Leaving the Comics Classroom
A few weeks ago I ended my career in teaching. For the last nine years, I’ve taught high school English. For the last three, I taught a graphic novel class I’d created. In both contexts, I’d had times of triumph and feelings of frustration. Ultimately the frustrations won out and I decided to switch careers. Truthfully, the last couple of years of teaching I wanted out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I was looking for a career that also felt like a calling. Eventually, I decided that I needed a job that was better than teaching. Already I have my own calling with my writing.
While I have many reflections on teaching in general, I’m not going to cover them here. That would take a whole book. Instead, I’m going to focus on what’s more relevant to this site, my reflections on teaching graphic novels to teens. It’s something I’ve done previously (here and here). I’ve had some great success in the class. Some crushing failures. And, a whole lot of approaches that–like a lot of teaching curriculum–were okay. It pushed students to produce good work that they weren’t generally passionate about. They did well for their abilities.
The biggest success carried across all years teaching this class. Most students didn’t take the class because they were passionate about comics. In fact, most students taking the class hadn’t read comics recreationally at all, unless we count their time reading the Sunday comics. And, even then, most had only done that a few times. Most of these students came into the class thinking that comics weren’t for them. Partly because they equated superheroes with comics. They just took the class because it sounded easier than the other English elective options they had to choose from.
This attitude was a source of one of my frustrations. Ultimately, it also paved the way for one of the biggest successes. At the end of each semester, every student became more open to comics. Every student saw that superheroes were a genre within the medium and that to equate comics with superheroes was foolish. Even more rewarding, almost every student ended up liking comics. Not everyone we read but comics in general. Almost every student said they preferred reading comics to traditional texts. If my aim was to convert students and help them love comics (and that was part of it, of course), I was certainly more successful at that than helping students love reading books in my other classes.
While they liked reading comics in general, they didn’t always like the comics that I thought were great. Years of teaching traditional books had prepared me in part for that. I was still somewhat shocked that many students didn’t appreciate Maus, one of our whole-class reads. Even more surprising and frustrating, though, was that sometimes students didn’t like a book club graphic novel they’d picked. Granted, they picked it out of a narrow choice of 15 or so graphic novels.
I would’ve thought more students would have liked Blankets or Watchmen, especially since they were texts that needed parent/guardian approval and had the time of edgy material I thought teens would like. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this was when students didn’t even choose to read some graphic novels that are truly great: Linda Medley’s fantastic Castle Waiting only had one student read it in all three years, the other copies lying lonely on the bookshelf; Jessica Abel’s illuminating Out on the Wire also only had one student read it in that same time, making me think less of my students and regret having the school purchase these texts. At the end of the day, though, those two students like them, and most students liked their other selections, so I take heart in that.
When I envisioned this course, I pictured students who wanted to analyze comics on a granular level. Students who spouted comics jargon from academic perspectives like Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Writing Words and Drawing Pictures. What was I thinking? Students didn’t like using academic language to analyze traditional texts, wanting to stick to their own dialect in crafting responses. And that’s if they were even willing to read and discuss those texts!
Each year of teaching the comics class, I realized this trend held true for discussing comics. I liked thinking and talking about comics with Eisner’s thoughts about framing, McCloud’s panel transition types, and Abel and Madden’s thoughts on pacing. Students generally couldn’t care less whether it was a Moment-to-Moment or Action-to-Action panel. They only cared about if they liked the comic and if it connected with them on a personal level. It took a while for me to let go of my initial utopian vision of this class. Eventually, I started using less of these readings.
I still thought it was important to study some essential concepts. The panel transitions and panel types from McCloud were important to learn. Even if we didn’t use that language most of the time. There were some concepts that got too granular. I decided I could only make students read half of Understanding Comics instead of the whole thing. Eisner and Abel became options. The best creative analysis came from engaging in the process itself rather than abstractly discussing it to death. When we had to discuss graphic novels and the process–students would have better analysis of the creative process by discussing it with graphic novels they liked, with stories that resonated with them.
Seeing these trends, this past year I shifted the order and curriculum of the class, leading to yet another success. Before, we’d start with reading the original version of Metamorphosis and then Peter Kuper’s version to compare and contrast. While the aim of that unit worked–to show students how graphic novels differed from novels and other traditional texts, it never hooked students.
These were consistently students’ least favorite texts. Kafka’s original was definitely disliked much more than the graphic novel version, if only because it was denser and took longer to read. Still seeing some value in studying these two texts, I moved them to the last unit. It was a unit that focused on adaptations (prose to comics, movies to comics, etc…) and decided to only read excerpts from the two, so that we gained the knowledge from our study without losing engagement (too much, at least). This was also a good move since it aligned with our study of Persepolis. It was a study that had involved comparing and contrasting the graphic novel with the movie adaptation in a Socratic Seminar.
With that move made, the beginning of the year opened up: I decided to open it up to complete choice, giving students options from my classroom library (full of about 75 or more graphic novels) along with the school library. Students were more engaged in their texts than I’d ever seen, in that class or any other. They might not have liked to do activities, about their comics (because, after all, it’s work and most teens don’t like work–plus, analyzing texts isn’t something most people like to do, something that often kills the joy of reading in students and adults alike).
