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Where comics and literacy meet

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A Fort Whyte middle school is about to learn that comics and graphic novels can have big literary potential.

This April, Henry G. Izatt Middle School collaborates with the Fort Garry Library to create the Encouraging Reluctant Readers With Graphic Novels project, targeting Grades 5-8.

Students will engage in discussions of various titles; Winnipeg comic artist Greg Chomichuk will give a half-day workshop on comics at the end of May.

You don’t just have to take Chomichuk’s insistence as a comic artist that his medium is a powerful literacy tool for kids – you can take his word as an English teacher, too.

"We learn how to see before anything else," says Chomichuk, who has taught at St. James Collegiate for half a decade. You can take his word as an AP psychology teacher, as well.

It’s appropriate that Chomichuk, winner of a 2011 Manitoba Book Award for The Imagination Manifesto, has had his talents tapped for a new initiative using comics to develop Winnipeg students’ literacy.

Henry G. Izatt teacher-librarian Brandi Nicholauson collaborated with Fort Garry branch head Jane Bridle to create the initiative, which won a $1,500 Community Outreach Language & Literacy grant from the Winnipeg Public Library Board.

"In middle school, students can become alienated from the process of reading," Nicholauson says. "They find it’s not something they enjoy." This can be attributed to a frustration with less advanced reading skills, or resenting assigned books.

At the same time, it hasn’t escaped Nicholauson’s notice that her library’s graphic novel section is "extremely popular" – especially with boys, who represent most reluctant readers.

(She adds that girls read comics as well, especially titles specifically targeted towards young female readers such as the My Boyfriend Is a Monster series.)

Hence, Nicholauson insists comics can be used as a legitimate literacy tool – even though they’ve often been considered a "despised" art form.

However, "There’s no interest in forcing students out of a genre they find interesting – if they find something they can engage with, they’ll expand their own literacy from there."

That being said, showing students how to use library resources has been built into the initiative, to encourage said expansion.

Nicholauson also points out the present prestige lent to comics by such media outlets as Time magazine, which named Jeff Smith’s best-selling young reader favourite Bone as one of the top ten graphic novels of all time.

"There are some fantastic graphic novels out there," Nicholauson says. Other popular titles with students include Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

There has also been academic research into the subject, including a 2009 study from the University of Illinois that found children benefit as much from reading comics as other types of literature, though Nicholauson has based her initiatives on personal experience.
For her own part, she wants to grant comics further legitimacy.

"The same skills used to interpret text are used to interpret images," she says. In fact, Chomichuk observes, images in context actually make the brain process harder.

"Our entire culture has become a more visual one anyway," he concludes.

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