ED Interview: Reading with Pictures' Josh Elder on Kickstarting a graphic textbook
When Education Dive spoke with Josh Elder, the founder of Reading with Pictures, last week, his non-profit's new Graphic Textbook Kickstarter campaign had already passed the $50,000 mark on its way to a $65,000 goal. Less than a week later, the project has also passed $60,000 and looks poised to obtain full funding within the next few days.
Elder loves comics, and his goal is to share that love with educators and students across the country as Reading with Pictures works toward developing classroom resources that get students engaged and communicate lessons in easy-to-understand formats.
Reading with Pictures already produced one book using Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding site. When Elder spoke with us over the phone from Burbank, Calif., he sounded more than optimistic that a second would be on its way soon. We asked him about he wants to change in the textbook industry, as well as why he believes in comics and how Kickstarter provided Reading with Pictures with a special opportunity.
INDUSTRY DIVE: Josh, what's your take on traditional textbooks at Reading with Pictures, and what makes The Graphic Textbook unique?
JOSHUA ELDER: I think traditional textbooks are very much designed to win the approval of state education boards and administrators and teachers—and they aren't exactly designed with an end user, i.e, the students, in mind. So there are a lot of ways that the content can be made more appealing—and therefore more effective.
At Reading with Pictures we think that we can appeal to that end user—that student—in a very powerful way while it's still fulfilling all the obligations and needs that a textbook has to do. And that's what we're trying to do in The Graphic Textbook.
It's aligned to Common Core standards just like any other textbook would be. It has a number of Ph.Ds working on the educational aspects, designing the lesson plans and the curriculum, just like any traditional textbook. But the on the creative side, the format and the presentation are designed very much with end users as students in mind.
ID: What are you hoping the benefits of this graphic approach to the content will be?
ELDER: The hope that we have—and the belief that we have—is that the format itself is fundamentally more engaging, more efficient and more effective at conveying information than prose beside illustrations.
We plan to test everything that we do. We know we're making bold claims about the comics medium and how effective it can be as an educational tool. And that's why this project is tied to a major impact study overseen by the Learning Science Department at Northwestern University. So we are not asking anyone to take this on faith; we want to test it, and we're willing to take the risk that we're wrong. But we know we're not.
ID: You said there were Ph.Ds working on the curriculum. What kinds of material do you plan on covering in this one volume?
ELDER: This first iteration is kind of a pilot. This book covers four different subjects. It has short pieces that are designed to be individual lessons to be taught typically over one or two days at grades 3-6, so the Common Core standards overlap.
We're covering language arts, math, science and social studies, and there's a number of different individual comics that are covered within those broader areas—things like George Washington, the Articles of Confederation and why they moved from the Articles to the Constitution. Topics like probability and statistics, and we teach that using a Pokémon-style monster battle. It's all about finding the odds and winning the game using that. The core concepts have to be taught. We just putting them in a different context creatively.
ID: So who is your ideal customer going to be?
ELDER: The ideal purchaser for this probably a late elementary teacher who is a generalist—I mean they have students in multiple subjects and they teach multiple subjects, so then they can spread this around. They can use it to teach their students all throughout the day in a number of different topics.
ID: What is your larger goal after seeing The Graphic Textbook succeed?
ELDER: If we can pull this off, and if the research says what we think it will, and if the market responds as we hope it will, the plan is to turn The Graphic Textbook into an entire line of educational comics that are targeted at specific age ranges and subjects. So if you want to teach math in the sixth grade, we would have a graphic textbook for that, and it would cover all of the stuff you needed to learn in the sixth grade.
There would be special units. We'll replace entire giant textbooks that have hundreds of lessons in them. Not at first—right now, this is a series of individual lessons where you can pick and choose what you use and how you deploy them. But we'll be building up to full-on individual units, and the plan is to move into replacing the traditional textbook itself.
ID: Have you, in showing this concept off, talked to many teachers? What kinds of reactions have you seen?
ELDER: It's been really terrific. The book itself exists because of input from teachers. We put the first book [Reading with Pictures] out as a fund-raiser. We thought it could be useful. We wanted to be sure that the comics themselves could be used to teach things, and teachers responded to it in a big way.
The came back to us to say, "We love this, but we really wish you had an extensive teacher's guide with lesson plans and general best practice tips."
So we were like, "Sure, that sounds reasonable."
And they said, "We really need the stories themselves to be aligned to the Common Core standards, because otherwise we can't actually use them in the classroom. They can be supplementary—they can be like after-class reading, but we can't actually deploy them as textbook materials.
So said, "OK, we can do that too."
And then they said, "What would really be great is if this was tied to some sort of research that helped prove that this was viable, because that would help us justify their use to the administrators."
So we said, "Yeah, OK, we can probably do that too." That's where the Northwestern study part comes in.
ID: It sounds like you have integrated a lot of feedback.
ELDER: Absolutely. Reading with Pictures as an organization is a very practically-minded group. We want to create practical resources for educators, for academics, for cartoonists. Our goal is to empower individuals and institutions to do more with this content, and The Graphic Textbook is a very practical item.
It's designed to be dropped into a classroom to be used, to be tested, and its effectiveness to be studied so that we know how it works and how to make it better next time.
ID: And what has your experience been like using Kickstarter to fund the creation of a textbook?
ELDER: Reading with Pictures really owes its existence to Kickstarter because we did our first major fundraiser to get the first book published in 2010, and it was a huge success for us. It was actually the most successful Kickstarter comic project in the site's history at the time. And that provided the seed money for the entire organization.
So everything that Reading with Pictures is and has become is really owed to what we did with the first Reading with Pictures anthology through Kickstarter.
Much of what we do at Reading with Pictures is about finding these people across the country that are doing great stuff but not talking to each other. A lot of what we do at Reading with Pictures is building bridges between them to create a space where they can come share information, share stories and share resources.
So crowd funding—going back to Kickstarter—really hits in with our ethos of who we are and how we approach things.
And on a practical level—we're very practically minded here—we had talked to a number of publishers, and number of publishers had come to us that were very interested in what we were doing with The Graphic Textbook and the people we had involved. But there were two kind of significant sticking points that we just felt very strongly about. The first was that the publishers wanted to own all of the intellectual property that was produced in the books. The didn't just want reprint rights; they didn't just want control over the book itself. They also wanted to own the stories that our contributors created and the intellectual property that they had made, which was honestly just a non-starter for a lot of our creative staff, and honestly for me too.
ID: Well, let me also ask you about the project's status. I see that as of the time of this interview you have already eclipsed the $50,000 mark. How optimistic are you that you're going to hit your goal in the coming days?
ELDER: We feel really good about it. What really helped was we had this sort of second booster-rocket stage last week, which was when a lot of the creators and contributors stepped in to pledge portions of their advances back into the book itself—either by buying copies of the book that they'll resell later or other awards. Basically, now everyone is invested in the book. They're not just contributors or employees; they're all invested.
It was an amazing thing to see that happen. We're all invested now, and that's gotten us within striking distance of the goal. And that's been bringing people out of the woodwork.