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  • Writer's pictureDani Kachorsky

Teaching comics in different contexts (college, high school, and middle school)...



This episode features a discussion with Jason D. DeHart.



Jason D. DeHart is a passionate educator and avid comics reader, currently teaching English at Wilkes Central High School in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He served as a middle grades English teacher for eight years and an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University from 2019 to 2022. DeHart hosts a podcast called Words, Images, & Worlds and blogs about authors and books at https://jddehartwriting.wixsite.com/drjreads.


 

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 to Reading in the Gutter, a podcast that bridges the gap between comics and education. I'm Dani Kachorsky.


Ashley Dallacqua

And I am Ashley Dallacqua.


Stephanie Reid

I'm Stephanie Reid.


Dani

And today, we are here with Jason DeHart. He has appeared on the show before in our first season. He is a former literacy professor, now a high school teacher--is that correct?--a lover of comics, and much to our entertainment, a recovering editor of journals and books. I think we've all written with or for Jason at some point now.


So today, we have Jason on the show to talk a little bit about the differences between teaching comics and visual texts at the university level as opposed to the high school or middle school level. There have been a lot of career changes in this group and a lot of life changes in this group. So all of us do have some experience in both of those contexts, and it'll be interesting to see what everyone's experiences are.


But Jason, we will start off with you. If you'd just like to give us a rundown of where you've taught comics and other visual texts, what those contexts have been like for you.


[00:01:29]


Jason DeHart

Yeah, absolutely. I tend to jump back into a rambling story, so I'm going to try to give the short version, which is that I was a comics reader since about the age of seven, became a middle school English teacher, and started to discover their possibilities again in that context. [I] worked at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville when I was working on my doctoral program with Sterg Botzakis, and Sterg exposed me to even more with comics and graphic novels. And then, [I] began teaching them at the university level. I was sort of the unofficial official comics person at Appalachian State for about three years in the reading department. And now, I am currently teaching comics at the high school level among other texts, but they've sort of followed me along and [I] love them and they won't let me go apparently. I just keep talking about them.


Dani

Are you suggesting that comics are holding you hostage?


Jason

I'm going to say it's like an obsession. It's a thing that I talk about with a friend of mine named Adam, who teaches a comics focused, kind of like elective, course at the middle school level here in Boone, North Carolina: That once you read more--they're like potato chips--you read more and more and more after that.


Dani

Lovely, thank you.


Ladies, would either of you like to jump in and just give a brief overview of where you've taught visual texts and comics in your experience?


[00:03:04]


Ashley

Sure. This is Ashley. I'll start. My comics reading started as a fifth grade teacher when my students just couldn't keep them on the shelves, which started my research trajectory. So, I've taught them at the fifth grade level, and then, I am a literacy professor now, so I've actually had the opportunity to work them into all the courses that I teach--Children's Lit., YA Lit., Research courses--but I've also had the opportunity to develop my own Studies in Comics course, which is a graduate course. So, I've taught it on that level as well. But my favorite thing is [that] I work with teachers in Albuquerque who are teaching them, so I'm back in high schools integrating them into curriculum there, too. So, they're everywhere. Right? So, super fun.


Dani

Steph?


Stephanie

Yeah, I found my way to comics through my students. My students taught me about them. I was raised in a very traditional English Lit. environment in England, governed by national exams, in a traditional English Lit. degree. And when I moved to America and became a middle school teacher, a group of students asked me to be the supervisor for Manga and Anime Club. I had no idea about manga, anime, comics, any of those kind of texts, but they needed an adult supervisor, and so, for several years, I supervised and just learned an incredible amount. [I] started to integrate those into my middle school classrooms. I built multimodal text sets around the core texts that I had to teach, and again, really enjoyed livening up my curriculum by doing so. And then at the college level, I've taught Young Adult Literature--woven in comics and visual texts into that--and also into my Disciplinary Literacy courses. Content Area teachers are always really excited to discover and find ways to integrate these texts into their classrooms, too.


[00:05:10]


Dani

Awesome. Thanks, everybody.


So for me, full disclosure, I was a student who loved these texts and I was one of those students that they wouldn't let you read them [because] you were doing it during class when you really should be doing class things. But, [I] kind of came back to these things when I became a classroom teacher for high school, pursued them in a scholarly way as a doc student, and then as a literacy professor at TAMUCC. But now I'm back in the classroom and making a very concerted effort to bring them in more because through all of our training as doctoral students and as professors, I think I learned how much these things really matter, both in terms of literacy competency and also just to people.


