Graphic Storytelling and the New Literacies: an Interview with NCTE Educator Peter Gutiérrez

A lot of critical attention has been focused recently on how to adapt education to encompass new digital technologies and modes of receiving information. There’s no question that today’s students are living in—and interacting with—a media- and technology-rich environment.  But do the ways they communicate outside of school connect at all with what they’re learning in the classroom?  Organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) have been examining ways to approach literacy to ensure that students learn both how to use and think critically about new media. According to NCTE’s Definition of 21st Century Literacies, “Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.” Perhaps not coincidentally, NCTE has also been featuring an explosion of programming on the graphic format over the last couple of years. We talked with comics and media literacy educator and NCTE spokesperson Peter Gutiérrez about how graphic novels fit into the discussion on new media and new literacies.

BookShelf: When we think of emerging literacies, we think of Web 2.0 and other tech-based platforms. How does a low-tech medium such as the graphic novel fit into the conversation?

Peter Gutierrez: That’s a great question, and maybe we can use it to point out a possible pitfall when it comes to thinking about new literacies. Yes, new technologies encourage non-traditional, often non-linear ways of engaging with text, but there’s a danger in supposing that what makes the new literacies “new” is the technology per se—it’s the literacies that are new, and even those often aren’t so much new as they are more prominent. After all, yes, people read short stories linearly, but do they read newspapers that way? Or do they navigate them according to their own interests—a tendency that hypertext in online newspapers only facilitates or extends? Similarly, comics have certainly been around for a long time but the strategies and skills through which we extract meaning from them as texts map perfectly to the literacies required by more recent platforms.

BookShelf: You’re referring to visual literacy?  

Peter Gutierrez: Yes, exactly, and media and critical literacy and conventional print literacy as well—all of these can be supported by teaching with the graphic format. The working definition of “21st Century Literacies” adopted by NCTE earlier this year includes analyzing and synthesizing “multiple streams of simultaneous information.” Few media could be used to this end more effectively than graphic novels. By their nature they force readers to get information from the art within a panel, from the progression of images from panel to panel, from the printed text of speech balloons and captions, and often from the in-art “audio” text of sound effects—all at the same time. You must synthesize as you go.

BookShelf: Since these new literacies embrace so many different areas, what would you say is the key commonality they share?

Peter Gutierrez: There are many ways to answer that question, but on a gut level, I’d say that what they share is that they speak to the idea of “participatory culture.” This is a notion that MIT’s groundbreaking Project New Media Literacies is focusing on. NCTE, in its way, echoes this idea when its leaders in this area speak about moving away from “submission” to text and toward “participation.” The interesting thing to note is that kids have always done this in terms of comics. Think about it—it doesn’t mean that there have always been wikis to share data about comics. It means that kids have always reacted to what they read because it was highly meaningful to them, and often they had—and have—the impulse to share that expressive response with others. That means arguments over the lunchroom table, or recommending comics to each in a summer camp bunk. I was probably five or six years old when I first attempted my own mini-comic, and the same holds true for my own Generation Z kids. This impulse to create and share might not seem remarkable until you realize that this is not so true of other media and genres, for better or worse. Very few kids read their first novels and then try to write one, although of course now video technology has enabled youth media to flourish when it comes to the moving image. The point is, the graphic format—perhaps by virtue of being low-tech—inherently seems to encourage participation. And the role of fandom, which in comics has a long, organized, and highly “literate” history, is another place you can find this participatory aspect present in a powerful way.

BookShelf:  It seems like much of the work being done in the new literacies concerns, as one would expect, “new media.”  But comics are certainly not new, so are they actually part of an older model of literacy that teachers shouldn’t leave behind?

Peter Gutierrez: Yes and no—it’s a hard question to answer because semantically many of these words hold different meanings for different people. For example, Gina Gagliano at First Second pointed out to me that in some sense graphic novels are a new medium in that only recently have they been used widely in direct instruction and included formally in some curricula. So they constitute a new medium because students and educators are interacting with them in new ways—and it is this meaning-making function that readers bring to reading that really completes any text.

In terms of an older model of literacy, I think the crucial idea is in the second part of the question—the notion of not leaving skills behind, not leaving print-on-paper literacy behind. Actually, nothing should be “left behind.” It’s not as if those advocating for education in new literacies feel that they should supplant fluency and composition and all the other important skill sets that ELA teachers are charged with developing. Rather, it means looking for overlap and synergies between the so-called new and the so-called old—it means drilling down into both the curriculum and the new media themselves until you find them. Again, it comes back to the first question you asked. As part of an older generation, we experience all the new media—and this is true of those fully conversant in them—as if they’re coming at us in forms that are all-new, all-the-time. It has to do with our frame of reference, I think. Elementary students who walk into libraries can access the Web, search databases for titles or information, or browse print books and magazines on the shelves—and of course now graphic novels, too. To these students, that’s just the way it is. That’s the media environment in the library, and the one at home may not be too different. They’re not really experiencing these items as “new” and I suspect we lose something if we focus on newness all the time. Instead, let’s observe how young people are communicating and expressing themselves and so try to learn how they’re employing the wide range of interconnected competencies they possess.   

BookShelf:  Are teachers in the 21st century more likely to use pop culture in the classroom? What are some of the concerns in doing so, and what are the advantages?

Peter Gutierrez: An obvious advantage is the motivation factor. A less obvious one concerns activating prior knowledge—students know pop culture, so you have a chance to build on that knowledge base and, more importantly, engage with it critically. “Critically” meaning evaluating content, yes, but also self-critically, reflecting on one’s own literacy skills and goals. And there’s an even bigger opportunity here. By definition, “popular” culture is one that’s widely shared. That gives students a chance not only to respond to texts, but also to respond in an informed way to each other’s responses. After all, that’s what their outside-of-school literacies look like anyway—take blog comments as an example. So while today’s youth are accustomed to that kind of discourse, as educators we can help them become more aware of their own modes of participation, their own thought processes. Clearly these are skills that can enhance their use of academic language, support them when it comes to writing critical or persuasive pieces, or prepare them for speaking-and-listening activities such as debating.

