Manga in the Classroom

Who loves manga?I do! Many of my students do/did! And you know who else? Reluctant readers.

A few blog posts ago I introduced the topic of manga and briefly explained what that is, where it came from and how it’s read. In that same post I promised to write about it again, explaining why I believe manga belongs in the classroom as much as other literature. So here goes…

Reluctant Readers

Many reluctant readers prefer to watch movies, play video games, flip  magazines, log on to MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc., but it is extremely difficult to engage them with books. Some educators take one, or several of the following approaches (among others):

  • “You don’t know what you are missing”: I’ve been guilty of this. A book lover like myself simply cannot imagine how anyone would purposefully not pick up a book. But think about it from a student’s point of view. How many teachers have said this before? What has reading done for them except be a constant source of pain? No one likes to be nagged.
  • “If you read one chapter book/novel, then you can [insert reward here]”: I have never liked this one. Instead of being enjoyable, reading becomes a chore. It’s more unwanted work and the student is trapped/forced into making a choice.
  • “You will like these books. They are award winners, so you know they have to be good!”: Ok, this is a pet peeve of mine. I like some award winners. I have read some award winners. But if I were only given the option of reading award winners, I would be missing out on other, wonderful books that did not win, but are just as good.
  • “These books are part of a great, new reading program in our school! You are going to learn so much vocabulary by the time you finish reading this!”: I can hear the collective sighs already. Once again, another approach that takes away the reader’s choice and traps them into a particular set of books.
  • ” You read magazines/comic books/graphic novels? But that’s not real reading. You have to read real books!”: Granted, there is writing out there that makes us wonder how it saw the light of day, BUT, reading in any form is still educational. Plus, there are many magazines/comic books/ graphic novels that are worthwhile reading.

So, what would be the right approach? IS there a right approach? How can we get these reluctant readers to pick up a book? Something that teachers are taught (or should be taught) early in their careers is to observe the students, ask questions, and find out what they like. Then, lesson plans are tailored accordingly to include “the fun factor” with the curriculum. The same concept holds true for books. Is it a fail-proof method? Of course not. Nothing in education is. But it’s a step in the right direction.

It is important that we explore new ways to capture students’ attention and re-introduce them to reading in a way that appeals to them and stimulates the imagination. Part of this is giving students choice in their reading selection. In my experience taking students to the media center to choose their own books, I have seen students wanting to engage in visual literacy (in simplistic terms, visual literacy is the ability to decode and gain meaning from visual symbols). Many of them, especially the reluctant readers, sneak off to one of two areas: the magazine section and the graphic novel/comic book section. Then they scatter as a librarian or assistant tries, (unsuccessfully), to encourage these students to read “real books”, or traditional print literature instead.

Traditional teaching methods don’t focus enough on visual literacy and many times it is ignored or taken for granted. However, incorporating this in the curriculum is a good way to motivate students to become readers since it is something for which they already show an interest. Though comic books, picture books and magazines have many benefits, I argue specifically for the use of manga as visual literacy entry texts for reluctant readers because of the larger selection/less expense, complexity of the narrative and literacy challenges.

Manga and Visual Literacy

Manga are inescapably tied to visual literacy. The combination of image and text alone categorize manga as multimodal texts, but the speech bubbles, frames, inference (reading between the boundaries of text and image), emphasize the needed ability to deal with multiple layers of meaning.  Building this understanding involves reading the texts and discussing them with others, making it a social practice, which is one of the most effective ways students learn.

An initial experience engaging with manga includes reading the book from right to left, in the traditional Japanese format. In one of the simplest layouts, there are five panels to a page. The reader must train their eye to begin at the upper right corner of the page, then down to the next panel and to the left, continuing until all 5 of the panels are read. The illustrations are typically printed in black and white, where black is used to create shadows, depth and atmosphere.

Readers must also become familiar with character features, as the drawings consistently reveal personality traits in subtle ways. One example of this is the use of eyes in manga. Traditionally, very large and round eyes on a character represent innocence and naïveté. Large eyes represent a heroic character who strives to do the right thing, while characters with narrow eyes can be evil or unpredictable. Subtle variations of this are harder to pick up for beginners, such as the change in the size of one character’s eyes from one panel to another to reveal fatal flaws or emotions.

Once the reader becomes familiar and comfortable with the visual demands of the text, the speech bubbles add another layer of meaning which must be paired with the visual context to glean the subject matter. Some readers will look at the images first, making their own meaning from the visual clues, before actually reading the printed text. This helps them better understand and benefit from the experience of reading manga. With additional practice and discussion with other manga readers then the experience becomes one of complete enjoyment. Motivation to read increases, which leads to the search and discovery of other texts.

For some of the popular manga, finding out more about the story, characters, or setting requires the reader to search other manga associated with the one they read, or reading the novel created separately from the main storyline. This makes the transition from a multimodal image/text format to the printed text more efficient. Also, manga can easily be found in bound form, much like a traditional print novel, and are less expensive than accumulating stacks of comic books.

Preparing Students for 21st Century Literacies

According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), twenty-first century readers and writers need to create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts (2008). This first necessitates an exploration into visual literacy to prepare students to interact responsibly, knowledgeably and critically within these environments.

While teachers must explore the pros and cons carefully before introducing new literacies in the classroom, they must also consider and be aware of what captures their students’ attention. Better understanding of their likes and dislikes can help establish connections between students and school, which in turn establishes connections with parents and peers.

We must also carefully consider the media-saturated environment in which our students live. There are new 21st century literacies for which they must prepare. Multimodal texts such as manga can serve as an introduction to the multiple literacies students will need when they become adults.

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