Comic capers

Elaine Millard looks at how popular culture informs children's creativity

During a research project on the way junior children most like to write, one group stood out from the rest. They had written a letter to accompany examples of their do-it-yourself magazines:

"Dear Elaine, "Our comic is about three mice on superhero adventures. It contains emotional scenes, fantasy, a sort of horror, funny, but not really bad violence and also lots of mystery. There are a number of posters in the comic. (Alex) "We wanted to do the comics because we all like reading comics and drawing. I want to be an animator so I did most of the drawings, no, well all of us did a fair share, but it was me who thought of doing the comic. (Vicky) "I just like to finish by saying that all of us would like to be comic makers. (Anne)" One junior teacher represented the views of many when she said: "Drawing isn't what assessment's all about. They need to write in paragraphs, get their spellings right and punctuate properly. Those are the targets they need to meet, the standards expected in writing."

And yet our small-scale project, based in six Kirklees junior classes, found that many children, particularly boys, preferred to use drawing as a way of developing their ideas. They felt restricted when teachers insisted that written work should be completed before illustration was allowed. For their part, teachers acknowledged that boys often found it hard to come up with ideas for narratives and wrote shorter pieces. When the teacher allowed it, boys also embedded more drawings or diagrams in their texts as part of the telling. Girls' pictures tended to be for illustration or decoration.

The work by Alex and twin sisters Vicki and Anne emerged during evaluation meetings in which the six teachers examined how children handled different genres, including autobiography. Instead of the usual page of text accompanied by a few simple illustrations, they had produced multi-coloured, hand-made books, illustrating key themes from fragments of autobiography. The illustrations drew heavily on imagery from popular culture, and the writing was also clearly influenced by comics, cartoons and computer games.

These three children were close friends and were involved at home in the production of their own superhero comic, which they brought into school to share with their classmates. Alex drew many of the black-and-white cartoon-like strips while the girls completed more coloured, specialist pages including competitions and readers' letters.

Their stories were characterised by vivid language applied to somewhat conventional plots in which a group of small mice battled against the destructive villainy of cats. To help with their plotting, the trio had also drawn up a detailed map of their imagined world. They were all proud to discuss their out-of-school writing and it was evident that the comics had a close relationship both to their emerging sense of self and to their projected future careers.

Extraordinary children?

The intensity of the Kirklees children's interest in writing collaboratively may seem extraordinary, but their urge to create an imaginary world employing fragments of popular culture in words and pictures brings to mind another group of West Yorkshire children. The Bront s of Haworth spent their early years at home composing stories based on contemporary popular figures, such as the explorers, Captain Edward Parry and William Ross, and soldiers such as Wellington and Napoleon. To these they added characters from fables. They also wrote stories about a group of small wooden soldiers, which they named the Young Men. They produced miniaturised editions, cutting up old envelopes and grocery bags into tiny pages, which they stitched together, using blue sugar paper for covers. These publications included illustrations of their fantastical tales set in the miniature kingdom of Gondal and Great Glass Town.

The Bront s were also in the habit of enacting their stories before committing them to paper. Just as this kind of creativity is not acknowledged in national curriculum assessments, so Charlotte, arguably the most imaginative of the Bront sisters, was assessed at age eight by her headmistress: "Reads tolerably. Writes indifferently. Ciphers a little and works neatly. Knows nothing of Grammar, Geography, History or Accomplishments... clever for her age but knows nothing systematically."

The desire that children should "know things systematically" now informs the teaching of writing in school, prompting some to confine the writing curriculum to closely defined targets and testable competencies. This militates against many children's deep-rooted disposition towards the getting and making of meaning through different combinations of image and text.

The Kirklees teachers have begun to identify what children bring of themselves to the writing process and to incorporate opportunities to work in different ways, by including drama and graphic representation into the planning and composition of both imaginative and factual work. For example, one pupil drew cartoons to record the reproductive cycle of plants, another to demonstrate the perceived oppression of being kept outside on cold days. Their teacher acknowledged that it was important for children to create ideas in modes which hold significance for their peers as well as for those who teach or assess them.

Alex, Vicky and Anne had powerful reasons for developing graphic formats in their work. Just like the Bront s before them, they drew on a shared private world of play to establish distinctive writing identities. However, these interests are not unique. Other children in the classes surveyed shared an absorption in alternative forms of expression. Luckily for this trio, their teacher was sensitive to each pupil's semiotic preferences, styles of communication and individual pleasures and worked to create a transfer of creative interests from home to school, and also to deepen their understanding of the cultural possibilities afforded by their preferred modes of expression.

Dr Elaine Millard is part of the Popular Culture and Literacy Research Group, the School of Education, Sheffield University. E-mail: e.millard@sheffield.ac.uk

Teaching points

Allow talk in the classroom that is based on children's cultural interests and lets them draw on personal knowledge.

Be aware of the range of children's interests and their related home literacy practice.

Create opportunities for work in school that allows children to develop multi-modal texts and to use their own individual interests.

Encourage children to write and illustrate for one another and to become critically aware of the range of achievements in the class.

Draw children's attention to the interconnections between popular and more traditional texts. For example, examine the way in which computer games draw on quest novels, pick out the similarities between Scrooge and the Grinch, consider the reversal of traditional stories in Shrek.

Use popular culture as a starting point for debate - does text messaging damage your spelling? Should Pokemon (or the latest fad) be banned from school?

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