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A Superpowered & Educational Interview with Dr. James Bucky Carter and Erik Evensen

A superhero duo themselves, Dr. James Bucky Carter and Erik Evensen team up to give educators Super-Powered Word Study, a textbook that uses comics to teach words and word parts to students in grades five and above.

Known for his groundbreaking text Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel, Dr. Carter is also well-known for establishing the first academic, education-focused journal about teaching comics and graphic novels in the classroom: SANE (Sequential Art Narrative in Education). Erik Evensen is the graphic novelist of Gods of Asgard, which won a Xeric Award. Gods of Asgard is picking up European publication in 2011, through Saga Publishers International. He has published and presented globally about using accessible media to teach complex information.

How do you guys know each other? And, as a result, what was the original conversation or brainstorming that ultimately led to Super-Powered Word Study?

Carter: Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, when everyone was trying to break into comics via being part of an online studio, Erik and I were, well, part of an online studio. Outcast Comics, which is still around today but in a different form than we knew it (http://www.outcaststudios.com; plug the address into the “Wabac Machine” at http://www.archive.org to view remaining links to those early columns) was a virtual studio where writers like me and artists like Erik could brainstorm, collaborate, and share work. Erik actually had an ongoing comic strip or two as part of the site, and for a while, I was the main editor for the site, writing articles, editing folks’ scripts, and even assigning and editing work for a small stable of columnists. Erik and I “met” there and collaborated on a fun little script for Rich Woodall’s Johnny Raygun. I’m not sure if Erik still has the scans, but I have a Xerox of the story. Our story was set in an alternate universe and featured lots of silly potty humor (but nothing too inappropriate) and a doppelganger character called Johnny Anomalous Hole, or Johnny A-Hole for short.

Erik and I stayed in touch through the years via e-mail and IMs. We have a lot in common in terms of our interests. I knew of his great work with Gods of Asgard and the chemistry we’ve always seemed to have. I asked him if he would be interested in being the artist for the project, for which, if memory serves, I was already beginning to organize the pitch, and he agreed, which pleased me beyond belief. It’s hard to find an artist who is smart, has interests in education, is hard working, talented, AND knows how to meet a deadline. Also add that he always seems to know exactly what to do with my scripts, and I couldn’t have asked for more. The second I knew he was onboard, I knew this project would be a success.
 
I should tell you, though, that we’ve never, ever actually met in the real world. So, when you see his great art, keep that in mind as well.
 
Evensen: I do still have those pages! I pull them out often, wishing I drew them better! Most of us on Outcast had day jobs and dabbled in comics on the side. I think we were mostly bored twentysomethings. Bucky and I were no exception, but we were also bouncing between jobs and grad school. I was a graphic designer by day, and eventually began my graduate education at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which I would later finish at Ohio State. Bucky was teaching at first, and then also went back to school. I think we both kind of dropped off the Outcast boards when our schoolwork started to overwhelm us, which was probably a good thing in the long run. I’m not sure if I’d even WANT to meet Bucky in real life. I think the “magic” might be gone! This way, I have no reason to stop imagining him slaying dragons or hunting down the Ark of the Covenant.
 
One of the most interesting features of Super-Powered Word Study is its user-friendliness: It can be used by librarians, reading coaches, parents, and teachers alike. Anyone can pick up this book and teach words and word parts. And, perhaps even more important, they can do so with comics, a format kids typically enjoy. Was this broad audience intentional?
 
Evensen: There's a pervasive idea of comics as a "lesser" literary/art form, or that it’s sort of a last resort medium when your students don't respond to the usual tricks. This stems from the belief that comics keep kids focused, because there are pictures of cartoon characters, and kids like cartoons, so if you slap a picture of Batman on there, they'll pay attention longer. It's bigger than that, though. The media used in teaching needs to be accessible to the broadest group of learners possible. The comics are not there just so kids can stay focused, but also because using a pop medium like comics, with its own rules and conventions, levels the playing field and makes everything easy to understand. That doesn't mean the information being taught should be watered down or diluted to accommodate for the medium. When done right, the mode of delivery should augment the content, not just be a fancy “candy coating.”
 
Another thing regarding the comics: Most vocabulary work out there mentions that students need multiple, high-quality interactions with a word before they can really learn it. I’ve seen numbers range from around a dozen interactions to around fifty. What few vocabulary books or articles do, however, is actually offer really engaging texts to help bolster the enrichment. The mini-comics are what we hope qualify as examples of those high-quality interactions, the quality coming partly from the fact that kids are interested in comics and actually will spend some time reading them. I’ve written them to be a little hokey, sometimes even troping certain comics conventions, but also to offer scenarios entertaining enough to hold student interest for 3–5 pages. And, if I’ve failed in that regard on any of my scripts, it’s not like a kid had to slog through 5,000 words to get some contextualization. They’re fun, they’re quick, and they’re chock full of words and context clues.
 