But I have noticed that teaching these things at these different levels can be very similar but also very different. So Jason, you want to talk a little bit: What have you noticed about the similarities and differences at the different contexts that you've taught? Do you have to approach these things differently with a college audience as opposed to a middle schooler or a high schooler?


Jason

Yeah, I think that there are people that go along with them, that have been reading them or that take them up quickly at whatever age. And then, I think that there are people that have resistance that takes on a variety of forms. So, with students at the college level, I found that I was sort of, maybe, the first person that had ever really talked to them about comics, and so I had to really quickly situate them as far as, "Okay, this is a picturebook. This is what a picturebook looks like. This is a comic. This is what a comic looks like."--illustrated novel, and things like that. So, the ways that students would take those up at the college level was usually either because they had some exposure, or if they happen to be in an internship. I remember stories of students coming and saying, "I took Robot Dreams by Sarah Varon to my classroom and a kid read it, and this was the first book they'd ever read."



About this time last year, I was teaching an online course that was focused on engaging readers of varieties of reading levels, whatever that even means. And, I had an older student in that class [who] was very resistant from the beginning of the course, very much the "No, really? Are these really...? These are the books we want to aim for, really?" And [they] talked with me in one of the classes about midway through the course and said, "I was on this field trip with this kid and I took Low Riders by Kathy Camper and Raul the Third, and this kid, who I know was reluctant about reading, sat there and read the entire thing with me." And so there was almost like that strange sort of comics evangelism. I don't know what you would call it. I was sort of this person that would introduce them for the first time in many cases.


[00:08:24]


For the middle school students that I worked with, I worked in middle school at about the time that Robert Downey, Jr. was making comics really cool for a wide range of readers. And so, I remember showing trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron. So there was that immediate kind of pop culture buy in that still exists, to some degree, for some of my students. But, there's a little bit of that resistance that takes up with high school students as far as, "First of all, do I want to read? Is this really something that I want to disclose?" But then, also, I had a student who asked me the first day that I took over for the teacher that I was replacing this year, "Now, are we going to read superhero books?" And so, getting to reposition the story of comics and reposition what [comics] do seems to be part of the conversation I get to have across all levels.


But then, it's really interesting to see kids take them up. [I've] been really struck this past year by the number of bilingual or multilingual students that I have who will gravitate to comics. Because my classroom library is not only comics. There are a variety of things there, and I'm always curious to see what's attractive, where kids go, what they're interested in. So, it's been interesting to see that draw, as well.


Did that answer your question again? I tend to meander a little bit.


[00:10:00]


Dani

No, I think that was wonderful.


I've had similar experiences with--I think it kind of depends with the college level students, whether they're undergrads or master's students. I've noticed a difference in the grade level they intend to teach whether or not they're super resistant to graphic novels and comics. It seems like, for elementary school teachers, it's a natural progression from picturebooks. It's like "We're used to visual texts. This is just kind of more of the same, even though they work a little bit differently." The majority of the resistance I got was from students who intended to teach middle school or high school. And I think that stemmed from a preponderance of the reliance on the canon. Like, "This (e.g., the canon) is what you're supposed to teach at these levels." So, doing anything that isn't part of what Applebee's been noting since the nineties--"If it's not part of these dead white guys, then why are we using it?" But, they tend to come along with you for the ride, I think, especially if you pick books that they can see being an easier transition.


I have had some pushback, too, from high school students over the years. I remember when I taught high school before my doc program, there was one girl who loved manga, but couldn't stand anything else: "So what? You['re] saying the graphic novel and the manga are so wildly different, you can't possibly accept the premise of [the graphic novel] just as being in a classroom?" But, I couldn't get her to put the manga down. "Alright, well, maybe we'll get there one day."


Ashley, Stephanie, I don't know. What have your experiences been like with this?


Stephanie

I think when I've researched students' responses to comics in middle school environments, there's been a number of really interesting reactions from students. From one student who practiced art and created her own comics in her spare time, who said that this (i.e., comics) being included in the curriculum made her feel powerful for the first time in language arts. To a student who had struggled with reading early on, and it was such an accomplishment for him to read words that he felt that reading texts with visuals was a step backwards for him. And so, he felt very self-conscious about reading texts and felt that [image] was a piece of his childhood that he had moved on from. Then, there was one other student who loved reading comics in his spare time. First of all, his teacher described him as a non-reader, and it turned out when these were bought into the classroom, he was able to showcase all of the things he reads and very much that he was a reader himself. But then, his trepidation was around sharing this thing that had been special and his own with his classmates. He wasn't certain that he wanted to do that. So various kinds of forms of resistance and celebration and joy, too.


