How Making Pixton Comics Enhances Learning

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While visiting various visual learning workshops last month at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo, I heard several educators mention Pixton, a dynamic and intuitive Web-based comic-building platform.

The brainchild of comic book fan and self-taught computer engineer Clive Goodinson, Pixton makes it easy and fun to create intricate cartoon panels. “From fully posable characters to dynamic panels, props, and speech bubbles, every aspect of a comic can be controlled in an intuitive click-n-drag motion,” the company’s Web site reads. Having recently tried Pixton, I can attest to the veracity of that promise.

The educational uses of Pixton are too numerous to fathom, and on that front, I reached out to Goodinson for some of his insight. “In language arts, students might read a Shakespearean play as part of their curriculum,” Goodinson tells me. “They have to recreate, or paraphrase, or summarize a scene, or an act, or maybe even an entire play, in the form of a comic. Pixton opens this form of expression to a broader range of people, people who either don’t have the inclination or the time to draw, yet theycan create visual narratives with expressive characters.”

As a high school freshman, I remember producing a few drawings to demonstrate my understanding and interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I did the best I could, but my “art work” paled in comparison to that of my more gifted classmates. I didn’t have the innate skillset, but that didn’t stop me from spending hours on end, trying (almost always in vain) to produce something that could at least pass for acceptable.

Goodinson offers another example of how Pixton enhances the learning process: “If [the students]  can create a comic that explains something that they’ve learned, let’s say, the process of photosynthesis, then that demonstrates to the teacher that they have understood it,” he tells me. “Combining pictures and words usually is a more intuitive way for anyone to communicate than writing it out strictly in text.”

I adore how Pixton allows students to really hone their writing, and to improve upon their craft in a more relaxed, non-threatening way. Users can narrate stories using an array of speech bubbles, and I can also think of few better ways to help kids learn concision. After all, it’s difficult to fit much text into a bubble, and students must really focus on diction and economic sentence structure. All of that translates beautifully to when they tackle more traditional writing assignments.

Pixton is used by students in all grade levels, but Goodinson tells me that it’s most popular around the middle school years. I’m glad to hear that even college students enjoy the platform, which allows and encourages sharing of quality content.

I should also note that for school use, the platform is extremely affordable. You can purchase monthly or yearly subscriptions, the cost of which depends on how many students are enrolled. You can check out the price calculator yourself, but for a two-month subscription for 50 students, the school would pay $42.

Goodinson reminds me of my recent chat with Prof. James “Bucky” Carter, author of Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels. I asked Carter about one activity he writes about, where students create and share their own comics. “That particular lesson is geared towards helping students see whether their writing is vivid enough, whether it’s descriptive enough, whether they have actually written something that when someone tries to visualize it, it looks like what they saw in their mind,” he says.

I also think of Josh Elder, who, in 2009, founded Reading With Pictures, a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of comics to promote literacy and improve educational outcomes.  “The biggest challenge is getting [students] to pay attention in the first place, getting them to give a damn,” said Elder, who also writes titles for Detective Comics, including Scribblenauts Unmasked, The Batman Strikes! and Adventures of Superman. “Comics are a way to do that. That’s the hardest fight you have to face as a teacher. Getting them to actually understand the material once they’re actually paying attention to you and listening, it’s not as hard as getting them to pay attention in the first place.”

Elder’s remarks ring equally true when teachers encourage students to create comic books, not just read them, and when those teachers take delight in seeing youth take pride and ownership of the learning.

“With Pixton, I’ve really tried to make it a powerful tool that does a lot of things,” Goodinson says. “Yet, the basic way that you interact with it is as intuitive as possible. For most people, especially students, the learning curve is quick. They can start being productive very quickly.”

I’m eager to have my history students use Pixton next year as they work on their writing and analytical skills.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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