Comics as a Tool for Summarizing and Understanding Essays

Sherman Alexie’s essay “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” includes a paragraph about paragraphs:

I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph… I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside the paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States…

As the first assignment in The College of Staten Island’s English 111 Essay Sequence is a reflective narrative, this essay was perfect for my students to read and discuss. Not only is it actually a reflective narrative so that we could analyze the components of this genre; it also explicitly addresses the form of writing! I used this paragraph to discuss how and why we use paragraphs, the function of this element of an essay, when to start a new paragraph, etc.

I assigned Alexie’s essay for the week after my students had written a first draft of their reflective narratives. Last week, we had read two reflective narratives from the textbook Language Awarenessand we had discussed the genre and the essay assignment. They had submitted a first draft (with encouragement to “make it a shitty first draft“) on Tuesday, which gave me enough time to read and comment on their drafts before Friday. One of the major issues I noticed in their essays was a tendency to write their whole essay as a single long block of text – or at the most with an introduction, a very long body paragraph, and a conclusion. So in fact, the Alexie essay was perfect for this moment, when they would read my comments and prepare to revise their drafts.

And because Alexie talks about reading Superman comics before he could read text, I was led to thinking of an exercise that incorporates comics…

We started in class by zeroing in on the paragraph where Alexie talks about seeing the world in paragraphs. I asked students to define a paragraph in simple writing terms, and we then analyzed each of Alexie’s “levels” of paragraphs. We talked about how his reservation could be a paragraph of the “essay” of the United States, how his house could be one paragraph of the “essay” of his community, how each of his family members could be a single paragraph of the “essay” of his family… We talked about the comparison of a paragraph to a fence, and concluded that a paragraph break sets boundaries within the essay, marking the end of one idea and the beginning of another.

Alexie’s essay is particularly suited for this discussion because all of its paragraphs fit the standard description. Many other narratives include dialogue or single-sentence paragraphs for effect, and that would confuse the issue with unnecessary complications at this stage.

After that discussion, we focused briefly on Alexie’s use of the Superman comic, the way he vividly describes a single panel of the comic (Superman breaking down a door) and refers to this image at the end of the essay without actually mentioning Superman. We talked about how a comic strip functions similarly to an essay with paragraph breaks, with each panel serving as its own paragraph. (You could also argue that each panel is a sentence within the “paragraph” of a page or something similar, but I kept it simple for now.)

And then I assigned a group exercise:

There are eight paragraphs in Alexie’s essay. In groups of three, draw a comic strip consisting of eight panels – one for each paragraph. Discuss each paragraph with your group, figure out what the main point or main idea of each paragraph is, and then choose: images; text above the image; speech bubbles; and/or thought bubbles.

The class was at first delighted, then worried, about doing this exercise. But as soon as they started, they began 1) having fun and 2) really understanding the essay.

I circulated while they worked, helping them think through some of the paragraphs. I also had to nudge them along, reminding them of the goal of the exercise, as some groups got caught up in agonizing over how to draw a specific detail or whether their images were recognizable as what they were supposed to be. (Many weren’t! but that was fine because the purpose of the exercise was not to showcase artistic skills…)

The results were magnificent (see images below). In each of my two classes, I asked students to display their comics as a gallery on the desks at the front of the class, and invited them to circulate and read their classmates’ comics. They engaged in a lively gallery visit, chatting and picking up the papers to discuss with each other.

We briefly discussed how this exercise helped them understand the essay better. I explained that I had essentially asked them to write a summary of the essay, but since they were using images rather than words, it was far easier to cut out the unnecessary details. If they had included more details, they would have immediately seen that the images were cluttered. When they write textual summaries, it’s sometimes harder to see how many extra details wind up in there.

This exercise was set aside for a while after this. We switched to talking about their essays, reading one student’s essay together (I got permission before sharing their draft with the class) and talking about specific details to focus on while revising. I pointed back to their comic strips as we discussed how to incorporate reflection within each paragraph, rather than first telling the story and then writing a “here’s what I learned” section. After all, their comic strips contain almost exclusively narrative even though Alexie definitely reflects – because the reflection is embedded within the narrative, and the narrative is dominant in this genre.

To end the day, I asked my students to try drawing their own essays as comic strips. I emphasized that these would be different from the comics they had drawn from Alexie’s essay because their own essays were still in the process of being written and revised. “Start anywhere,” I advised them. “You don’t have to start at the beginning. Just choose an event or a moment and start drawing. You’ll reorganize the panels afterward, once you have something on the paper.”

In both classes, though they struggled to start, within ten minutes the class had fallen silent and the air was filled with intense concentration. I let them work in silence for a while, sitting at my desk so as not to disturb (after first circulating to make sure they were each confident about what they were doing). We’re in a small classroom, so I was able to continually scan the room and make sure they were all working.

Finally, I interrupted them and asked: Is this helping? The unanimous answer was yes. How? I asked. Their responses, with additional analysis from me:

  • Drawing each event or moment as an image forces them to remember details about the event or moment that they can now transfer to their writing. While they struggled to see how each event could be expanded in writing, drawing it made that very clear.
  • Drawing each event or moment as an image also made it very clear when a new paragraph was needed. In text, it’s easy to smash multiple moments together and not see how they each need their own fully-developed paragraph. But when you try to draw the story, sequencing it as a comic strip forces you to see each moment separately, and you can begin to separate the many individual moments and ideas.
  • Sequencing the story as a comic strip made some of them realize how disorganized their storytelling was in their essays. A number of them had jumped back and forth chronologically in their drafts, often repeating themselves because they had written essentially as a stream of consciousness… This exercise helped them see how often they doubled back on themselves, and made it clear that they need to cut and paste parts of their essay for better organization.

A few students commented that when they think of “telling a story,” they think of images more than text. I asked them if they meant comics, or if perhaps they were thinking of movies. They agreed that it was movies they were thinking of. I suggested that this is another method they can use when revising: think of your essay as a movie (with a voiceover if necessary – they enjoyed that) and make sure it makes sense that way.

I wrapped up for the day by pointing out that this drawing method is something they can use to annotate as they read for next class as well.

The whole exercise was a fun activity, took a lot less time than I had expected, and was immensely beneficial.

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(Images out of order – I’m not that expert at this! But it gives you the general idea, I hope.)

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