The Anatomy of a #Rhizo15 ‘Close Read’ Comic

wicked close reading

Allow me a brief detour here …. as some of you may know, I like to make comics as a way to zero in on blog posts and tweets in online learning adventures that I am part of. It began with the Making Learning Connected MOOC, then extended into Connected Courses, and now is part of my routine with Rhizomatic Learning. My aim is to find the anchor or kernel of idea that intrigues me, and extend it out in a visual way with a comic.

My hope is that the writers of the material don’t get offended, and I try very hard to make sure the satire or humor is not directed at the writers themselves. But humor and satire are definitely part of my intention, as is the hope that I might, in my own way, open up the doors to the power of comics as a medium of expression and to inject a little levity into some very serious pedagogical discussions.

Plus, I find it fun.

So, I thought I might walk through the process of how I found a typical post, what I discovered as I read, and how the comic itself eventually came together. I’ll use Will Richardson as my example, if only because I have followed Will for years, read and been inspired by his books, and suspect he won’t mind if I reference his blog post that led to a comic. (Thanks, Will, in advance).

Rhizo comics

Will entered the Rhizo15 stream a few weeks in, which is fine and “right on time” but that can be disorientating to the late-comer, I think, as you try to figure out, what the heck are they talking about? What can I contribute? Where is this thing going? Will’s post — entitled Learning with #Rhizo15 — was thoughtful, as usual, and centered on the difficulty of finding your footing in a “course” like Rhizomatic Learning, where there is no set curriculum map, no established center space, no direction on your learning other than what you bring to the table for yourself.

I was really intrigued by his list of things that can make an open learning experience “hard.”

Will writes:

  • It’s hard because no one’s telling me what to read or when to read it.
  • It’s hard because there’s no one text, no central collection place for ALL the associated thinking with the course.
  • It’s hard because I worry about what I’m missing.
  • It’s hard because there are no due dates.
  • It’s hard because I don’t know if I’m doing it “right.”
  • It’s hard because despite the fact that I’ve been learning online informally for almost 15 years, I still have a lot of “old school” baggage built in when I hear the “course.” (By the way, if you want a lesson in how long it takes to unlearn old habits, watch this.)

That line about “old school baggage” resonated with me and I decided that was the line that I would use to represent this idea of our expectations of a learning experience clashing with an open educational space, and how our brain seeks to make sense of something new even as the old framework creates a certain sort of tension.

So, this is the line I took from Will (and added a word — word — for context):

I still have a lot of “old school” baggage built in when I hear the (word) “course.”

I use different comic platforms at different times, but I was on my iPad and so turned to my favorite comic app called Comics Head, which gives a lot of flexibility for creating comics. I also use a site called Stripgenerator on the computer, or Bitstrips, sometimes, too. I’ve also been know to pull up Dave’s Rage Maker Comics from time to time. I guess I am all over the place, but each gives a different feel and different compositional possibilities.

With Will’s words in hand, I started to consider what the comic would look like and what I wanted to say. You see, my aim with comics is to add some of my own perspective — to riff off the original writer, where the comic is the comment.

I thought that a background of a traditional college would make sense, with someone (a stand-in for Will, but really a stand-in for all of us) at the front door, wondering where the classroom is and referencing Professor Dave. (Hint: there is no classroom, and Dave Cormier is the facilitator but he lets things go their own way). Will’s quote is plastered up on the wall, like graffiti or something. (Hide the paint can, Will). I actually struggled with where to put the text, from a design standpoint, because the background is a bit too busy. The wall seemed ripe for defacing, so to speak.

I struggled with how to represent the open quality of #Rhizo15 in contrast to the university. At first, I had student faces in the windows, heckling the visitor, like those old guys from the Muppets. I didn’t like that, though, as it felt a bit mean. I don’t want to be mean-spirited here.

Then, I thought: what if the gathering of the Rhizomatic Learning Swarm (ie, those working together in the community, with the “swarm” term coming from folks like Keith Hamon) is outside the frame of view itself, and the text boxes are calling the visitor to avoid the building altogether? We don’t ever “see” the #Rhizo15 learners .. which is mostly true, anyway. We are defined by our writing and our media in social media spaces.

I then realized that a cool juxtaposition would be the element of an elementary school — the playfulness of a playground, and the metaphor of a sandbox, and the open invitation to come join in the fun and exploration. I like that dichotomy of the friendly invitation to play and explore and the rather imposing image of the school building.  The final touch was the labeling of the building as “Typical University” to indicate how untypical the Rhizomatic Learning experience is (but should not be).

Here are a few more comics from the weekend:

Rhizo cimics

Rhizo cimics

Peace (under the hood),

PS — This comic/close read anatomy exercise is inspired by the YouShow project a few months ago, when Alan Levine and others were pushing folks to make their process and thinking more visible.

