The new school year starts in a few days. A new company here in Buffalo, New York is doing something unique by using Art and History to help alleviate some critical problems in our schools. The company is called "Learn Well Graphics". The Director of the Museum of European Art, B. John Zavrel interviewed its Project Director, Richard Keaton.
Zavrel: Mr. Keaton, can you give us a quick overview of what it is that "Learn Well Graphics" is doing?
Keaton: We at "Learn Well Graphics" create multimedia programs--CDs and booklets--designed to help students read better and learn faster. What makes our programs so different is that we take a different approach to learning: we use drawings, music, sound effects, and animated voices to make reading, and learning of required History subjects, easier. Learning does not need to be difficult and tiresome work.
Zavrel: I have watched your CD on "The Causes of the American Revolution", and the accompanying CD and booklet. It is a very impressive and captivating approach to teaching and learning. But before we get into that, can you tell us WHY you think there is a need for using Art to teach History and Reading?
Keaton: There is a huge problem in many schools across the United States. In many school districts up to 75% of the students are NOT reading at the required grade level. If students can't read properly they will have difficulty in all subjects. Test scores fall. Frustration sets in. Many give up on learning. Drop-out rates rise. It's a very serious situation. Ask any teacher.
Then there is the issue of recent immigrants who may functionally speak English as a second language, but can't read or write English. We all know that if you can't read at a decent level, your options in life become limited.
Zavrel: That's true. But how and why does Art fit into the solution?
Keaton: We have to acknowledge that children learn in different ways. Giving all students a textbook and expecting them to "learn" from it--even when a teacher sits with them and helps them read the words on the pages as is often done--does not always work.
Textbooks are terribly intimidating to a lot of learners. Words and sentences on a page are meant to convey thoughts and images. But many such struggling children see only a bunch of black symbols on white paper. Maybe they recognize a few words, but putting them together into a complete thought is difficult for them. Again, this is a very frustrating situation.
Our goal at "Learn Well Graphics" is to make reading and learning user-friendly.
Zavrel: And just HOW do you go about it?
Keaton: We all know the saying that "A picture is worth a thousand words." Well, we take required subject material from textbooks--topics like the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, etc.--and transform the pages of text into an exciting interactive graphic story. We use drawings in conjunction with words to help convey the meaning into an easily understandable concept for the reader.
Zavrel: You mentioned the term "making learning user-friendly". Can you elaborate a little on how the Arts help in that respect?
Keaton: Learning from a textbook is one-dimensional. It is the de-coding of words. And if you don't have the necessary reading skills, you are in trouble. We use the term "Art" in a general sense, to make learning user-friendly by providing the learner with a combination of visual, auditory, and interactive tools. That helps make reading easier by stimulating the different senses.
Students are naturally attracted to drawings. They enjoy music. They like sound effects. They pay attention to animated character voices. Many are comfortable with using a computer. And most of all, they like a good story. Harry Potter showed us that kids will line up outside a store at night for books,if you give them something they want and understand. The "Learn Well Program" combines all of these factors into a visual and audio learning product, designed to really help teachers and their students get results quickly. Simply put--"user friendly" means that we make learning easier by giving the student more ways to learn.
Zavrel: Can you describe the kind of Art you use to promote the learning of History?
Keaton: We use detailed drawings to tell an interesting Historical story. We employ the same basic techniques--that comic books have used for 100 years--to get kids to read voluntarily. You don't have to force a kid to read Spiderman. Young readers like and are comfortable with the comic book type format, because it is easy to understand. The reader can see what is happening while reading, and then attach the words to a concept.
But the key is that the drawings must be interesting. If they are not, you lose your audience. Creating an interesting visual story really is "an art." That's why publishers of comic books hire very talented artists. We are fortunate to have on our team the Buffalo artist David Digby, to create our drawings. He has a great eye for historical detail and for creating truly captivating "action" scenes.
Zavrel: But are comic book drawings really effective as teaching tools?
