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The following activity is from Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, by Stephen Cary.

Missing Panels

Materials: comic strips

Description: Students replace missing comics panels with their own creations.

Topics and Strategies:

  • narrative cohesion and coherence
  • "alone but together" format
  • periodic, short writing minilessons
  • transferring learning to other curriculum areas

Background
Good stories make sense. Seasoned writers know that making sense depends on cohesion and coherence. Each sentence in a story must logically link to the next (cohesion) and ultimately, all sentences must add up to a meaningful whole (coherence). Emerging and inexperienced writers may be unaware of the need for both elements. Other would-be writers may understand the need for cohesion and coherence, but not have the skills -- or the language -- to ensure their presence in a narrative. Constructing a good story is a formidable task in your first language; in your second, it's especially daunting.

Process
In this activity, students work with comic strips that are missing one or more panels. The comic might be a four-panel Cathy with the second frame deleted, or several consecutive days of Spider-Man or Tarzan strips with Wednesday's installment missing. Students must create replacement frames for the deleted items so that once the "holes" are filled, the comic makes sense within panels, from panel to panel, and as a unified whole.

During panel construction, students consider a number of items related to cohesion-coherence, including

  • topic continuity (subject matter flow)
  • character continuity (trait maintenance)
  • joke template (setup, elaboration, punch line)
  • pragmatics (socioculturally appropriate forms)
  • tense forms (throw versus threw versus will throw)
  • temporal conjunctions (before, after, when)
  • temporal adverbials (now, two weeks ago, someday)
  • collocations (baggy pants, versus big pants)
  • lexical chains (shoppingmallstore)
  • antecedent-referent clarity (Lola ate the appleShe ate it.)

Beyond the boost to vocabulary and structure acquisition, the activity helps students learn what goes into a comprehensible and compelling narrative. As they create replacement panels, students must attend to what comes before and what comes after in order to make sure what comes now in a strip -- their panel -- makes sense. After construction, students share their panels with the class and compare and contrast their work with the strips' published originals.

A few hints for increasing the learning mileage in Missing Panels:

  1. Try an "alone but together" format. Though I generally ask for individual work in this activity, with each student drawing and writing his or her own replacement panels, I always seat students in pairs or small groups. The "alone but together" format increases interaction and therefore the chance to use L2, while also providing built-in helpers. Students do "meaning checks" on each other's work during panel construction. When a panel doesn't make sense, the checker identifies the problem spot (Where the girl says "those"), tells why it's a problem (I don't know if "those" means "cats" or "shoes"), and if needed, suggests a repair (The girl can use the word "cats" again).
  2. Offer periodic, short minilessons on difficult items. Asking students to focus on an element of pragmatics, for example, whether a character's use of colloquialisms is appropriate for a given context, may be futile if students are unfamiliar with the range of colloquialisms and their use in various American settings. Mastering the use of colloquialisms, pronoun referents, subject-verb agreement, joke elaborations, or any number of other cohesion-coherence elements takes time -- and some help from the teacher.

I do most of my minilessons with this activity on an informal basis, as I make the rounds from group to group. I might hit a dozen or so different grammatical or lexical issues within a forty-to-sixty-minute session, but work on only a couple items with any one student or group. I give examples of dialogue and description that make (and break) panel cohesion or strip unity, occasionally draw and write model panels, and usually pose the "Does this make sense?" question a thousand times a session. At least it feels like a thousand!

When I find an item giving most students a problem, I'll do a minilesson at the overhead for the entire class using student- and teacher-drawn comic samples. Character continuity is a good example of an item that's frequently troublesome throughout the grades. Students will "break character" in their panels, suddenly having someone speak in a manner that contradicts established traits, like having the king in Wizard of Id make affectionate, love-filled comments about his subjects, or the mom in Baby Blues declare she loves temper tantrums.

In the minilesson on character continuity, I show two or three comic protagonists "staying in character" across several strips. The students and I discuss the character's personality traits, interests, and concerns and examine the language the authors use to establish and maintain Garfield's gluttony, The Fusco Brothers' "loser" reputations, or Cathy's obsession with weight loss.

  • Transfer the learning to other writing. The cohesion-coherence making skills students develop in Missing Panels can be applied to and then reinforced and expanded in other genres of writing, for example, in journal entries, business letters, biographies, or social studies essays. Application of those skills, however, is not always automatic. Some students may believe that the sense-making conventions they learn in a comics activity are for comics only, unaware that many of the same elements that go into a Eudora Welty story or a Gabriel Garca Marquez novel also go into an Alley Oop, Momma, or For Better or For Worse strip. Students often need the teacher to pointedly suggest the transfer of skills, as in:
    Remember when we looked at formal and informal language in our comics and talked about when it's smart to use one or the other? Use what you learned in the comics as you write your letters to the City Council about the new park plan.

    --From Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, by Stephen Cary. 2004 Stephen Cary. Reprinted with permission from Heinemann, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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