Saturday, April 11, 2009

Comics in the Classroom

“I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist, or I'd draw a ram's head, really messy. I'd never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect spiderman.” - Jean Michel Basquiat

Awhile back I was invited to pitch an idea for a workshop with local grade-school teachers on teaching cartoons and comics in their classes. The National Writing Project/Alaska State Writing Consortium Steering Committee accepted the proposal, and hosted a “Saturday Sessions Workshop.”

Mostly FNSBSD teachers (8) were in attendance; originally it was to be offered via videoconference for YKSD teachers in remote village locations, but a last-minute generator issue involving diesel fuel rendered the building uninhabitable, and the location was moved to a place that the technology unfortunately wasn't available. Hopefully next time though, as Alaska has some really innovative long-distance ed resources given the size of some of the districts.

Now the last time I did one of these gigs I kinda botched it by not realizing the big picture; these folks have about a billion better things to do on a weekend than sit around listening some schmuck blather on and on about the wonderful world of cartooning, especially in a dry, academic delivery style >yawn< back in a stupid classroom of all places. You know, those same grossly overpaid, lazy-ass teachers you always hear people complain about, right? Seriously though, I just didn’t understand what a sacrifice these teachers were making - believe me, when everything starts to thaw around these parts and the weather turns gorgeous, sunny and warm, it's a real temptation. Above all else, they were there for two primary reasons: to learn something new/get some fresh ideas and inspiration, and two, actually do something, as in for me to demonstrate specific exercises that they in turn could use. Oh, and a third I guess would be the obvious benefit of earning the required “training” credits to maintain their teaching licenses too (participants in the workshop series can earn a 500-level credit). So, it’s a legitimate, paying gig for a group of professionals, who should walk away empowered to introduce and customize the subject matter into their respective curriculum. And hopefully have a little fun while we’re at it – by extension this is exactly the sort of stimulation and motivation that has to work as a trial run on them first, as well as their students. And lastly, other folks are encouraged to take advantage of the workshops as an opportunity for "community members who would like to extend and explore their own writing." So the intended scope of this presentation should be geared to also include other interested people, as if the idea of teaching teachers wasn’t intimidating enough.

Fortunately I have enthusiasm, experience and tons of material to (literally) draw from. This personally is a golden opportunity for me to preach the ol' gospel; having kids do their own comics is such a totally awesome way to underhandedly introduce and reinforce so many positive, useful and freakin’ cool things that I honestly sometimes feel like just running around the room, yelling and waving my arms about while jumping up and down. Which might freak some people out, so instead I just use handouts and show slides.
This took a couple days advance prep time for me; remixing a specifically themed/custom tailored selection of works (my own + favorites + popular examples + student samples) both digital and physical – hauling along the show & tell portfolios and books. Also culled stuff from both my summer session course and a the vast repository buried in my bookshelf and on my hard-drive: articles and lists of in-class exercises, sample assignments, critiques and grading guidelines, resources, materials, recommended titles and compilations from all my own ex-student’s projects.

This slew of information was packed into two hours, with a short break at about the half-way point. First I did a variation on the usual intro; loosen ‘em up with a few laughs from my own work, and on through the roster of top talents currently popular with readers. Here I had to qualify that there probably is some inappropriate material for particular teachers and schools – being used to college-level courses I don’t have to usually worry about editing stuff out that might offend anyone. So my experience is rather limited on what may or may not be permissible in the public education system, though it probably hasn’t changed all that much from when I used to get kicked out.
Another quick run-down of the top names in comics and some sample pages from popular titles - for about half of them I had the actual book to pass around, which is always worth doing as a lot of them still have yet to see for themselves what’s been happening in the world of contemporary comics. Many if not most folks also haven’t yet discovered what fantastic resources are available to our own community through the local comic shop and the public library, so I always mention for them to give those places a visit too. After checking out the mind-blowing range of subject matter and high level of craftsmanship, a quick run-through of actual artworks to pass around; scripts, penciled pages, inked pages, minicomics etc.

Probably the main thing I geared towards individuals who wanted to experiment with improving their own writing was the introducing the concept of script-writing; I still marvel at the possibilities and different way of looking at art by writing descriptive passages about each panel instead of drawing it. This in turn opens the door to collaborative approaches; script-writing/penciling/inking(+coloring) between small groups of students which can foster a great little classroom project.
Also I utilized what in my opinion is the single-best clearing-house of inspirations and on-line resources : the National Association of Comic Art Educators' website "Teaching Comics" which has lots of lesson plans, study guides etc.
Some of these were included in a new textbook "Drawing Words & Writing Pictures" by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. At $30 a pop the book is a little overdesigned/overpriced (not compared to most college textbooks though), but contains a pretty solid sequence of foundational exercises ready to adopt either in a classroom or on one's own.
"Making Comics" by Scott McCloud I personally feel ranks as a better book to recommend to anyone interested in either drawing comics or just learning more about the medium. Also another interesting title is "The Education of a Comics Artist" by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller (2005 Allworth Press, NY). And I always get a lot of information in the form of reviews, criticism and industry news from the periodical "The Comics Journal" - well worth checking out.

The tidal wave of xeroxes follows; briefly go over the presented material and answer any questions. Then it was supposed to be a series of hands-on group exercises, but I wound up running out of time - simply too much information to go over coupled with my poor organizational skills. First, I originally wanted to try an abbreviated one-page collaboration that would get turned into a mini-comic. I'd planned to break them into groups of three and hand out templates for a double-sided 12-page minicomic: each person writing first some text (dialogue or narration) in each of the indicated space, then that gets passed over and each person now sketches lightly with pencil some content, then lastly the final person in each group adds their own unique and distinctive take by inking in the whole piece. With some minimal folding and cutting of the double-sided copies done on-site, they all would have had a little something to take with them as a memento.

Unfortunately, we only had just enough time left to basically do a little jam session as a warm-up, but even that tiny taste was fun, and something nobody had ever done before. While I definitely could use some time-management skills and better focusing of the content of these sorts of presentations in the future - I still think this was successful because it showed off just how much the comics scene has matured and evolved, plus planted some seeds of possible units and exercises in the participant's classes. Seemed like folks learned a bunch and had a few laughs, everyone was sent home with something.

The key here was to pitch something that is quick, simple and that doesn’t require much in the way of either prep time or materials – the logistics of undergoing projects in an average classroom is a definite factor here. One of the strongest selling points for doing comics is the low-tech approach; one doesn’t need much space, a big budget for supplies or even much in the way of training and ability to successfully pull off what promises to be a fun learning experience. Add to that the tech-savvy skills picked up in producing comics, basic literacy, collaborative elements, autobiographical and artistic expression: and we have a winning combination for teachers to use in their own classrooms.

“You're dead if you aim only for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.” - Walt Disney

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