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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Comics in the Classroom Revisited: Looking on the Sunnier Side of Teaching Graphic Novels

*Note–Last semester, I wrote a piece reflecting on my experience teaching a graphic novel class, which you can read here.  This piece returns to that topic but updates it with the experiences of a new semester and group of students.  Further note: all of the artwork shown in this post is from my students this semester.*

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This semester, like last semester–when my students have been working on creating their own comics or in groups analyzing the comics we read in class–anytime I asked if students needed any help, I’ve been met with a wall of silence.  Unlike last semester, though, this wall of silence was built for a different reason: whereas last semester my students were being stubbornly silent because they didn’t want to engage in any of the work, this semester my students are so into their work that they don’t respond.  But make no mistake–my students this semester will ask questions and engage in deep discussion, just on their own terms and pace.  And for this reason, this semester of teaching comics has been a night and day difference from my experience last semester.

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Last semester, I had only about five students who were passionate about comics and were often restrained in those passions by the rest of the class, students who didn’t care about effort, let alone comics.  This semester, most of my students are passionate about comics in some way (even if they don’t like Persepolis or Kuper’s adaptation of Metamorphosis), and maybe more importantly, have an intellectual curiosity that sparks genuine discussion.

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Questions that would meet with a half-hearted sentence last semester, give birth to an authentic discussion that often pushed other questions from the agenda, simply because we wouldn’t have enough time to get to all of them.  When I brought in a student teacher who was born and grew up in Iran to speak to the class about her experience and add insight to our reading of Satrapi’s memoir, my class’s eyes and ears were all glued to her.  They didn’t ask many questions, but the ones they did ask were thoughtful and genuine.

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This semester, my students have jumped into not just one choice book (like my students last semester did) but two.  And not only that, but their discussions and presentations for this choice book have been more detailed and clearly passionate.  I even had one student who checked out all Nausicaa graphic novels within one week (even though only the first was required for a choice book).  To a lesser degree, this happened with my other copies of Wandering Son and Bone.  And showing that this passion doesn’t restrict itself to my graphic novel class, I have a student who is reading Nimona for a book talk in my AP Language and Composition class, plus Dan Slott’s She Hulk for the second choice book in my graphic novel class.

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But what has impressed me the most has been the effort my students have put into making their own comics.  They each have different levels of quality on the product, some drawing in more detail than others and creating work that “looks” better,  but every student has bought into the process and created some great storytelling, despite differences in their ability to “draw well”.  And they’ve created work of such variety: ranging from a heartbreaking look at bullying to a light-hearted story of a crab stowing away on a  plane and getting lost as a result–I haven’t read the next part of his adventure, finding home, but I’m sure it’s just as engaging as the first one was and just as engaging as the student creating a dystopian society where everyone is literally connected to an online network.  

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Just as impressive, the variety my students have brought to their stories has also transferred to a variety of storytelling devices not seen from my first semester students.  Instead of coloring a whole piece, I have some students selectively coloring parts of their page to emphasize certain details or moods, almost like Spielberg did in Schindler’s List.  Without showing Fables to any of my students, I have had a student create Buckingham-like borders on each side of the page, a move that might not show more of the story but definitely creates a stronger tone and aesthetic experience.  And examples like this are just the tip of the creative iceberg floating in my class this semester.

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This creative experimentation is something that has also freed me up to experiment with my own comic, Rebirth of the Gangster.  Although I was always pushing myself creatively, as you can see in my first piece about creating the comic, I’ve recently started experimenting with less linear layouts, making my comic feel less like storyboards and more like a, well, like a comic.  While I’m sure some of this evolution in my own process is something that happens naturally, I’m also sure that a big part of it has been watching the many different processes and products my students have shown me this semester.  Just like the ideal classroom, I’m learning as much from my students as they are from me.  And even though I’ve been pretty pessimistic about my class last semester, one of my strong students from last semester (who I also learned a lot from)  is returning next year for an independent study with me.  I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from working with a student one-on-one, especially since I have some new approaches revealed by my students this semester.

