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April 7, 2011

Feature Story: New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference: A Teacher’s Perspective


As I drove to Providence, Rhode Island, last weekend with librarian Robin Brenner from the Brookline Public Library to attend the first New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference at Rhode Island College on Saturday, March 26, we discussed the future of comics in the classroom and the value this medium will provide students as part of a school’s curriculum. Robin and I presented a panel together about teacher-librarian partnerships as this relates to using graphic novels in education and enjoyed attending several other presentations from an outstanding cast of comics-in-education characters, including graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier, Archie Comics CEO Nancy Silberkleit, and The Comic Book Project founder Dr. Michael Bitz. It was truly exhilarating to collaborate with authors and educators as every presenter brought something unique to the conference. Researchers and educator-pioneers who are using comics in the classroom with success are typically lone wolves in their respective communities, so I found it particularly engaging to be among like-minded folks who share a passion for students, teaching, learning, and spreading the comics love! I only wish that I had been able to attend all the wonderful panels that included lesson ideas and resources applicable to reading, writing, science-learning, visual literacy, and art.

The conference was created and expertly hosted by Michael Gianfrancesco, a North Providence high school English teacher, and Dr. Jennifer Cook, an RIC English Education professor and leader of the Rhode Island Writing Project. The conference was constructed for educators and other pre-service professionals interested in understanding comics and teaching them across the curriculum among all age groups. NECAC was sold out three weeks prior to the event and turned out to be not only a smashing success, but also a wonderful model for future comics-in-education conferences that will likely result in the months and years ahead. Attendees’ only complaint involved the difficult decisions about which panels to select from the plethora of good choices!
I had a great time watching other educators and pre-service teachers learn the ins and outs of comics by experimenting with the medium in hands-on workshops with cartoonists Richard Jenkins, Barbara Slate, and Matt Madden. Graphic novelists Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Tracy White (How I Made it to Eighteen), and Dr. Michael Bitz (The Comic Book Project) also delivered instructional ideas in their respective presentations for teachers to help students tell personal, compelling stories. Several educators from all over the country currently teaching comics in a variety of educational settings gave lesson demonstrations related to pedagogy, reading strategies, writing, and discussion. Sadly, I missed Tufts University doctoral student Neil Cohn’s presentation about his research on visual language and cognition, since I was with Robin learning about all the great graphic novel resources available from librarians and publishers. Librarians can save teachers time and energy by suggesting graphic novels for pairing or reaching curricular goals. They interact with students outside the classroom, gaining a unique perspective about kids’ reading habits and interests and are adept at matching good graphic novel titles with readers. Reviews like those found here on GraphicNovelReporter and at Good Comics for Kids are also what teachers need in order to find out the latest and greatest information about graphic novels. My librarians helped provide rationales for integrating comics into my curriculum, but another great resource for teachers looking to convince their schools to invest in teaching graphic novels is Dr. James “Bucky” Carter’s Rationales for Teaching Graphic Novels. Bucky and his fellow collaborators ran a Comics and Censorship panel to explore the rationale-making process.
Other noteworthy aspects of the day included the president of Rhode Island College Nancy Carriuolo’s welcome address. She spoke about visual images as central to our everyday lives as well as the power of visual storytelling for engaging students and developing literacy skills. Archie Comics’ CEO Nancy Silberkleit also emphasized teaching comics not only to foster reading skills but to ignite students’ interest in learning. The keynote speaker, Raina Telgemeier, shared her inspirations and life experiences that led her to become a successful graphic novelist. Calvin and Hobbs, For Better or Worse, Barefoot Gen, and the work of Lynda Barry are a few of the comics she mentioned as influential in her development. I found it interesting that Raina never took a high school art course, but rather drew comic strips for fun or published simple humor strips in her high school newspaper. Upon returning to my own classroom on Monday, I was sure to tell my students about Raina’s self-publishing effort, a goal that can be accomplished by anyone who has the passion and the nerve to share their work with an audience.
At NECAC’s endnote presentation, I was reminded by Dr. Bitz that creating comics in school, especially within the language arts curriculum where writing is so strongly (and justifiably) emphasized, is not about the quality of the artwork, but it’s about the ability to be creative and tell a story. Stories, as we know, are an important part of culture and our lives, so if the classroom is to mirror life, we must include all forms of human expression without exclusion.
As a final reflection about my experience at NECAC, I’d like to compliment Michael and Jen for putting on such a professional event dedicated solely to educators about comics. In fact, in the weeks preceding the NECAC event, I presented resources for using graphic novels to a small group of educators at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Ranging from art, social studies, language, to language arts teachers, many expressed the need for more conversation, collaboration, resources, and professional development for using comics in their classrooms. The larger comic convention events are loads of fun and smaller collaborative comics affairs are important too, but the NECAC event was different in that it answered educators’ desire to learn more about comics for their classrooms and took one very large and important step toward the future presence of comics in education.