Comics as Comments

I have a hard time resisting the urge to add some levity in serious discussions, so along with the rich intellectual reflections underway in the Rhizomatic Learning community, I’ve been making comics.

They are not frivolous works or writing, I would argue, but instead, they (hopefully) bring another angle and lens to discussions. You can make a point with comics that sometimes eludes us in writing.

Sometimes, I like to grab a tweet or post from someone and rework it into a comic. Other times, I like to make my own statement. I like to think that adding a playful element from time to time opens up the floor to more people to join in, although I suspect there might be some folks who are “all in” on the serious side and sort of wish the threads remained centered on the philosophical and pedagogical underpinning of rhizomatic learning.


This comic is a reaction to Tania and our RhizoRadio Play. It’s a commentary on how writing in online spaces can lead to unusual things, even a friendly text-hacking of a play that becomes a global collaboration. You just never know.


A few new folks entered the Rhizomatic Learning fold this week, including my friend, Nancy, and even one of my favorite educational thinkers, Will Richardson, and they were wondering where to begin. The boat metaphor showed up in the stream of discussions.

Build a Rhizo Boat

One new person wrote a tweet about “bumping” into the #rhizo15 hashtag, which I found to be funny.

Rhizo comics

Autumm wrote a tweet about this dream of walking the beach with Rhizomatic Learning facilitator Dave. I don’t know if it a was a real dream, or if she was just having some creative fun. But I had this vision of a bunch of #rhizo15 folks building sand castles while Dave and his wife are on vacation.

Rhizo comics

And with the focus on “content” this week and with a post by Susan in mind, about administering the PARCC, I came up with this perspective of students in classrooms where a panicky teacher starts to cram information into their heads ahead of these tests. (Am I guilty? I am.)


Peace (in the share),

Slice of Life: It’s Not the End of the World (and I Feel Fine)

(This is a Slice of Life post, in which we share out the events of the day. It has through March and but also is open for words and slices every Tuesday throughout the year, and it is facilitated by the folks atTwo Writing Teachers. You write, too, if not today, then how about next Tuesday?)

Slice of Life Writing Block

Here’s a comic I never had to use during this month of daily Slice of Life writing. I had even another comic sitting on my iPad, a Seinfeldian comic about writing nothing … just in case that day came and I had nothing to write about.

But you know, I always found something to write about, and so did dozens of other educators and writers participating in the Slice of Life. I had no interest in the various prizes for commenting and posting, but if it kept folks involved, I’m OK with that. For me, the gift was that of connections, and writing.

In a final nod to Slice of Life 2015, I went around yesterday morning and did some more of my “line lifting” — stealing lines from blog posts and then constructing short poems around them, as comments to the original bloggers. My aim, as always, was to honor the writing through some literary theft.

You can read all of the poems I made yesterday morning here.

Line Lifting Slice of Life

You know, each March, I think … maybe not this year. Maybe I won’t take part in Slice of Life. Then, I do, and I can’t even remember why I was thinking of bailing out on it. There’s something in the collective power of teachers writing, sharing and connecting … expressing the good and the bad and the serious and the funny and the moments of our lives that reverberate across time and space. The writing exposes the human nature of who we are, and so many posts move us beyond our role of teachers.

If you were a Slicer, or if you came here to comment at all, I thank you from the deep parts of my heart. If I never got to your blog to comment, I am sorry. I’m an early bird writer, so the blogs listed at Two Writing Teachers before school got my attention. Morning is my quiet writing time.

Remember: We’ve still got Tuesdays. See you on the Interwebz.

Peace (in the month gone by),


Slice of Life: Not Another Trophy

(This is Slice of Life, where we write about the small moments. The month-long writing activities are facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

TrophiesThe coach means well. Yesterday, at my son’s last youth basketball game of the season, the coach of the team pulled the parents aside, explaining that he was sorry they had not won a game all season and that he knew some of the kids were frustrated. He talked about the hard work and drills he taught them. I don’t think he needs to apologize — it’s youth basketball, after all, and he did teach them new skills — and I think losing at a young age is not the worst thing in the world.

Then he went on to say that he was organizing a pizza gathering and he had bought participation trophies for everyone. He asked us, does anyone have an issue with that? I wanted to raise my hand. I wanted to shake my head. I wanted the trophy train to stop.

These kinds of good-hearted gestures by coaches seem like they have value on the surface — honoring the commitment of young players — but I don’t think getting a trophy just for coming to games on Saturdays really has much value. Instead, what we found with our older kids is that it does the nearly exact opposite: trophies have little value when you have a shelf of participation awards. It’s that old supply/demand concept.

We’re finding the same syndrome at our school. Our sixth graders leave our school to head to the regional middle school, and you would think they were graduating high school or college with the special events that go on. We’ve tried to tone it done over time, but the pull of parents is hard to hold back. So, the yearbook becomes this glossy affair and our Recognition Night is nearly a formal event.