All right, but what about content? At the recent NCTE Institute for 21st Century Literacies Ernest Morrell raised what I think is a really optimal way for teachers to think about pop cultural material, including comics. I guess here we’re examining the other half of the phrase “pop culture”—culture. In other words, to use pop culture solely for engagement is to miss the boat. Morrell gave the example of how he contextualizes hip-hop lyrics within a curriculum strand on the poetry of social resistance and thus connects them to Elizabethan and Romantic poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, and so on. Suddenly the canon becomes less remote and more relevant. In comics there are a number of ways to take this approach. Clearly superheroes fit into both a heroic tradition in literature and a mythological one, and they can be leveraged in genre studies, too, as examples of science-fiction or fantasy. By the same token, one can see where many of the great graphic novels of the past two decades fit squarely in the tradition of confessional fiction or non-fiction such as memoir, and/or work as contemporary versions of the classic coming-of-age story. The point is not to graft the graphic format onto the curriculum and hope it sticks through sheer engagement, but to dig deeper. And talented teachers everywhere are doing exactly this. Also, I just realized this, but American Born Chinese arguably has thematic “membership” in all the literary modes I just mentioned, which could be why it’s so widely used in schools. And the other two graphic titles that I’m finding are becoming canonical at higher grade levels, Persepolis and Watchmen, also fit nicely into these very conventional and accepted ways of studying literature.

BookShelf: Another big issue when it comes to new literacies is student production.  How are kids who make graphic works demonstrating mastery of these literacies?

Peter Gutierrez: The important thing to keep in mind is that student-generated work is always part of being literate in any sense. It’s where young people can stop being receptive and start exploring and “making meaning” on their own, which is really one of the overarching goals of education, not just English. To learn about poetry, but to not take a stab at writing it, or to learn scientific facts without ever experimenting, that doesn’t really make sense. The difference now, with new media, is that students are producing texts on their own in much more visible and public ways, so the perception is that there’s a huge outpouring of student-produced media. In other words, students have always written songs, but they weren’t launched automatically when you visited their MySpace pages. Maybe having that outlet in turn encourages them to write more songs, I don’t know. But any time you produce something original you’re demonstrating the extent to which you’ve internalized the particular communicative codes of that medium as well as the practical or technical skills necessary to creating an artifact in it.

BookShelf: How might you approach comics production in a classroom setting?

Peter Gutierrez:  Aside from all the multi-modal understandings kids need to draw upon to create comics, in the classroom we also have a chance to exercise one of the fundamental “21st skills” —collaboration. That is, any given professional creator may pencil, ink, write, and letter a single graphic title but in a learning environment we can divvy up these jobs, perhaps even reassign them from page to page. The enthusiasm with which students communicate while making mini-comics is astounding to anyone who’s ever tried it—students may be unsure of how to work as a team at first, but that’s where you step in as coach. And along the way another basic 21st century skill will inevitably get addressed: real-world problem-solving. “How are we going to tell this whole story in only eight pages?”—well, that’s what breakdowns are for. Or, “How are we going to fit all of those words in this panel when the penciler has left so little room?”—well, that’s what an eraser is for. Students may not always like the solutions that are arrived at, but that makes the problem-solving authentic and also motivates them to improve their team-based communication.  

BookShelf:  Can producing comics provide learning experiences that translate into other types of writing or forms of communication?

Peter Gutierrez: Yes, which is one of the reasons that we are featuring the Stanford Graphic Novel Project as part of the media gallery at NCTE’s annual convention this year. Producing comics can not only be a vital part of a creative writing unit, but also can be used for expository or persuasive purposes, too—think of the research that can go into nonfiction graphic works or even fact-based dramatizations of history. The nice thing is that teachers have the option of how implicit or explicit they want to make these connections. In some cases they probably need to make them more explicit for the simple reason of providing a curricular rationale for supervisors and department heads. As far as specific writing products are concerned, there are probably too many to mention into which you could translate the core skills in making comics. One of the projects I’m working on now with Frank W. Baker is on leveraging scriptwriting in the classroom. I discovered that my own work in scripting comics, both in terms of learning the format and “thinking visually,” was invaluable when I was later hired to write movie scripts based upon them. I don’t want to get overly vocational here, but what careers are we preparing students for? If they’re interested in being TV producers or, increasingly, Web producers or videogame developers, then the form of practical writing known as the script is something they should be familiar with—not to mention if they want to be literate consumers of these media.

The important thing is that students can apply the same potent combination of print and visual literacy to a variety of other contexts. The graphic format allows you to teach these concepts in a more granular, slowed-down, step-by-step way. I’m not saying that film and moving-image media are inherently more “complex” than comics—those arguments always strike me as kind of silly—but just that in an educational environment there are advantages to being able to parse concepts and skills as discretely as possible. You can then layer on other elements such as audio, as in a TV script, or interactivity, as on the Web. The point is, comics can provide a foundation in developing such multimedia texts. Besides, they’re nice to have around even if you want to focus on high-tech “literacies”—after all, what happens if the system crashes that day? In my experience, teachers always like to have back-up plans.

In addition to his work with NCTE, Peter is Education Development Director of SPLAT!, the graphic novel symposium, and is also a member of the International Reading Association’s Special Interest Group on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Graphic Novels.  He regularly develops and delivers professional development around the use of high-interest media in schools and can be reached at fiifgutierrez@gmail.com.