In short, my gloomy summary and prediction of teaching graphic novels last semester has faded to a bright and sunny outlook this semester.  Some of this might be attributed to better teaching on my part (I did cut out some parts of the class that didn’t work last semester and streamline others that did but went on for too long) but to be honest, most of this change is a result of the change in students and better mix of individuals to create a strong classroom community.  But that’s teaching in a nutshell for you.  Even though classes always have their ups and downs across semesters and different groupings of students, I hope to keep this high point (and maybe even scale to new heights) next year.  What can I say?  I love the view–I just hope it stays this way for a long time.  

Denver Comic Con and co-founder Charlie LaGreca Mediation Concludes

DCC 2014 Logo HiResAfter lots of mediation, it looks like the battle between Comic Book Classroom, the nonprofit parent of the Denver Comic Con, and one of its co-founders Chalie LaGreca has reached a conclusion, though details of the agreement reached are being held under wraps.

A statement was released on the Comic Book Classroom website:

Comic Book Classroom (CBC) and Charlie LaGreca are pleased to announce we have successfully completed our mediation. Together we discussed the challenges in growing a successful nonprofit and have come to an agreement about how to move the organization forward with the vision of the original founders, including Charlie LaGreca. Both parties are satisfied and have mutually agreed to keep the mediation details confidential, but rest assured that CBC reaffirms its commitment to supporting artists, to the power of comic books in engaging students in the classroom, and bringing Denver the world-class comic convention it deserves.

Mediation had been going on since February after a meltdown that accused Comic Book Classroom of falling short of its goals and vision, after LaGreca was ousted from the organization.

CBC_Logo_250_137We looked into the available reports, from back in 2012, to see if the claims had merit. We’re still awaiting to see the 2013 filings for the organization, and will go through them when they’re released. We were contacted by the non-profit and convention over Twitter and were promised a simple response to our investigation, a response that has yet to come.

Some education programs have been announced by the non-profit/convention, but details have been scarce.

Though exact details and statements are scared LaGreca said to the Denver Post:

I’m happy with the outcome and our reaffirmation towards comic books, artists, and kids. I believe great things are coming and I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at the Con!

The Denver Comic Con returns to the Denver Convention Center June 13-15.

Denver Comic Con at War. The Details and the Facts.

DCC-infographic2A war has exploded over the Denver Comic Con with accusations flying back and forth. Co-founders Charlie La Greca and Frank Romero are no longer associated with the show after they say they’ve been ousted by the board of directors. Denver Comic Con is associated with The Comic Book Classroom, a non-profit engaging with children and educating them about the comic book form.

A website, SaveDenverComicCon.com, has been set up and makes the following claims as summed up by Bleeding Cool:

  • Not seeing any educational events conducted by Comic Book Classroom since last year’s convention, which he called “very unhealthy.”
  • “Allegedly up to $300,000 in revenues from the 2013 DCC alone, that remain unaccounted for, and some of which appear to be funneled towards high profile legal posturing.”
  • All mentions of Romero — who resigned from the DCC board — and La Greca appearing to have been removed from the Comic Book Classroom and DCC websites, despite being both organizations’ sole co-founders. “It is one thing to feel as though founders are being forced out from an organization, it’s another to perhaps claim ownership and rewrite history.”
  • The way various people associated with the DCC, who helped found and build it, have apparently been treated and dismissed. “These are not ‘growing pains.’ These are seemingly questionable steps by the Board of Directors, leaps away from the core values of CBC and DCC,” La Greca said.

The Comic Book Classroom/Denver Comic Con responded to accusations in a release to Bleeding Cool:

Comic Book Classroom (CBC) and its major funding program, Denver Comic Con and Literary Conference (DCC) remains true to its not-for-profit mission of children’s literacy.

Prior to the 2013 con, Charlie LaGreca, one of the six co-founders of CBC and DCC, (the other founders are Christina Angel, Illya Kowalchuk, Bruce MacIntosh, Frank Romero and Michael Newman) took a paid contract position with the organization.