[00:13:13]


Ashley

Yeah, I've had similar experiences with students in high schools. I think about when Jason mentioned Low Riders. I've read Low Riders with groups of students here, and it's always so loved and well received. And, what's interesting is that some students see a book like that, a visual text that's multilingual and very just kind of celebrates culture, as like, "Oh, this is my story. I've never seen something like this before." And then, other groups of students will say, "Oh, this is my story. Does this really belong here because I've never seen it here before?" Or, "Does this really count? This is an honors English class and I am trying to get to college." So it's always like, "Oh, we like it and it's great, and this isn't going to get me into college." Because there's still this resistance to what counts as literacy, which is interesting.



And, I find that with teachers, too. Usually, teachers, when I can break down the structure with them, then, they're like, "Oh, I can use this to check these boxes that I have to check and bring some joy into my classroom." But, students, I think, are still...it's so ingrained in them, what's expected of them, that counts in reading, that we're just still kind of pushing the boundaries and helping them push those boundaries. Yeah.


Dani

Yeah, I think that's an interesting point--that some of this resistance comes around this idea of what counts reading. So a slight pivot from our regularly scheduled questions here, but does anyone have any insights on how to: What's your approach to easing different types of resistance? How do you respond to kids who are like, "This isn't going to get me into college." Or, "Is this really reading?" Or, "This makes me feel like a baby. I've left this in my past." Do you take a different approach with different students?


Yeah, Ash?


Ashley

So, I'll just jump back in because one of the teachers that I've worked with, Amanda Manning--she's just brilliant. She had her students create their own definitions of what counts as literary merit while we were reading comics and graphic novels. What was helpful there is that all students had their own opinions, but we were able to showcase--


She had them create their own visual definition. So, it had to be a multimodal answer to the question of what counts in this classroom. But students, then, were able to see the variety of how students were approaching that question, and I think that helped us kind of push past this idea of it's just one thing. It didn't solve the problem for everybody, but I loved the idea that it wasn't up to her or to me to define it for them. She said, "Okay, we've read all these books. What do you think counts?"


Students created that, and then, shared their responses with each other, and there were so many different things. So, she had students bring in texts from home, and they brought in cards from their grandparents, and their favorite childhood book, and Calvin and Hobbes and Oedipus Rex. They brought in everything. And so, that was kind of a fun way to play with it, as well.


[00:16:45]


Jason

I'll also mention one of the things that I love to do is to take just a single page and project it because you have to do some kind of reading together with a group. You have to be able to pull in everything that's on the page. And I think one of the things that happens when people read comics for the first time is they sort of balloon travel. They'll go balloon to balloon to balloon, and then, they get to the end and they think, "Well, what was that about?"


And I've been guilty of that, even though I've been reading comics for a long time. I get to the end, and sometimes, I've just read the words. And so, just taking a few minutes--and usually it winds up being more time than you actually think it's going to be to go through an entire page.


I've used Science Comics this way to show a page of volcanoes and to talk about all the different things that are happening on the page, all of the ways that the author or the artist are making choices. I think that opens up a lot, and it's a really nice sort of modeling process of saying, "Hey, there's a lot that this page offers."



And if you just sort of glide across the surface as you can do with any book... I mean, I can get to the end of a prose page and kind of think, "Well, what was that about?" But, taking that time to really do that close inspection, I think tells its own kind of story, too.


Stephanie

So just to pick up on your idea: I think about Thomas Newkirk's slow reading ideas a lot, and I think that it's really important with visual text and with comics, too. In one classroom study, we noticed the sound of comics reading was different to the sound of a prose book because pages were turning really fast. So when you listen to the audio, all you can hear is the turn of the pages because they were doing exactly what you just said, scanning, looking at the speech bubbles, and moving on. And so, pausing to talk through that metalanguage that's involved with understanding visual texts and knowing that you can slow read a visual text was really important to our students, especially as they considered what counted as literacy. And the student who thought that these texts were really easy and represented a much lower level of reading, got to grapple with concepts that were as challenging as concepts that he grappled with when reading a prose text.


[00:19:16]


Dani

I think that's an interesting point, Stephanie, because we did not, I think, any of us touch on this before, but one of the ways I've encountered resistance from high school readers and from college readers is that it's harder than they thought it was going to be. And so, they get into it and then, suddenly, they're like, "I don't know how to do this. I thought this was going to be really easy, but I didn't get this at all."


So, my first time encountering that: I was teaching high school when we were reading the graphic novel adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, which... It is good, but maybe not the greatest adaptation of a classic work that I've seen, but the kids assumed that it was going to be done in a second. And they were done in a second. It was super, super fast, but none of them had the slightest clue what had happened.