Carter: Yes. I’d also add that kids should be able to pick it up on their own and figure it out for self-enrichment as well. We wanted to hit readers who may be alliterate or hard to please as well as those populations who often need focused language help. For me, part of the project was also, hopefully, in some way finding a means to close the reading gap between those from backgrounds where reading and exposure to print is part of home life and those from situations where this might not be the case. I think we’ve created a product that can be beneficial to a diverse audience and used for any number of reasons, including good old-fashioned fun. Diversity was on our mind a lot and in a number of regards. We wanted a diverse cast of characters, a diversity of story types, etc.
 
Okay, here’s the pink elephant in the room question: Why did you guys decide to focus on comics as a valuable format for teaching words and word parts?
 
Carter: Comics are typically seen as a high-interest medium for kids. Historically speaking, vocabulary was one of the earliest issues to come up regarding comic strips and comic books. People were afraid the slang and vocabulary used would hinder or slow readers’ word knowledge and acquisition. Research seemed to suggest the opposite, though, or at the very least, that comics reading would not harm one’s word knowledge. That’s held firm since the late 1930s or early ‘40s. Comics often feature more high-quality word interactions than peer media materials and some have been noted for their sophisticated vocabulary use. I’m thinking of Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men particularly.
 
I knew from taking a class with Marcia Invernizzi during my doctoral work at the University of Virginia that word study could be effective with many students. Even during that class, though, I kept thinking to myself, “What if we also included more visual scaffolding?” So, for me, the kernel of this idea has been percolating for a long time, and comics was always going to be part of whatever I came up with.
 
Evensen: I think when you're teaching or learning subject matter that's kind of dry, a lot of the context gets lost amidst the details and specifics of the content. It's more effective to contextualize this information in some accessible way. When I'm teaching perspective drawing, I do it by assigning larger projects that also incorporate spatial thinking and concept development—not just by plotting out vanishing points and drawing boxes. If you aren't thinking in three dimensions, you're not going to truly "get" perspective, and the same holds true for all kinds of subject matter. You have to be able to get students to absorb the information laterally if they’re truly going to get it.
 
The supplemental DVD is another feature that readers will find user-friendly. Why did you feel it was important to include it?
 
Carter: I’d love to take all the credit for the DVD features, but TSI really put it together. Honestly, I think the book can stand on its own, and so can the DVD. Put together, though, teachers and students have even more options for tweaking aspects of instruction and activities. We really want people to feel ownership of the SPWS model. We’re constantly saying, “if you don’t like this prompt, create your own” and things like that. The DVD program facilitates differentiation and individualization. Then there’s the flash animation sprinkled throughout every mini-comic. That’s just cool. I am proud to say we ended up with a package—the book and the DVD—that is attractive, somewhat customizable in use, and affordable.
 
Evensen: Again, I feel like context is key with this stuff, but the DVD really wasn’t our idea! However, I do think it’s just another example of being exploratory with the content.
 
Another intriguing aspect of this book is its emphasis on the reading-writing connection. Students should be able to not only read words and word parts, but also write with those same words and word parts. Why was this connection important to include in Super-Powered Word Study?
 
Carter: I believe in authentic assessment and student-based texts. While I also believe that quizzes and traditional tests have their place, the best way to see if someone knows something is to see them utilizing its concepts or producing something new related to them. For vocabulary, this means asking students to use words they’ve learned, not just define them out of context or match them to definitions on the other side of the paper. The book teaches teachers a variety of ways they and students can use “clue language” or context clues to suggest they know a word’s meaning, and it asks them to do so in creative writing-based scenarios. It’s more work on the teacher’s part, since he or she has to evaluate whether the words in the stories are being used adequately and correctly, but effective assessment always is.
 
We become better readers by writing and better writers by reading. We can’t lose sight of the reading-writing connection, ever.
 
Evensen: As an English educator, Bucky can talk about this stuff far better than I can. But when I teach design or drawing, I work hard to ensure that my students “get it,” even if they can’t define what “it” is, yet. It’s far easier to put a name to an existing idea than it is to learn a name and then learn what idea it applies to.
 
Building upon the last question, in what ways do you feel as though the 15 mini-comics found in Super-Powered Word Study can be used as writing models. In other words, would either of you advocate that teachers, parents, and librarians encourage their students to write in comic format as well?
 
