Hello! My name is Richard Jaggers, and I am currently a Master’s student in teaching. After I gave my lightning talk, Expanding Literacy in the Classroom: Integrating Graphic Medicine in Primary and Secondary School Environments, at the Graphic Medicine Conference 2019 in Brighton, I was asked about writing a blog post for this site.
Plenty of people have talked about integrating graphic medicine into academic environments before, but the majority of these discussions focus on medical schools and universities. I want to be even more aggressive, bringing graphic medicine into schools at all levels, even down to elementary.
The understanding of literacy has undergone an evolution in the field of education. Literacy is no longer understood to be merely the ability to read and write. Literacy is now considered specific to content. Historical literacy, for example, includes the ability to evaluate bias and consider the motivations and circumstances of an author’s writing. In addition, there are also literacies not associated with a specific content area: digital literacy, information literacy, and financial literacy are major examples. However, another form of “life literacy” that is very near and dear to the graphic medicine community has received very little attention in education: health literacy! Graphic medicine could be the tool to add health literacy to the list of life literacies taught in our schools.
An obvious question looms: Why is health literacy not taught in our schools? Many people have suggested that it is because this is the province of families, but I don’t think that really explains it. After all, the same argument could be made of all of the life literacies; why is health literacy the only one singled out in this way? My personal suspicion is that it has to do with the fact that health literacy could be seen as a gateway drug to one of the great boogeymen of American education: sex education. After all, sex ed is really a facet of health literacy, and few things have caused more strife in education than the role and scope of sex ed.
Considering what a viper’s nest health literacy seems to have tripped into, how can graphic medicine help? It is my contention that the very dismissal of comics and graphic novels that so bothers those trying to get graphic medicine taken seriously could be a vital tool in this fight. Because comics are seen as less serious, they have the potential of being dismissed as non-threatening by those who might otherwise oppose any sort of health literacy education. What’s more, this same dismissal can make comics seem subversive to the students, which is all the encouragement some students need to love them.
To those who argue that health literacy should be the province of families, not schools, I would counter that the same is true of other life literacies, and yet we teach them. Just as we offer free and reduced lunch to ensure students are not missing meals, we should be offering all life literacies to make sure students are getting them. Better they be taught them twice, at school and at home, than not at all. Ensuring our students are receiving health information is especially important considering that in American high schools and even middle schools, the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising at a frightening rate. In the face of such health concerns, it is unconscionable to not provide students with information that could help them understand these challenges and educate them on how to get help.
The use of comics and their increased visual information is also of added value for English Language Learners (ELLs), which are a growing segment of the American student population. With less emphasis on dense blocks of text, comics are easier for them to parse. These students are also at a higher risk for not receiving these life literacies at home, since ELLs are correlated with lower socioeconomic status, which in turn tends to mean more working parents who simply do not have time to teach these literacies in addition to the work they do just to keep food on the table.
Graphic medicine has enormous potential in academic environments, and that is not limited to university and graduate programs. Health literacy is a vital skill for every member of society, and introducing it at a young age will increase the likelihood that it sticks for students. Graphic medicine belongs in our schools.