I wanted to say, save your money, coach, we’re good. But he had already ordered the trophies and no other parent seemed even remotely the same way as I did. I could tell. So, I didn’t say a word. It turns out the day of the pizza gathering is a day our family is overbooked anyway, so maybe the trophy will gather dust in someone else’s house. I didn’t mention the trophy concept to my son and he didn’t ask. He’s more focused on baseball now.

Peace (in the award not really an award),


Here We Go … Starting Up Slice of Life

sol15 icon

It’s March. For me and my blog (hello, old friend), that means dipping back into the Slice of Life Challenge, where each and every day throughout the month, a whole bunch of folks aim to write a bit, share a bit, and connect a bit.  (On Twitter, we use the #sol15 hashtag, just so you know.)

The whole shebang (love that word) is coordinated by the folks at Two Writing Teachers (more than two now, but hey … who’s counting heads?). I do try to do things different each year (this may be my seventh or eighth year of Slice of Life), so I am considering making myself a little calendar for different types of media for Slice of Life. I guess I should have put that into place before the challenge actually began but …. here I am, writing my first slice.

And making a comic …. one or two of my days will be comics.

sol15 comic

What’s your slice? Come join the Slice of Life Challenge. Even if you don’t write every day in March, get writing. Connect.

Peace (in the slice),

How Not to Explain the Internet (in Comic Form)

The other day, my friend Ian O’Byrne referenced this great piece by Doug Belshaw about how to explain the Web to kids. Ian is now inviting a bunch of people to think about how to do this, to extend out Doug’s piece. I thought I would try my hand at comics, and quickly found I didn’t know how to put my explanation into simple, understandable language.


Words like “nodes” and “data packets” and “graphic interface” — those won’t work on younger kids. And it occurred to me that while Doug was referencing the “Web,” I was referencing the “Internet” and while connected, these are slightly different concepts. Unfortunately, I only thought that thought right now as I am writing these words. I think of the Internet as that invisible stream of information shared among many computers while the Web is how we interact with that information.


Anyhow, here are my attempts to explain the Internet. The three comics are from three different apps on my iPad: Make Beliefs (free), and then Rosie Comics and Comics Head (free version available). I don’t really think you can learn what the Internet is from my comics, but if it makes you chuckle, then I have done my job.

Explaining the Internet (sort of)

Explaining the Internet (sort of)

Explaining the Internet (sort of)

How would you explain the Internet/Web to a child?

Peace (in the think),

Two Makes I Can’t Quite Explain

I don’t know why I went off on these tangents, but I made two strange things yesterday in a burst. The first was inspired by Audrey Watters’ post that looked at the history of “teaching machines” and included some drawings from the patent office archives. I put one into my comic app and added a little commentary.

Patented ed

The second was a terms of service that Alan Levine shared out, for a “fake name generator” and its legalese really called for parody. I went in the underwear direction with a XRay Goggles remix.

Frack Name Generator

What did you make yesterday?

Peace (because),

Graphic Novel Review: The Sculptor

I know it early in 2015, but is it too early to call The Sculptor by Scott McCloud my “book of the year”? I was sent an early review copy of McCloud’s novel by First Second Publishing, and it has not just blown me away. It’s story and imagery has stayed with me, lingering for the last few weeks in my mind. I’m almost ready to dive right back in and read it again, and if you know me, you know I rarely re-read books.

While the story has familar echoes — you sell your soul to the ferryman for some artistic element or edge in your life that you have long desired and never attained (think Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, or even Charlie Daniels Band’s Devil Went Down to Georgia) — the way that McCloud uses the graphic novel format and visual storytelling brings The Sculptor to a new level.

McCloud is very famous for his groundbreaking work about deconstructing comics and graphic novels as unique and innovative storytelling platforms, and sharing his knowledge with the world. His Understand Comics is a must-read for anyone interested in the storytelling possibilities of graphic arts.

For The Sculptor, it seems like he aimed to pull out all the stops, with whole sequences of art that will floor you, even as he weaves the story of his protagonist, David Smith, who literally gives up his life for his art, and gains the power to sculpt any material with his own hands.

And then, David finds love in the days before his time runs out (by the way, here, the Devil is not the nasty dude you might imagine him to be), and he races to create the great Art Project of his life before it is too late. I won’t give the story away, but the narrative power of writing and illustration packs a real emotional punch. The way McCloud uses the comic medium to bring the reader into the story is inspiring.


Note: this book is not for younger readers, and with some scenes of nudity and adult themes, it may not be suitable for even high school students. You should read it first before bringing it into your classroom. I hope some university class eventually uses it as a literature text, however. It’s that good, in my opinion.

Peace (in the story),