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Bubbling With Thought

TC Education Technology Specialist Judith Cramer has introduced faculty and students to Comic Life and other (cheap) technologies
She’s pursued degrees at Yale, Cornell and Parsons, but this past summer, when Judith Cramer was given the chance to take some professional development courses on TC’s dime, she headed off for “cartoon college” in Vermont.

“I wanted to work on my storytelling skills with Comic Life,” says Cramer, Educational Technology Specialist, referring to the increasingly ubiquitous software program that lets users create comics from digital images. “My boss, [TC Vice Provost] Bill Baldwin, agreed that this would be a good use of my time, so I got The Center for Cartoon Studies’ permission to attend, even though I would be the only person there using digital photos instead of drawings.”
Cramer’s job at TC is to help individual faculty members integrate digital technology into their teaching and research. Her work over the past decade has brought her into contact with faculty from five TC departments, and has also included collaboration with members of the Library staff and colleagues from Academic Computing (ACS). She teaches workshops for the latter group on software programs she has brought to the College, including Comic Life, which, she says, “meets my test for good educational software—it costs less than $100, you can learn it in 15 minutes, and it delivers a lot of bang for the buck. Of course,” she quickly adds, “you need an imaginative teacher to get the bang.”
Getting serious-minded academics to use these tools is sometimes a hard sell, but Cramer’s M.O. is to meet potential clients very much on their own turf.
“I’m always mindful of content,” she says. “I take an interest in people’s research and try to make them see that technology isn’t just some bauble or required vocational training, like driver’s ed, but instead something with serious potential for scholarship that can help them realize their aims.”
Among TC faculty, Cramer has worked with Marjorie Siegel in Curriculum & Teaching to help literacy students design templates for digital storytelling with young children; with Social Studies students in Margaret Crocco’s course on women’s history to create graphic novels based on oral histories; and with Bill Gaudelli’s history and geography students to create graphic novels from images they researched on the Web. Cheryl Panzo and Alisa Poppen, two students in Cramer’s “We Media” course, developed Comic Life projects for teaching about the Holocaust and the hunt for DNA. They will present this work to California teachers at the CUE conference in April.
Cramer also brought her magic to bear on TC’s award-winning curriculum project “Teaching The Levees”, about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. In a section of the curriculum that deals with media literacy, Cramer collaborated with Ari Rubin, an M.A. candidate in Teaching of English who was then her graduate assistant, to create a digital comic about George W. Bush speaking in New OrleansJackson Square after the storm. That has given the curriculum’s more than 30,000 users an example of a photojournalism project keyed to a specific scene from Spike Lee’s documentary, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, for which the “Teaching The Levees” was written as a companion piece (see “Katrina’s commentaries,” available for download at www.teachingthelevees.org/?page_id=54). Rubin, now on the English faculty at Bronx High School of Science in New York City, conducted a lab on digital comics for Cramer’s students in July. He demonstrated the way Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, used panel designs to reinforce his work’s meanings. “It was fantastic,” Cramer enthuses. “Ari taught them how to create a really ominous page about the Iranian political protests by adapting Spiegelman’s layout ideas.”
Cramer also developed projects for “Teaching The Levees” using the free photo-sharing Web site Flickr.com, a resource she has introduced at TC as a tool to hone students’ visual literacy skills before they try a digital comic or graphic novel. “I started teaching with Flickr after I learned that there were almost 13,000 images tagged ‘Katrina’ posted to the site by the end of 2005, just three months after the storm. I was simply astounded by this fact. These weren’t pictures taken by professional journalists dispatched to the scene by AP or CNN; they were images captured by ordinary citizens—maybe people who had gone there to help, or who were survivors—with cell phones, or digital cameras. Working on our section of The Levees curriculum, my team and I discovered that Spike Lee used some of these images in an especially haunting part of his film. We based a media literacy lesson on this fact, focusing on the differences between photo essays and photo montages in order to call attention to questions of historical stewardship and advocacy.”
Cramer now uses Flickr with students in a variety of ways and has even led workshops designed around Flickr at conferences, most recently with TC alumnus David Boxer and faculty member Howie Budin in Toronto. She finds Flickr’s interactive Post-it notes, which can help young learners analyze elements in an image, particularly useful; also, its user-generated tags, which not only link members with common interests, but also allow anyone to use the Flickr site for visual research.
Last summer, Crocco and Gaudelli asked Cramer to create a mini-workshop centered on Flickr and Comic Life for teachers enrolled in their new “Vietnam Now” course, which centers on the documentary of the American war in Vietnam that aired on WGHB public television in the 1980s.
“I chose remembrance as the theme because I thought it would be a way to concretize the Vietnam War for students too young to know about it,” Cramer says. “If they could go out in their communities and take pictures of a memorial to the Vietnam War for a photo essay, or interview someone who had participated in the War for a comic about that experience, then it might become real.” Cramer found ‘pools,’ or thematic groups, in Flickr on the memorials to every U.S. war, including Vietnam. “Vietnam Now” students worked in class with a set of 50 images taken by Flickr members who had visited various Vietnam War memorials across the United States.
The Flickr tool Cramer recommends most highly is “Tell a Story in 5 Frames,” a pool in which members post a maximum of five images to tell a story without text. Only a written title is allowed. Once the images are posted, other pool members comment on the stories. “To me, this is just a fabulous resource for teaching students how to select and sequence images in the interest of narrative,” says Cramer, who worked as a publishing art director a few incarnations back. But, she warns, “this exercise is harder than it looks. Even our grad students have trouble with it”—except for those, such as Art Education majors, with previous visual training, or who simply are inspired by the task. (One such: Brian Frederickson, a student in Crocco’s “Women of the World” course. His essay, “Fashion over Function,” won plaudits from TC classmates and Flickr members alike. See www.flickr.com/groups/visualstory/discuss/72157606080910709/).
Cramer suggests that teachers use ‘Tell a Story in 5 Frames’ first, having young students do peer editing, for example, and then move on to digital comics. “After all,” she says, “comics, whether photographed or drawn, have very complicated texts.” She pauses to point upward. “If you visualize those text balloons, you can see that it’s not just what’s said, but also what’s thought—and then there’s what Spike Lee calls ‘voice of God’, or omniscient narrator remarks, which appear as rectangular boxes at the tops of panels in comics. These can be used to indicate changes in time and space. Comics invite you to take liberties with ‘space-time,’ which is no doubt part of their attraction for kids.”
And for serious academics, as well.

Published Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010


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