Keaton: I have to admit that I'm always hesitant to use the word "comic book" in describing the "Learn Well Program". Even though "comic book" is a concept everyone readily understands, it tends to diminish the powerful impact that these drawings have. And while we do create an accompanying Lesson Booklet that resembles a comic book, the Program as a whole is much more than just a comic book version of the Textbook.
We put the graphic scenes on an interactive CD and add voices, sound effects, music, and interactive learning exercises. It is really a complete learning package, which is based on graphics.
Zavrel: But is this really EFFECTIVE in the classroom?
Keaton: Yes, these drawings are even more effective than a textbook, when it comes to teaching. I'll give you a good example:
Many 13-year old students reading a textbook about the start of the Revolutionary War at Lexington have absolutely no idea what a Minuteman, or 18th Century British soldier looked like.
With the "Learn Well Program", the student sees the dozens of Minutemen in their drab farmers' clothes, facing the hundreds of British soldiers in attack formations, wearing their bright red and white uniforms, and carrying their shining bayonets.
He sees the two sides battling on the village green. There's smoke everywhere from muskets, rifles, and cannon. Men are falling. He sees the emotion on their faces. On the CD version, the student also hears the battle taking place, as he reads along with the story.
These techniques are incredibly powerful learning tools, because they create a memorable image that textbooks cannot provide. The student is also building up a valuable foundation for future learning. There is no question that Graphic Art helps make the learning of the required materials easier.
That's how we use Art to help students read better and learn History
Zavrel: What if a student is not required to learn about The American Revolution, for example, in his present school grade? Can the Program still help him?
Keaton: Yes. There is one very important thing to mention here. The Learn Well Program is designed to develop Reading and Learning Skills while teaching required subject material at the same time. But, even if the particular History Lesson is not a required subject for a given student, he can still benefit greatly from the valuable reading and learning exercises the Program provides. Learning History and developing Reading Skills go hand in hand in this Program.
Zavrel: I can see how this makes learning History more interesting. You are adding several dimensions to the story, and presenting it in way that young people are more comfortable with.
Keaton: Ask a typical 12-year old what he or she thinks about History, and they will probably say "History is boring." I'm sure that many people will strongly disagree with that opinion. And they would probably join me in arguing, "What could be more interesting than History?" But, unfortunately, many History textbooks are boring.
To many kids, "History" means having to stare at pages of dates, and names, and memorizing events for a test; and this information is soon forgotten. They have no real interest in reading or learning what History is about, because they often don't truly understand it, or how it relates to them today. This is largely due to the fact that the format in which it is presented, doesn't appeal to them very much.
We want to change this by presenting History as an exciting and understandable story. We do this by combining art and sound with contemporary storytelling techniques, in order to make an interactive visual story that captivates the student's interest.
Zavrel: It sounds like a very interesting approach to a serious problem. How are you promoting this to schools?
Keaton: We are a new company, and we are currently offering the "Learn Well Programs" on our website www.learnwellgraphics.com
I encourage everyone to visit us. And hopefully, they will send more teachers and educators to take a look at our site.
There, they will get a much more detailed explanation of how and why these exciting products will greatly help many of our children read better, and learn faster. And you can also see on the website a Sample Video of this unique concept in teaching and learning.
But we have an uphill battle in promoting our concept to many schools, because it is so radically different from what is currently being used. Even in the face of the critical situation in American schools, educators are reluctant to try something new. Our goal is to provide an effective alternative way to help students read better, and learn faster. We are confident that this program will become widely accepted in the future, once both teachers and students have become aware of the fantastic benefits it can provide.
Zavrel: Are these programs expensive?
Keaton: We have put together several different Classroom Packages that will be affordable for all budgets. We are firm believers that everyone should be able to participate in learning.
Zavrel: Thank you for sharing your interesting project with us, and we wish success in your efforts to help children in our schools learn better and faster.
© PROMETHEUS 110/2006
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 110, AUGUST 2006