And I'm like, "Well, walk me through what you did. What was happening while you read?" And they're like, "Well, I read this speech bubble. And then, I read this box. And then, I read this box." I was like, "Okay, did you look at the pictures at all?" They're like, "o, that's not what reading is." I'm like, "Well, they put both things there on the page for you. It probably means that you're going to need to look at both things. So, why don't we go back and try this again now that you've read all the bubbles on this page. Maybe, let's look at the picture, and then, the bubble because you already have that kind of text context."


And I think that's an important thing. I know that I struggle with that--Jason, you said you're guilty of it, too--especially when I'm in a hurry. You can get through them real quick, but you aren't going to notice a lot of the things in the images. And so, I find that my reading of graphic novels often is slower than my reading of prose. And I'm sure there's a reason for that. And I'm sure that our cognitive scientist friends will figure it out one day. That has definitely been an experience for me, as well. I think it's an experience for a lot of our students.


Ashley

That also has me thinking about the complicated nature of the visuals on an emotional level, too. So when I teach at the college level, when we look at Speak, the graphic novel version, students who are already familiar with the text even struggle to get through it or have to put it down just because the visual nature of a text that takes up rape and sexual abuse can be, for a lot of readers, more triggering. So, it's a different type of warning that I have to give students, too--that even if they know the book, even if they know the story, that the graphic novel slows them down and requires something different of readers.



[00:22:15]


Dani

Awesome. Well, I think that's a nice transition into our next pre-prepared question here, which is focusing on challenges, successes, reflections, realizations about teaching these things across different contexts.


And Jason, I think this is a great time for meandering stories, if you have any.


Jason

Well, sure. I have a few. Absolutely.


One of the continued realizations that I have is how complex the medium is. You mentioned cognitive science. I'm sure Neil Cohn is probably doing a study that relates to that question that you were asking.


And one of the things is getting the chance to talk with comics creators, because sometimes they'll talk with me, and I'm always struck by the key decisions that creators have to make. I learned just this past week that if you're going to put something surprising in a comic, it has to be on the top of an even numbered page. And so, when you're scripting a comic, when you're writing a comic and writing visually that way, you have to think about that because if you put a surprise at the bottom of say, page one, your audience has seen it, and there's no page flip to the surprise. So if there's an explosion, for example, you put that at the top of page two or the top of page four because as you're reading through, you're taking in the layouts and your eye gravitates immediately to what is most striking on that layout. And so it's just really interesting to think about how complex it is, how intentional it is, and I think pointing that out to students is so cool to get to do.


I think Ashley mentioned making as part of the process, as well, and composing comics. And one of the success stories, one of the really interesting things that's happened this past year is I had a high school student who got to experience a choice reading unit that I was doing. And one of the things that I always do with choice reading units is, when possible, I create assessment options because I don't like to grade the same test twenty-two times--it's not really enlivening--or the same type of essay twenty-two times--not really enlivening. And this student chose to read, it was a prose collection of voices, and I think the title is Nevertheless, We Persisted, and Amy Chu is featured in that. I actually picked it up at a comics convention, even though it's a prose book. And, the student chose to take it up and respond to it through a series of visuals. Basically, their own little flip comic book, where they chose images of the people that were featured, represented marks across their mouths to show the ways that they had been silenced, and then, did kind of a little caption of who they were and what their story was and how they were making change. And so, I thought that was really cool.


And in the middle school context, I remember doing adapting with students, reading things like A Wrinkle in Time and adapting into other forms. And then, they're just--there are ways that books continue to surprise me because... As I mentioned, I've had students working across multiple languages this past year, and one of the books that has really attracted them has been Sarah Andersen's Fangs. So, it just continues to be interesting.


And I'll say, finally, I think part of the testament is how often books that are in graphic novel format get taken up, not returned, which I think is always a compliment, and just continue to be engaged with. So that's my meandering on that question.


[00:26:17]


Dani

All right. Thank you. Steph or Ashley, do either of you have some challenges or successes or reflections you'd like to share?


Stephanie

I think the challenges... One of the challenges in higher ed for teachers, I've taught a lot of pre-service teachers and a lot of early career teachers, and one of the challenges they face is a monetary one. It's the budget, kind of, schools don't tend to have these texts on hand. And so it's a money problem and a budget problem, but then also, an advocacy problem. And so I would say that, coupled with conversations around comics in school spaces with teachers, has also been about how do you find resources and funding, and also how do you advocate with your language arts colleagues, with your content area colleagues, and with administrators, and who can you bring from the world of scholarship into meetings with you to help you with that advocacy?


