Reading With Pictures' David Rapp Talks to

With Free Comic Book Day approaching this Saturday, presents a three-part interview series with various figures in the comic industry. Up today: Northwestern University psychology professor David Rapp, one of the directors of Reading With Pictures, a Chicago-based nonprofit group dedicated to 'getting comics into schools and schools into comics.'

By Eric Garneau

David Rapp How did Reading With Pictures get started?

David Rapp: Reading With Pictures was the brainchild of comics writer Josh Elder, who created a couple different books for manga publisher Tokyopop and worked on the Batman Strikes comic for DC. He and I met rather informally; he had become friends with someone I knew. At some point, I happened to hang out with both of them at the same time and Josh and I started talking about our interests, like comics. Josh was already engaged in some activities where he went to schools and libraries and taught kids about using comics as a means of being creative, writing stories and so on. We talked a little bit about where that might go. We connected with a group of folks in different places interested in evaluating and supporting the ways in which comics could foster learning in school settings. A couple different initiatives have come out of that. What's an example of the kind of project Reading With Pictures does in a classroom setting?

DR: It depends on who you ask. Josh wants to set up classroom support to allow or help teachers instruct students about comics - the grammar, the syntax, the form, the medium. That allows kids to develop and write their own stories in a creative way and to think about the structure of stories. I'm more interested in cognition: how people think and how we enhance reading ability. I'm interested in how teachers utilize comics in existing classrooms and what kids actually learn from their usage that's similar to or different from using a novel, book, lecture or any other educational method. If you ask some of the more teacher-oriented folks on the team, they might look at the ways they can embed comics as a motivational tool to support existing teaching techniques. Can they use comics to teach kids vocabulary, and can that complement existing vocabulary curricula? There's also a policy component to it that we've been working on, convincing schools that comics are a viable tool. That includes securing financial support and finding other ways of actually getting comics in the classroom. Do you find that to be an uphill battle in a lot of places, or are most schools receptive to what you're doing?

DR: I haven't interacted with a lot of folks who aren't interested in the possibilities, but that might be because the folks I meet are the ones who are already into it. If I go into a school and I suggest the possibility of using comics, I think the biggest pushback we get isn't necessarily that comics aren't valid or that comics are for kids. I'm sure there are people who say that, but more often we get educators saying they have a curriculum, they have things they have to teach. If they use comics, how can they do that in a time-effective way that doesn't cut into all the other things they have to do? How long have you been a fan of the comics medium? What were the first books you read that really spoke to you as a reader?

DR: I've been reading comics since I was about three. The first comics I remember purchasing were reprint series from Marvel that I could get on the newsstand, like Marvel Tales. They reprinted the first 20 issues of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Amazing Spider-Man and a couple of early Avengers stories. I remember being really intrigued by the art style and by the fact that the stories continued. As a child you can watch TV programs and see stories that last past one installment, but if you read kids' books or picture books that isn't always the case, at least it wasn't when I was a kid. There were some that were like that, like Beverly Cleary books or the Hardy Boys, but I don't think it was as popular then as it is now, like with Harry Potter. Comics were the first stories that I saw where the story ended and the good guy was in trouble. That suspense that comics evoked really stuck with me. I think I just managed to get some of the classic stuff off the newsstands at the right time. Changing gears a bit, what courses do you teach at Northwestern?

DR: There are three courses I've been teaching thus far. First is cognitive psychology, a 120-student undergraduate class. It's usually one of the first classes students take after the introductory course. I also teach an undergraduate course called the Psychology of Instructional Design, where we talk about how to build experiences that foster effective learning. That can be anything from a piece of software that teaches math to a cell phone instruction manual to a computer interface for a classroom. The third class I teach is psycholinguistics. That's a graduate-level course; it's the psychological study of language. Most of my research is on memory and language; how does memory change when you learn stuff? What kind of problems do we exhibit with respect to memory? How does language influence what we learn? My courses all connect with those topics. Do you ever integrate comics into that instruction?

DR: I do in some cheesy ways. If I'm teaching a class on how language can lead you to make inferences that weren't explicitly mentioned, I might show a sequence of comics panels as an example of that - you inferred that Spider-Man did something, but it wasn't actually depicted in the panels; it happened in between. I've also used comics in my psychology of language course where we study how people understand narratives. They're a tool to depict another way narrative can be offered, integrating pictures and text - what does that mean, and how does that occur? What educational benefits do you think the comics medium holds, especially for younger readers?

DR: I think there are a couple of things. The first thing people talk about is that it's motivational. One of the reasons that books like Harry Potter and even classically Nancy Drew Mysteries are effective, why you see them on school bookshelves and in libraries, is because kids like them. They're drawn to them. They think the stories are interesting. They may connect with characters. The texts are particularly descriptive, they're fun and often times they're chapter books, so they're exciting and suspenseful. I think comics have a similar opportunity to motivate and interest readers. When you ask a lot of people in the Reading With Pictures group how they learned to read, a lot of times they say they learned from comics.

I think beyond the motivational aspect there are some other things that can be useful. Comics have their own grammar and structure that I think is pretty complex. It relies on readers learning different cues. There's a literacy of comics. You have to understand the panels, how time gets described when you have static images, why authors depict some things but elect not to depict others because there's only so much space in a comic. What is a thought bubble? Why does that tell me what someone is thinking? I think the literacy that occurs in reading comics helps children and adults solve problems, make inferences and generate ideas in a way that's different from other genres and media. I think it's fun, but it also might help you think critically about things in a different way.

Right now the notion of teaching literacy in schools is incredibly popular, and people aren't just looking at books, they're looking at how you learn literacy skills from TV, movies, blogs and the Internet. It seems like comics are just another form, and one that offers some really interesting kinds of stimuli. That kind of critical thinking is what we try to foster in school settings, so I think there's a lot of potential with that. Is there anything further you'd like to say about the comics medium, Reading With Pictures or anything else?

DR: Reading with Pictures is really meant to be all-inclusive. To anyone who's interested in participating or learning about the group, it's not intended in any way to be closed. We're hoping teachers, laypeople and academics will become interested in thinking about comics as an educational tool and then potentially in participating in activities. If we can get a groundswell of support and interest, it can only get other people interested. That encourages better research, better work, grant funding and all the other kinds of things that need to be done to really evaluate what comics can do in schools and how they can be used effectively.

Learn more about how you can enjoy the comic medium with this Saturday's Free Comic Book Day.

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