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BLOG: How can Manga help kids learn? [The Parent Diaries]

Part 1 of a 3-part series from the Blog of Hope Katz Gibbs
The Parent Diaries: How to help your child succeed in school — without going insane
April 9, 2008

At a Starbucks coffee shop in suburban Washington, DC educator Peter Noonan — Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Fairfax County Public Schools — recently sat down with world-renown author Dan Pink to talk about the future of public education.

Although Pink quickly admits he is not an educator, his previous books, “A Whole New Mind,” and “Free Agent Nation,” have struck a chord with the education community.

“We are interested in learning what Dan has to say because he seems to have a good understanding about what makes people tick,” Noonan explains. “Since our sole mission as educators is to help children realize their potential, his insight is very appealing.”

Noonan said he was particularly interested in Pink’s latest book, a graphic novel written in a popular Japanese graphic novel style manga, entitled “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.”

Their conversation started with that topic.

In the coming weeks, be on the lookout for the rest of this series: Part 2 — “Seeing the world through 20 / 20 Vision,” and Part 3 — “How we can / should keep moving forward.”

Peter Noonan: For those who aren’t familiar with manga graphic novels, can you tell us what that is, why you wrote it, and what do you think of the future of manga?

Dan Pink: Manga is an increasingly popular genre in the United States. You can go to any Borders bookstore and the manga / graphic novel section is larger than any other section in the shop. But most of it is fiction, and it’s for teens and kids. What we don’t have a lot of here is a non-fiction manga for adults—and I thought that was a missed opportunity.

I also think the career book genre is thread bear. The reigning champion is What color is you Parachute, and bless it’s heart, when you open up the pages you can smell the must coming out of it. I saw a real opportunity to give readers something new and interesting that marries those two genres—especially young readers who are going online for their news and data. I wanted to give them strategic information in a smart compelling new format that goes down easy and provides a lot of value.

So my book is a 160-page illustrated Japanese-style manga graphic novel that is similar to a comic book. It tells a good story in a limited number of pages, and mostly with illustrations, which mean it, can be read and absorbed quickly. The project was really fun to do. I am definitely using muscles I haven’t used before.

[FYI: Riverhead Trade is the publisher that did my other books [A Whole New Mind, and Free Agent Nation]. The illustrator is Rob Ten Pas, a winner of the Tokyopop Rising Stars of Manga competition—which is like American idol for American Manga artists.]

Peter Noonan: Can you see any applications for manga to be used in education?

Dan Pink: Manga can be used in a whole array of ways, but for education specifically you already are seeing companies like Kaplan Inc. come out with a series of books. Titles like “Warcraft: Dragon Hunt,” use words like sanctimonious and exculpate to help kids ramp up for the verbal parts of the STAS and other standardized tests.

There are also manga books of Shakespeare’s plays that use Japanese illustrations and actual Shakespeare language. These are not the dumbed-down Cliff Notes, but are more like a theatrical production. A British publisher is coming out with Romeo and Juliet in manga form to retell the story if two rival families in Tokyo. Also, the World Bank is using manga-style publications for some of its instruction manuals.

But what was interesting to me was that very few people over 30 have any idea what is going on with this. Yet among people under 30, manga is huge. So it might be very valuable for a school district like yours, because it is easy for the reader to relate to. The characters are written specifically so they have a universal appeal. For instance, the main character in my book is Johnny Bunko—which is a play on a Japanese term of art for small comic books called bunko bon.

Johnny’s sidekicks are named Carlos and Yuko, and I chose those names because they could come from just about anywhere. There are also some characters that are black skinned—but I never make it clear if they are African American or not. They could be Asian. That’s part of the power of manga, and that would appeal to students in a school district like Fairfax County that has so many different cultures.

In my opinion, all you need to do is unleash the graphic novels for them to read as an example. Then give the kids a program like Manga Life (a computer design program), and have them create their own stories. I bet they’ll come up incredible things.

Peter Noonan: That brings up an interesting point, for at FCPS we are looking into the best ways to teach our students a foreign language, and to expose them to foreign cultures.

It isn’t always easy to figure out what is best, and I’ll give you an example of a situation that happened a few months ago. I had a meeting with the Administer of Education from Taiwan who was encouraging us to not teach the new popular Chinese characters used in business, but to teach our American students the traditional versions of the Chinese characters.

His reason was that the old, highly complex version tells a story, has a deeper cultural meaning and cultural significance than the newer characters that are used in sort “corporate” China. His concern is that this newfangled version of the language is eroding the historic culture of China.

In fact, we’re teaching the business version / simplified Chinese to be more in line with what is going on in the business world of China. I’m wondering if the older Japanese community is looking at manga and saying these popular books are eroding the beautiful traditional written culture.

Dan Pink: Not really, because manga is a young medium. It came about in the aftermath of World War II when most of Japan was very devastated. I lived in Japan for a while, and didn’t realize it until I spent some time talking to the Japanese who lived through the war just how bad off the country was in 1946 and 1947. The people literally had nothing. Many of the cities were reduced to rubble. There was no TV, and most people were dirt poor. So manga became the perfect medium for people who don’t have any money, because all it takes to create an entertaining story is a piece of paper and pencil.

Manga has its roots in wood block printing—an ancient form of Japanese art. A few people in Tokyo who lived this one particular apartment building started drawing stuff in what is now manga style, and their new art form ended up becoming the epicenter of the entire pop culture industry in Japan. In the last 50 years, an entire industry has grown out of it, including anime, television programs, and games.

The reason it is catching on internationally is that cultures, in general, are becoming visual. Thanks to the Internet, everything we experience is constantly streaming, fast paced, and accessible. And although no one has ever verified it, it seems to me that the length of these graphic novels was devised so that people could read them between stops on Tokyo subway. In fact, when you go to a subway you see that all the newsstands are piled with manga novels.

Peter Noonan: One thing we talk about all the time in education is how best to meet the needs of kids who are having the hardest time learning. We focus on how to differentiate instruction from classroom to classroom, and it sounds to me that incorporating manga into the curriculum might be a great way to begin; it’s like the ultimate differentiating of instruction whether it’s for adults or for kids. So, if we were to take this idea or this notion of manga and look at it through the lens of public education, how do you convince strata of adults that this is a good approach?

Dan Pink: Yeah, I can definitely see how that would be a hard sell because critics would probably start using the phrase “dumbing it down,” and worry that the language in it isn’t rich enough. And there’s some truth to that. So you have to show that its being done elsewhere, like at the World Bank, with Shakespeare’s plays and to help teach kids SAT words.

Although I’m not an educator, I think that one of the interesting aspects of using this art form would be unleashing kids to write their own manga novels, rather than saying “hey, we’re all going to read manga.” The thing is that foremost it has to be a good story or it’ll loses the reader’s attention—so they have to do it well.

There’s one very popular series in Japan is the history of Buddha told in a graphic novel. It’s fantastic, a masterwork. But it’s a narrative. Now there are other kinds of stuff that’s instructional manga, such as a popular guide to time management. And I think school-age kids would do some extraordinary things because they are thinking visually about the world. Using manga as a teaching tool also levels the playing field in some ways. Those who don’t have great verbal skills, but have something to say, now have a new way to get their thoughts across.

Check back soon for Part 2 of their conversation: “Seeing the world through 20 / 20 Vision.”


More 2008 Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.