Creators Corner: Opening the Doors to Comics in the Classroom
As a life-long comics fan, I’ve always tried to remove the blinders from people’s eyes and make them see the value of comics, to open the doors that prevented them from entering into this new and wonderful world. In grade school, I strong-armed my friends into taking trips to the comics store with me. In middle school, I took a brief detour and closed the doors on comics–finding yourself and accepting yourself in middle school is hard enough without having to embrace the label of “Comic Geek,” especially since most people’s frame of reference for comic fans at the time was The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy.
Eventually, in high school, I grew tired of having this secret identity and would proudly proclaim my love of comics, shoving comics into the hands of friends based on interest. A friend liked the action, intrigue and conspiracies of the Bourne books–check out 100 Bullets. A friend already liked Neil Gaiman’s prose work–check out Sandman. A friend and I connected over our shared love of the 90s X-Men cartoon series–check out this other cool X-Men thing from the 90s called Age of Apocalypse. The doors were starting to open again, but I had more than a few friends who slammed it shut in my face.
Now that I’m a high school English teacher, I still want to open the doors so more people can enjoy the great world of comics, but I have some different methods. At first, it started off as offering Maus as an alternative to another concentration camp book, Night. Then, it branched into having students use online comic creator programs like Pixton to showcase knowledge of theme in a text we read. But these only opened a few doors for the few students in my class who wanted to explore new rooms. It was time to try something else.
Three years ago, I decided that it was time to propose a graphic novel class. I’d had a taste of the engagement that comics can build in students, and I wanted more, but I wanted to see this happen every day for every student in a class. I spent a frenetic weekend poring over my district’s new course proposal requirements, filling out the documents, asking for feedback from other teachers who had proposed a class before, and then revising those documents based on their feedback. I might have been dead to the outside world, but I was creating a new world for a new classroom. Unfortunately, for various reasons having to do with district politics, all of our English department proposals were rejected, graphic novel included. I’d glimpsed some light through a crack in the door, but just when I was about to cross the threshold, the door was slammed in my face. Again.
Two years ago, I made slight changes and then sent it to be approved. But our district had changed the course proposal requirements, allowing only one department to add new classes per year, and it was again rejected, because it wasn’t our department’s turn. The door remained closed.
Finally, a year ago, they opened the door (not just to my class, but to our department’s eight other new classes). I spent that year ironing out any kinks any the course, and so that I could speak more to the creative process of making a comic, I started self-publishing my thriller comic Rebirth of the Gangster (shameless plug–it’s on sale on Amazon, and it’s like Breaking Bad meets The Wire with a shot of Shakespearean drama and debt to Othello). The year passed, I’d adjusted some of the choice texts for the class, and I’d released the first three issues of my series, and I entered my classroom doors at the beginning of September, ready to unlock student’s passion for comics.
But that didn’t pan out quite like I hoped.
Sure, there were students who had read plenty of comics (especially manga, often from students who were in the anime club I advise). And those students entered my class with the same curiosity and commitment I would’ve entered a similar class if it had existed when I went to high school. They saw something worthwhile in every comic we read, even the more abstract Understanding Comics that tripped up many other students. They poured sweat into every Behind the Scenes activity we did, even if they only cared about the writing part of the comic creating process or if they only cared about the penciling, inking, coloring, or lettering we focused on in other BTS lessons. They would often offer insights in class discussion that I hadn’t thought of, prompting other students to become more engaged in the stories we read. And when the end of the semester came, and they had to create some aspect of a 6-page comic, they worked for their own growth, not for a grade. They created something that not only earned an A; it earned my gratitude and pride. These students saw an open door and jumped through it, never looking back.
But these students only counted for about ¼ of my class. The rest of my class didn’t care about comics, and even more worrisome, didn’t care to put in work when asked. They took my class because they thought it would be an easy A. “It’d be less work, and even if I have to read, reading comics is easier” is what they all told me. Comics might have become legitimate enough to have a class all their own, but people’s perceptions weren’t changed that quickly, and comics still weren’t seen as legitimate or as deep as other media. At least they were honest.
Sometimes this didn’t matter. My students who had opened the door and started exploring every nook and cranny of these new rooms would often carry discussion, pulling some of these students in. And even when they didn’t pull other students in, talking with those students about comics–learning from them as they were learning from me–often made my day. But on those days when they didn’t carry conversations, class would drag, and it would weigh on me more than any of my other classes. I began to dread this class.
And I think my students could tell, but they didn’t change. In fact, many students got even lazier. It got to the point that one of my students lost their job, because his parents wouldn’t let him work when he was failing my class. I’ve taught for seven years, and that was a first for me. This student even admitted he only failed because he didn’t care enough about the class to try, but his behavior didn’t change. He closed the door, and even when he was standing in a hallway on fire, he refused to open it.
I got so sick of this that I had an extensive heart-to-heart with my class. I talked about how I had more Fs in that class than the rest of my classes combined. I talked about how comics were my greatest passion, but that this class’s attitude was making me dislike my greatest passion. I talked about how something similar had happened when I taught a hip hop class, and that I needed to take a break from teaching that class because of the lack of passion from my students, not because I didn’t love hip hop. And I told them that unless things changed, the same thing was going to happen here: I’d teach this course for a year and then abandon it in the same way I felt that most of my students had abandoned my jewel, the class I had worked harder on than the AP classes I teach.
I don’t know if it was this talk, or if it was just that many of my students put in a last-ditch effort to avoid an F for the semester in this class. Whatever it was, over the last two months of this class, I began to see more effort and curiosity from my students. Part of this could have to do with reading a choice graphic novel in the last part of the semester: as much as I love Kuper’s Metamorphosis, Spiegelman’s Maus, and Satrapi’s Persepolis, I definitely know that other comics would draw them into this world of panels and gutters more effectively (choice texts like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Wandering Son, Nausicaa, March, and more). Once they got their hands on a graphic novel they chose, they creaked open the door and took a few steps into this new room: not everybody, but more than I had seen up to that point.
Ultimately, by the end of the semester, I no longer dreaded teaching this class. But I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would when I’d spent the previous years and summer hammering away at a keyboard, chiseling out curriculum. It had become like any other class I taught: full of some fun heights and some frustrating lows and a whole lot of boring middle ground.
Yes, I found a way to open the door to a new generation of comics readers, but I didn’t figure out a way to have them walk through that door. But then again, isn’t that the case with any subject in school? And if many of my graphic novel students are treating my class like they do other classes, that surely should be a sign that comics are gaining that legitimacy I always wanted. As it is with any other subject, the doors are open, and it’s all on the individual if they decide to explore that room or not, if they decide to make this pit stop or continue on their path. Finally, no one will slam these doors in their face like I had them slammed in mine. And that’s a step in the right direction even if the finish line still isn’t in sight.