something like this have the least freedom to implement something like this. Having curricular freedom is important and is, in a lot of ways, unlikely for the schools that would benefit the most from this.


Convincing a stodgy old administrator or department head to do this can be a challenge as well. Then practical things like apps cost money. Reading comics, graphic novels are not cheap. Making sure that students all have access to technologies that we take for granted isn't a given as well. And so those are things that you have to be mindful of and have to overcome. Fortunately, we're moving in the right direction, but we're not there yet.


[00:24:27]


Dani

Yeah, no, that's one of the things I think we hear the most from teachers who are interested in working with graphic novels or digital texts is just the lack of access and the lack of funds to create access. I know that there are some organizations like Pop Culture Classroom, for instance, can provide class sets. They've got a lending library kind of a thing, but that's definitely a gap that I think is challenging for a lot of different people. [During] these times in--of course, you mentioned Florida. Florida's not the only place that is adding legislation to kind of restrict certain curricular resources or pedagogical approaches. So I think those are challenges a lot of teachers across a lot of different states are going to encounter. So with that in mind, all these wonderful benefits, all of these challenges that you've listed, if somebody wanted to do this, we're just about starting the school year here. If somebody wanted to do this in their fall semester, what would you recommend as a starting point?


Daryl

Figure out a narrative exercise that draws on your subject area, be it Space Rangers exploring the solar system or a math problem or a math thing that would be a word problem base. Or in history, I mean, history is just a narrative, so [you] have a little bit more freedom there. Or in English Language Arts.


So figure out a narrative exercise that could be done as just anormal writing. Then figure out what technologies you have access to. Then figure out how to scaffold into teaching, how to create a narrative text from that content, and then what spaces you have access to and how you can get the students to act it out and what apps or programs you have that can support sequential images.


[00:26:33]


Dani

And you mentioned earlier PowerPoint, so it doesn't have to be, necessarily, some crazy application that costs $50 for one person to use. Right? There are ways to do this with the technology that's kind of readily available. I mean, before Canva came out, most of the graphic design I did was in PowerPoint rather than Adobe or something just because of expense. So sometimes a little creative or out of the box thinking or using the tools that already exist for us, but in different ways can be a solution for that. That's fantastic.


So we've got just a few minutes left here. I would like to end with recommendations of graphic novels or comics that we're reading. Are there ones that you've just finished up that you really like or do you have anything that's on your To Be Read Stack that you haven't quite checked out yet?


Daryl

Oh my God. All right. So honestly, I did a lot of thinking about this because when you're stuck in academic literature and in a lot of ways when you're dealing with issues of access, equity and social justice, the things that you read are not only dense but depressing, or at least being like, "Hey, here are these terrible things that you need to come up with ideas to overcome." And it's like, "Wow, really? Okay." So I read a lot of comics and not to say that comics are light, but at least it shifts the medium and the format of reading.


And so my favorite ongoing series period is Saga.



Dani

Oh, yeah.


Daryl

But if you don't like Saga, I don't want to say there's something wrong with you, but I mean...


[00:28:30]


Dani

You can't meet a person who does not like Saga. I think of it kind of as a gateway comic. If you are a person who does not enjoy comics or graphic novels, try it. And if you don't like it, maybe this is not the medium for you, but it's a very special series.


Daryl

But a couple that I've really been liking lately... I've really liked World Tree. It's only got a few issues out. I stumbled upon that because Something is Killing the Children is one of my favorite ones that's come out a lot. The Moon Knight ongoing series is actually really, really good. My favorite Moon Knight run is still Jeff Lemire [and] Greg Smallwood's, like absolutely unhinged, incredible 13 or 15 issue run. And then my favorite superhero comic probably of the last couple of decades is Christopher Hastings and G Gurihiru run on the Unbelievable Gwenpool.


Dani

Oh, sure. Yeah. That's a good one.


Daryl

I love the ideas of playing around with the medium itself, and that's what her superpower is. The art is just incredible and just kind of flew under the radar because people assumed that she was a Deadpool clone when she came out as well. She was an alternate cover of Gwen Stacey as Gwenpool, and they created a completely different thing about her, but that sort of stigma never really went away. And then she's kind of like a Lol meme in the Marvel Lego Universe, but that run is just, it's something special. It really, really is.


[00:30:07]


Dani

I agree. I would definitely recommend that to anyone who is interested in just what the medium can do. It's a little meta in places.


Well, I was thinking about the STEM aspect of what your work is doing, and we just went and saw the movie Oppenheimer.


Daryl

How was it?


Dani

It's really good. I mean, it's Christopher Nolan. I think my favorite works of his are Memento and this.


Daryl

Really?


Dani

Yeah, I think it has some Memento kind of structural things going on, which I think is really interesting. But it reminded me of a graphic novel that I've owned for ever, but I've still not read. So I've just recently started Trinity, which is the graphic novel about the first atomic bomb and its invention. I've looked at pages in it and I bought it for a couple of kids who were interested in science way back in the day, but I never got around to it. I'm like, "This is probably something that I should look up." I didn't know that much about the history, and I had a lot of questions watching the movie, and I'm like, "Maybe this will fill some of those gaps for me." It's good so far, but I've only read maybe 10 or 15 pages into it.



Daryl

And one other one that, because I had been talking about transmediating literature and comics, that there was an adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.


Dani

I haven't read that yet.


Daryl

It was really good.


Dani

Okay. I've not heard anybody talk about it. You're the first person I know has read it.


Daryl

Yeah, because it's one of my favorite books of all time, both my dad and I love that book. And so when I saw that the comic came out, I was like, "It can't be terrible, right?" And it was fantastic.


Dani

Awesome. All right. Well, we are about out of time here, Daryl, but thank you so much for being on the show. We really appreciate you taking the time.


Daryl

For sure. It was great. Thanks so much for having me.


[00:32:02]


Dani

You're welcome.


 

[End Credits]


For information about Reading in the Gutter and resources related to comics and education, visit our website www.readinginthegutter.com, or follow us on Instagram @readinginthegutter.


Special thanks to our guests for their contributions to this show. For information about or to contact our guests and contributors, please visit the episode transcript on our website.


Reading in the Gutter is a podcast that is produced in a personal capacity. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent those of their affiliated institutions.


Post-production for this podcast is provided by Dan Perrine. Our intro and outro music are provided by the Alibi Music Library and licensed through PodcastMusic.com.

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