Carter: This is a great question, because we know that no matter what the resources are, what the research says, and who says it, there will always be those educators at all levels who simply refuse to see comics as a viable form for reading or writing. I tell people of all ages, though, if you really want to know how much work and effort and talent and thinking and composing goes into creating a comic, try writing and drawing your own. There’s no substitute for experience. Making comics is a composing process with prewriting and brainstorming and drafting and – when done well, a mix of metacognition and flow -- and editing a reworking. Every single page has its own shape, and every single panel has its own composition. Comics-making is really a study in composition on top of composition. So, to answer the question: YES!
 
It sort of goes back to my thoughts from the last question. Knowing the composition strategies that writers or comics artists use help inform my reading, and actually trying them out (writing/composing) is a means of showing what I’m attending to or what needs help.
 
Evensen: I think it is Thomas Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire who likes to discuss the validity of comics, video games, TV shows, and playacting in literacy settings. I believe his research is focused more on boys’ propensity toward spatial thinking, but the point remains that not all people think of “the narrative” as a purely prose-driven thing. Lots of people find it easier to compose a story if they can draw it out or act it out. This was true of me, and I was in AP English classes. Comics can and should be a valid medium when teaching composition.
 
At the end of the day, this is a very practitioner-friendly resource. However, the first chapter, entitled “Why teach vocabulary with comics?,” is full of theoretical reasons as to why Super-Powered Word Study is a much-needed addition to contemporary literacy research. Bucky, can you offer GNR readers a highlighting of the top two theoretical reasons for this book? And, Erik, why do you think modern students are so attracted to the comic book format?
 
Carter: I think we should clarify that not everything in the introduction is solely theory-based. There’s a lot of research associated with word study and vocabulary acquisition. There’s also a lot more out there on comics and education/literacy than many recognize. What the intro does is synthesize a lot of information from several research bases and theories. I do draw heavily on two things that might fall more under theory than research, though. Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory is important because it reminds us that we store information verbally and visually and helps us see that when we combine verbal/print and pictoral scaffolds, we learn better and remember better. Dual coding theory has its own research studies and there are other studies to suggest the benefits of integrating traditional text and “pictures.” Larry Andrews’ language exploration and awareness theory, as I read it, has as its basis the idea that learning language should be fun, authentic, and inquiry-based. It should stem not so much from curriculum or lists but from organically examining and accepting people’s natural curiosity regarding words and language. I suppose my two theories or hypotheses regarding the book are: 1. High–interest interactions with words and authentic assessment opportunities equal better vocabulary learning and teaching 2. Comics offer intrinsically high-interest opportunities for kids to see words in an engaging context.
 
Evensen: A lot has been said, researched, and speculated about comics and how people respond to them. Personally, I feel that they are kind of the descendants of oral literature, as it evolved beyond the invention of the printing press. I'll use Norse mythology as my example—the Vikings didn't write all that much, because their writing system (runes) was also said to be sorcery, so much of their cultural history was passed down orally, around the campfire, after a long day in the field or on a ship. Comics are like this in many ways. Plus, the information you can absorb in one silent panel of a comic might take pages of description in a purely prose format. Even for those of us who love reading and words are naturally drawn to that efficiency, and I don't think modern students are any exception.
 
Okay, last question: Can each of you share what future projects you have in the works that may be of interest to GNR readers?
 
Carter: I got nothing! Seriously, though, I’d love to see this book do so well that Erik and I could make sequels focusing on more affixes and roots or even create texts that would focus on some of the other developmental levels of word study. That’s what the leading folks behind word study have done with the Words Their Way series of workbooks, and I think we could do something similar with how we’ve added to that legacy. But, in terms of other projects, I have several book chapters and articles out for review and one prospectus for a co-authored book out as well. All have to do with comics scholarship or comics-and-education in one way or another. I’ll have the “Comics” entry published in next November’s Encyclopedia of Adolescence, but for me, I’m currently playing the waiting game on outstanding pieces while also trying to recharge my batteries. Not only did I publish this book with Erik this November, but another project I edited, Rationales for Teaching Graphic Novels, also debuted this November, as did a co-authored article in English Journal. I’ve had a busy end of the year, so I need to take some time to enjoy this productivity and then start thinking about new articles and projects. I like doing co-authored work and being a general editor or “project leader” for things. I’ll keep trying to establish SANE journal and see what pops up once I’m recharged for the new year. I do know one thing, though: if opportunities avail themselves for Erik and me to continue our partnership, I will always welcome them. I’d also love to visit classrooms using SPWS and maybe do some field work on how teachers use it and students respond to it.
 
Evensen: My graphic novel, Gods of Asgard, is getting picked up for international publication this spring, which I'm pretty excited about. But honestly, right now I’m more wrapping stuff up than anything. I recently finished something called Twilight of the Gods, which was a collaboration with wind band composer Andrew Boysen. We told one of the stories from Norse mythology through music and motion graphics. That is on the performance circuit right now. Other than that, I’ve been teaching and working on design projects.