As was discussed at length with Charlie, the bylaws of the non-profit necessitated that in order to draw a salary he would need to step down from the board—as he agreed. Another founder, Frank Romero, stepped down from the board for personal reasons in January 2014. The rest of the founders continue to work tirelessly towards the mission of children’s literacy—sometimes up to 80 (unpaid) hours per week in these months leading up to the con.

Charlie was paid $10,000, and was the only founding member who was paid. After the 2013 con, Charlie’s contract was not renewed. In the months following the convention, CBC and Charlie went to a number of mediation meetings. And therefore his nonparticipation has never been in question. We deeply regret that the matter has jumped from mediation to the court of public opinion.

Allegations of misuse of funds are wholly untrue. As an applicant for 501(c)3 status, CBC’s financial statements are a matter of public record; the 2012 990 form is on file with the IRS, and when the fiscal year 2013 records are completed they will be filed and will also be publicly available as a matter of course.

The organizational structure that is being built around one of the nation’s largest conventions is a result of its success and popularity. We’re expecting 75,000 attendees this year; we’re planning more than 300 hours of educational programming and have dozens of comic creators and celebrity guests. Since the 2013 con, CBC has invested in the development of more mature processes and policies and staff to ensure there’s a CBC that lives beyond any of its founders.

Every hour and every dollar spend by CBC goes towards securing the non-profit mission. There have been a number of developments on the classroom front since the 2013 convention:

• There is currently a CBC class in session at Sanchez Elementary in Lafayette, Colo.

• CBC is working with the City and County of Denver to integrate the curriculum to the Youth One Book One Denver Project, a program that involves approximately 2,500 kids.

• CBC is working with Platte Forum to teach high school students that are at-risk but showing promise the curriculum. They in turn will teach it to younger kids.

• CBC recently wrote a grant with The Conflict Center to execute programming at Sims-Fayola International Academy in the aim of authoring comic books to develop emotional intelligence and critical decision making as those relate to being an adolescent male.

• Additionally, CBC staff are currently planning dozens of hours and specific programs designed around children’s literacy at its largest annual program, Denver Comic Con.

As the curriculum and materials are rebranded to adhere to legal and education standards, classroom activities will see an uptick in the summer of 2014.

Additionally, it’s because of its fiscal responsibility that CBC is positioned for growth in 2014 and beyond. The future plans for the organization include multiple curricular sets being widely available to educators, a YouTube instructional channel, a scholarly conference to be held concurrent to DCC and eventually, its own physical classroom space.

CBC encourages anyone who believes its mission isn’t being tended to carefully enough to volunteer. As a non-profit, we’re only as good as the people who stand with us to provide children’s programming at the convention—including activities in the Kids’ Corral—and the teachers, educators and administrators that apply their many talents to the CBC curriculum.

Thank you for your continued support.

I decided to take the CBC up on their challenge and looked into their IRS filing for 2012 which runs from the tax year beginning August 1, 2011 to July 31, 2012. The form has total revenue of $184,702, of which $2,302 was from contributions and grants and $182,400 from “other revenue.” Total expenses are lists at $9,370 leaving them a total of assets at $175,332.

Listed in the form is the Denver Comic Con’s expenses at $304,943 with a revenue of $486,366 and The Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels which cost $5,285 and brought in $8,564.

Other expenses included $10,125 for compensation for six staffers including La Greca listed as “Vice President” as well as two Directors, one Director of Registration and one Secretary, each listed as working four “average hours per week.” There were other expenses including legal, advertising, occupancy, travel, insurance, depreciation, books/subscriptions, supplies and a website which all cost $9,370.

Go through all of that and the end of the year funds resulted in $175,332.

Missing from the form was any mention of expenses towards education initiatives. We are waiting for the 2013 filing which will be done some time this year.

You can see the full pdf of the filing below. I think this unfortunate situation highlights the abuse of the non-profit system by conventions. We as a site call for the IRS and local authorities to do a better job into looking into these abuses to truly figure out which are non-profit, and benefiting society, and which are clearly for profit and only benefiting themselves.