Part of this unit also entailed reading conferences, one-on-one discussions with me about their graphic novels. This is where I truly saw the passion in students for what they were reading, and the most ownership over thinking about their graphic novels. For those in the know, for those who know education theory and edu-babble, I had essentially implemented a Reader’s Workshop approach at the end of the year, something that largely worked (although, I’ll admit, I dropped conferencing after awhile, due to it taking too much time).
The Reader’s Workshop model is also often paired with the Writer’s Workshop model (something I did in my other classes where we read traditional texts and did more writing), but I knew I needed a different structure for the graphic novel class. I needed to create a Cartoonist’s Workshop, to focus on developing students’ abilities to create comics in traditional and digital ways.
Now, I’d already done this to some degree. In the first two years, I’d had a running series of Behind the Scenes days where we went into a Mac Lab to explore different aspects of creating comics in Adobe Illustrator (after we’d spent a few days in the room thinking about creating plot and writing scripts). The idea was that students would have brainstormed a plot, written a page of its script, and then built off that story and concept in Adobe Illustrator as we learned to pencil, ink, color, and letter. I always gave students the option to start a new story, since that’s sometimes the creative process, but the students who did the best work often followed their initial idea through the whole semester.
Part of what made this approach different than the Cartoonist’s Workshop, though, is that we practiced these skills less in general, and we practiced these skills mainly in digital formats instead of letting students go old-school with pencil, pen, and paper. Another difference was simply in its timing and my own comic-creating knowledge. The first year, I’d only released a few issues of Rebirth of the Gangster, so my knowledge of some aspects of Adobe Illustrator and comic-creation was limited. As a result, I linked to a lot of video tutorials and websites to supplement students in their activities, giving them many resources to choose from, but this freedom became a double-edged sword.
Students that were passionate about the process chose the best, yet most thorough and time-consuming resources, and produced the best final projects-at the end of the semester (a six- page comic about anything, something that also gave students the freedom to fly high or crawl). And these projects were better than the ones my last year when I used the Cartoonist’s Workshop approach. But other students wanted more guidance, or lacked the passion to utilize the best resources, and they produced some of the worst projects I’d seen in my whole time teaching the class.
The more I created comics, though, and the more I helped students problem solve their own digital comics, the better creator I became, one of the best (and most selfish) successes of teaching this class. Truly, if this class had been good for nothing else, I would appreciate teaching it because it made me evaluate my creative process, refining it even more because I wasn’t just thinking about creating comics after class ended.
Becoming a better creator was the biggest step in preparing me for switching to the Cartoonist’s Workshop in my final year. It was an approach that led to better overall products from the average student if less spectacular ones by outliers. The shorter ceiling was probably because of the shift in the requirements for the last project. Not because I became a worse teacher for those few passionate student creators. Instead of giving students complete freedom to create any six-page comic, I had them create a six-page comic adapting anything. It could be a scene from a TV show, a movie, a song, a chapter, a whole fairy tale. They had a foundation to build off of instead of coming up with their own ideas.
Most students created better comics. They could focus on style, pacing, and other aesthetics since the content was already made for them. However, since the content wasn’t their own, that did stem some students’ creativity and passion; instead of applying solid craft to a personal vision of their own, they only had the craft.
Raising the floor of my students’ creative abilities was due in part because I was a better creator. But (humility aside), it probably had more to do with the fact that I had students keep a Cartoonist’s section in their notebooks. That lead to a lot more old-school comics. Students got more practice in creating comics and became engaged in the class since they were now creating more and discussing reading less. Most students might not have had a personal vision for the final project this year. But they had mastered more of their craft. That lead to a better comic from most students. On some level, this paralleled my journey in this course. I had lost my passion for teaching (teaching in general, and teaching comics to some degree). I had gained a stronger foundation of knowledge and a higher level of craft.
When I closed the door on my comics classroom the last time a few weeks ago, I walked to the staff parking lot with mixed emotions. I would miss the passion from the few students who wanted to create at a high level. I’d miss the evolution of students’ perception of, and enjoyment of, comics. I would miss the ability to refine my own creative process. But I wouldn’t miss the disengaged student taking the class for an easy D. The ones who just wanted to pass and graduate high school; I wouldn’t miss the students casting shade on some of my favorite reads; and I wouldn’t miss having to murder my darlings, to spend less and less time on the analytical texts.
The control freak in me also despaired that the class wouldn’t end with me; another teacher would pick up the reins and steer future students down this trail. In some ways, I felt like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby must’ve felt. We had done our work-for-hire, but now we had to see our creations move on in the hands of others. At the same time, I’m excited for the teacher who’s taking on the course and for the students who will be graced with his different vision. After all, in work-for-hire scenarios and creations, the creator isn’t always the best fit for every audience member. Some might glorify the Lee/Kirby years of the Fantastic Four; some might prefer John Byrne’s; Hickman’s run might resonate with others.
Ultimately, any great creation will have its ups and downs and will be received differently by different people. That’s the way life goes, and its only fitting that that’s the way a comics classroom rolls too.
CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher. He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website: cjstandalproductions.com.