There's an educational revolution coming. It's called Reading with Pictures and it's going to take over a classroom near you. Reading with Pictures is both a nascent nonprofit organization that advocates the use of comics in the classroom and a 192-page benefit comics anthology featuring a host of acclaimed cartoonists creating stories about the benefits of using comics to teach just about everything.
Founded in 2009 by cartoonist Josh Elder, Reading with Pictures aims to finally remove the academic disdain traditionally attached to comic books and bring them into the classroom as a highly effective teaching tool. The RWP organization is also working with educators at Northwestern University and others around the country to create a comprehensive research program into the use of comics for teaching literacy as well as its role in teaching a variety of topics.
The Reading With Pictures Anthology vol. 1 will be published in August. It's a192 page volume ($17.99 softcover; $24.99 hardcover ) that features comics and education themed stories by more than 50 outstanding cartoonists, among them Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother), Eric Wight (Frankie Pickle), Ryan Dunlavey (Action Philosophers), Chris Giarrusso (G-Man), Jimmy Gownley (Amelia Rules) John Gallagher (Buzz Boy), Elder (Mail Order Ninja) and many others. Cover art is by the Eisner Award winning Jill Thompson with color is by Roy G. Biv.
The plan, Elder said, is to turn the anthology into a franchise. Subsequent issues of the RWP anthology will be aimed at a specific age groups and feature educational stories on different topics such as Biology and history. Each edition will also include a fully fleshed out study guide.
Elder, who serves as RWP's executive director, has personal experience of just how powerfully instructive comics can be. When he was a very young child, his mother, a school librarian, would read to him every night and occasionally read him a comic book as a treat. One night when she was unable to read a favorite comic, he noticed that he was able to use the comic's images to piece together it's narrative and figure out the story. "I could follow the story through the images. I knew the plot and using that visual context I was able to reverse engineer a lot of the words I didn't already know and within about 2 weeks I finished it myself," Elder said. Indeed, Elder emphasized that comics not only taught him how to read, but also, "to love learning in general."
RWP hopes to provide the scholastic community with the serious research and the pedagogical tools needed to use comics to offer similar experiences to their students. The anthology is just one part of RWP's goal of getting school districts around the country to see comics as an invaluable resource for getting kids interested in learning and liking to read. Because there's so little research, Elder said, teachers and school districts often believe they cannot justify introducing comics to their classrooms in a broad way. RWP plans to counter this by creating the infrastructure needed for a subject to become a reputable presence in the academy and the classroom.
Working with academic volunteers around the country, Elder said RWP plans to research the historical impact of comics on American education; construct an online database of "research papers, lesson plans" and school curriculums all focused on comics; and develop a speakers bureau to "bring cartoonists into schools and libraries." In addition there are plans to offer educational consulting to schools and to universities and create a master listing of recommended graphic novels reading lists for all ages. The research study is a partnership between RWP and a number of other academic institutions, most notably Elder's alma mater Northwestern University.
Elder is using Kickstarter, the online fundraising website powered by social networking, to raise money to publish the benefit anthology. Reading With Pictures Anthology Vol. 1 was listed on Kickstarter with a goal to raise $10,000 by May 22. The project has exceeded its goals and currently has raised more than $13,000 plus and rising. And like every Kickstarter project, it offers a variety of quirky incentives to entice people to donate—for $50 you get a RWP T-shirt; for $100, he'll turn you into a comic book character and draw you into one of the stories.
"We're shooting now for $15,000 because we're going to be able to start working on our bigger projects pretty much immediately," Elder said. "What we earn here on the front end allows us to start working immediately on our public good projects." Funds raised through Kickstarter underwrite the book's printing costs and allow RWP to carry inventory that can be sold to the school and library market. While the anthology will be available via Amazon.com and comic book stores, RWP's main goal is to sell to the educational market.
Although he learned to love comics and reading at an early age, it turns out that it was a disturbing incident in 2008 that pushed Elder to begin organizing the Reading with Pictures project. Returning to his hotel on the subway after exhibiting at the 2008 MoCCA Art Festival, an annual independent and small press comics festival in New York, Elder encountered a brawl on the subway train that was threatening and frightening a group of children. Forced to intervene to prevent the children from being hurt, he ended up tackling and restraining a deranged man before turning him over to police.
Afterwards, he said the frightened kids we're "bawling their eyes out," and no one could console them. "Nothing worked and I had a bunch of comics of mine left over from the show so I took them out and I gave them to the kids," Elder explained. "And it was like a light switch had been flicked. In a second the tears of every single one of them was gone."
"It was incredible. It was the greatest moment of my life. I knew at that point I had to see this happen over and over again. That's the moment when Reading with Pictures was really born.