Preview: World of Archie Jumbo Comics Digest #81

WORLD OF ARCHIE JUMBO COMICS DIGEST #81

Script: Dan Parent
Art: Bill Golliher, Bob Smith, Glenn Whitmore, Jack Morelli
Cover: Pat and Tim Kennedy, Bob Smith, Rosario “Tito” Peña
On Sale Date: 8/22
192-page, full color comic
$6.99 U.S.

Brand New Lead Story: “Supply and Demand!” – It’s back to school time, and the gang is outraged to see the teachers having to spend their own money to supply their classrooms. The gang pools their resources to donate to the school. But when Veronica sees all of this, she decides she’ll kick it up a notch and help in her own way… Lodge style!

Lion Forge Joins the CBLDF as a Corporate Member

Lion Forge has joined the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as the organization’s newest Corporate Member! Lion Forge is a trans-media studio with a focus on comics publishing across all age groups. A company committed to “Comics for Everyone,” Lion Forge strives to publish titles that reflect the diversity of our world in the characters, the creators, and the Lion Forge team, creating content that is just as original.

 

CBLDF provides legal and educational resources to protect the freedom to read comics. The organization is a partner in Banned Books Week, the Kids’ Right to Read Project, Free Comic Book Day, and other national institutions that support intellectual freedom and literacy. CBLDF’s work extends from courtrooms to classrooms to conventions, where CBLDF defends the freedom to read by providing legal aid, letters of support in book challenges, challenges to unconstitutional legislation, and a robust schedule of programs about current and historical censorship to audiences all over the world.

 

Around the Tubes

The weekend is almost here! What geeky things will you all be doing? We’ll be watching I Kill Giants!!! Can’t wait. While you wait for the work day to end and weekend begin, here’s some comic news and reviews from around the web in our morning roundup.

PBS NewsHour – Opinion: Why ‘Black Panther’ and other comic books belong in the classroom – We can support this!

The Comichron – Action Comics #1000 takes 10 of Top 12 advance reorder spots; Infinity Gauntlet, Rick & Morty rule reorders – For those that dig the horse race.

The Mary Sue – Elizabeth Olsen Calls Out Empire Magazine for Photoshopping Her Beyond Recognition – Good.

Newsarama – Chris Evans Has ‘No Plans’ To Return To Captain America After Avengers 4 – Wasn’t this a known thing?

 

Reviews

The Beat – The Family Trade Vol. 1

Talking Comics – Infidel #1

Comics Bulletin – Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden #1

Around the Tubes

It’s new comic book day tomorrow. What’s everyone getting? What has you excited? Sound off in the comments below!

GlobeNewswire – Versus Systems, Inc. Partners With IDW Media Holdings, Inc. to Expand Video Game Prizing and Promotions Engine – Interesting.

CBLDF – Lawyers Ask UN to Help Cartoonist Detained in Equatorial Guinea – Help him!

ICv2 – How Comics in the University Classroom Can Benefit Retailers – Will we see more local shops teaming up with Universities?

 

Reviews

Talking Comics – Batman Annual #2

Nothing But Comics – Sleepless #1

Rebellion Joins the CBLDF as a Corporate Member

Rebellion has joined the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as a corporate member. The publisher is the company behind 2000 AD as well as publishing imprints Abaddon Books, Solaris, and Ravenstone.

Founded in 1992, Rebellion is one of Europe’s leading independent game and comic publishers.

The CBLDF provides legal and educational resources to protect the freedom to read comics. The organization is a partner in Banned Books Week, the Kids’ Right to Read Project, Free Comic Book Day, and other national institutions that support intellectual freedom and literacy. CBLDF’s work extends from courtrooms to classrooms to conventions, where CBLDF defends the freedom to read by providing legal aid, letters of support in book challenges, challenges to unconstitutional legislation, and a robust schedule of programs about current and historical censorship to audiences all over the world.

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