Dani

Yeah, maybe a pro tip for any of our teachers out there: If you can find a scholar at your local university who researches comics, try to bring them in. They sometimes have funding and can buy you books. So, if you can give them a research opportunity, they will often support you through book purchasing, which is one of my favorite gifts of all time. Stephanie has done that for me recently.


Ashley?


Ashley

Yeah, if you're in Albuquerque, I have a library of class sets that I love to bring into classrooms and play around with. But I think on that, just thinking about then successes at the university level, but also in the classroom level, particularly with teachers, is the ways in which comics can bring... I don't know if it's breathing room matched with joy? That I've just seen teachers, even teachers who aren't fans of comics themselves, the ways in which it can disrupt the rote-ness that school can be, for themselves and for their students, is, I think, just one big reason to use them.


I mean, they have so many other reasons, that they support literacy and that they do all these things, but the ways in which they can bring joy and freshness and just disrupting what school can be, I think, makes them really, really special and worth introducing and sharing.


Stephanie

I just want to add onto the notion of joy just really quickly. Even just the act of handing out a graphic novel and folks holding it and seeing it for the first time, it can be a revelation. Kind of, seeing a text in color with images is a beautiful thing. So just, I think one success I've experienced is kind of letting people revel in the moment of introduction to these texts, whether it's middle school or high school students or undergrad or graduate students, too. There's joy in the introduction.


[00:29:25]


Dani

Excellent. All right, folks, we are just about at time here, so we're going to wrap up like we have in the past. It's weird having two years between seasons. We always end with recommendations or things that we're reading.


So, Jason, we'll start with you as our guest. But, graphic novel recommendations, things that are currently vibing for you. What are you recommending today?


Jason

Yeah, graphic novel-wise, I'll mention Thien Pham's Family Style being a book that is a memoir. [It is] really interesting. [He] starts each chapter with sort of a meal that guides [us] through the author and creator's life. So, really interesting.



And then, I mentioned Neil Cohn. So for people that want to really dig into some deep science, Neil Cohn is prolific. There are articles being published all the time as well as books.


Dani

Lovely. Thank you. Ashley? I know went ba--


Ashley

Yeah, I did. I, well, I just finished reading it, so I thought I'd just grab it even though people won't be able to see it. But, I just finished reading Band Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, and I think... I've read so many comic memoirs that sometimes I just kind of breeze through them. And this one, I wanted to do it in multiple sittings, so it would last a little longer. I just really enjoyed it. It takes place in South Korea in the 1980s, and just the ways in which the small group of people push back against the banning of books, which is a tale as old as time and way, way too relevant right now. But, it was lovely and funny and hard, and I really highly recommend it.



Dani

Awesome. I'm going to have to check that one out. Steph, what you got for us?


Stephanie


Struggling with my microphone.


I have a couple of recommendations. There are some amazing Indigenous creators of graphic novels out there. So I would highly, first of all, recommend This Place: 150 Years Retold, which is a selection of graphic novel artists who have come together to represent just a series of stories, historic and also speculative, and the range of art and styles across this text is just visually stunning and beautiful, and the book is powerful, meaningful, and necessary. So, This Place: 150 Years Retold.



I would also recommend Mandy Smoker's Thunderous, as well. She is a Montana creator and I highly recommend that.



And then just, I haven't read it yet, but sitting on my next read is Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas, so I'm excited to read that, too. I've heard lots of good things.



[00:32:22]


Ashley

That one's on my stand, too.


Dani

Yeah, I've heard good things--


Stephanie

I'll let you know how it goes.


Dani

For me, I am currently obsessed with the graphic novel, Eighty Days by A. C. Esguerra. They are a, I believe, Filipino born, living in Los Angeles, artist. And, this was their debut graphic novel. And, it deals with the rise of a totalitarian regime and resistance, very much, I think, inspired by the colonization of the Philippines by the Spanish. And then, the United States, of course, had to get in there and do the same thing. So, it's interesting because its from a very different perspective that you don't often see in the classroom. And, I did it with my AP kids last year, and for the most part--there were a couple of pushbacks--but, they really seemed to enjoy it. And, I think the art style, in particular, the brushwork is beautiful. It's like there are moments in this comic that I want to have copies of on my wall. So, I think artistically it's one of the most beautiful books I've seen in a really long time.



All right, so I hope that everyone has enjoyed our comeback, or I guess "don't call it a comeback," episode of Reading in the Gutter.


[Closing Music]


Dani

Jason, thank you so much for joining us again. We'd love to have you back again in the future as well.


Jason

Anytime, anytime. I would zoom with anyone in this room. Anytime.


 

[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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