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Serious Comics

In late 2009, students in my second-year high school English class focused part of their reading and writing on the issue of how people survive difficult times. It seemed an ideal way to help my students meet a range of literacy standards while also helping bridge the gap between rural Maine and the world. We read Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of Boston doctor Paul Farmer and his fight to help people disenfranchised from basic health care, as well as a range of pieces from the New York Times and other journalism outlets. Students also explored several games on the site Games for Change, especially Ayiti, Third World Farmer, and Against All Odds. The three experiences helped offer a more accessible view for many students of why some people face great difficulty in simply surviving life.

The choices for a culminating project included designing a video game with a flowchart/mindmap program Omnigraffle or Freemind, developing a resource website with GoogleSites, or creating a graphic novel style resource with ComicLife. One student, Vanessa, designed a final project that blended genres in a graphic novel format. She told the story of a fictional boy's struggle to escape the poverty of pre-earthquake Haiti, yet she used extensive research to make this story one that is based in fact, connecting journalism, independent research, and compelling photography.

Certainly there's a difference in this type of writing and the more formal report or pure nonfiction writing, and I'd argue that one of the most compelling differences comes in engagement—both that of the student-creator and that of the potential audience. There's a large gap between the experiences of a student from small-town Maine and the experience they might have in a place like Haiti, but some students like Vanessa bridged that gap and made a connection through a person's story.

Vanessa's work has been shared with teachers in a number of settings, and at times, the reaction is one of, "Well, it's not 'serious' writing," and that usually translates into, "It's not an essay." True, it's not, and I've always thought that's a good thing. Writing this book was serious work for Vanessa. She was committed to telling this child's story. Even though the child is fictional, she knew his story spoke for so many more children, not just in Haiti, but around the world. As Vanessa approached the work daily in our class and in free periods in the library, she did so with the intensity of one knowing the task was bigger than meeting a deadline or getting a grade. The story was a responsibility, and Vanessa, as a writer, lived up to that.

Telling the story not only required Vanessa to take on roles of researcher and storyteller but also designer and editor. Her photos came via the Creative Commons website, and that made her part of a professional community. Vanessa learned how to access experts—serious photographers willing to share their work with potential collaborators. She was already working in an atmosphere outside of the classroom, and now as a consumer in the Creative Commons, Vanessa was finding mentors and collaborators far beyond what was available within her existing circles of contact.

Her experience is reminiscent of that chronicled by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito and her team in Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. Vanessa used the Internet to access experts and learn from others, find resources and collaborators, and she viewed herself as part of a bigger community far beyond our classroom. In so doing, her role expanded from student to participant, and the writing became much more than a typical end-of-unit assessment.

Vanessa's work, Escaping from Haiti, is offered here with her permission.

Creative Commons Licence