Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Alaska State Literacy Association Conference

This weekend Fairbanks hosted the 2009 Golden Heart Reading Council and the Alaska State Literacy Association for their big annual statewide conference. The main shindigs happened between a downtown hotel and a nearby high school. From Sunday afternoon through the evening was an author's event at the hotel, where many publishers, authors and educators could network, or "mingle." The headlining presenter for the conference, author Janet Wong, gave a short speech, a special award was given to local Alaskan author Debbie Miller, door prizes were given out, and dinner was served.

My publisher had us a table where I got to sit and doodle in between mooching as much food & drink as possible. Noted science fiction author David Marusek briefly gave my books a veneer of literary respectability by actually signing them (pictured here on the left), which of course immediately jacked up the perceived value of the edition by at least $5. And my own personal fan-boy moment happened when finally meeting the most awesome and legendary Shannon Cartwright, who had several tables of her works along with many prints of her art on display. Other notable luminaries in attendance were Deb Vanesse, Dermot Cole, Cherie Stihler, Ron Smith and others.

The following Monday was an in-service day: professional development for certified staff in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. This conference offered a huge number of workshops, one of which I was invited to conduct:

Comics in the Classroom - Jamie Smith Overview of the “Sequential Arts” – a brief introduction and history of the different popular genres (gag cartoons, strips, editorial cartoons, comics, graphic novels etc.), materials and technique demonstrations, and participation in selected sample exercises for classroom use (ex: collaborative projects with scriptwriting, penciling, inking, making ‘zines, cartoon “jams”, idea/joke generation). Resource packet handout + samples of student work will be available.

This was an hour-and-a-half afternoon workshop offered during one of several sessions throughout the day, and attendees had to choose from around forty other workshops happening at the same time. The theme of the conference was "Landscapes of Literacy," and perusing the other presenter's blurbs it seemed to be focused on something like "theoretical and practical frameworks for curriculum-based instructional strategies and educational resources." Once again, I was championing comics as a spiffy way to coalesce reading, writing, drawing and technology skills together in one package. Personally I'm always a bit bemused at the irony, given my spotty educational history, and feel like I'm coming at it all from way outta left field: since I'm admittedly not much of an academic, more like a hybrid that straddles the line between working and teaching. But I can't ever pass up a chance to peddle the wares, especially with such an audience.

"The recent interest in comics as a literacy tool comes as graphic novels have cemented their status as sophisticated works of literature, and as teachers nationwide are struggling to boost reading scores. Proponents of comics in the classroom say that they can lure struggling readers who may be intimidated by pages crammed with text. They also say that comics, with their visual cues and panel-by-panel sequencing, are uniquely situated to reinforce key elements of literacy, like story structure and tone." - Superman Finds New Fans Among Reading Instructors 12/26/07

Comics present an “alternative pathway to literacy,” as summed up in the above blurb from New York Times reporter Elissa Gootman. The challenge for gigs like this is tailoring it to be simultaneously palatable to educators (i.e. simple and manageable enough for classroom usage), and still retain enough interest for students that they have fun doing it. You get millions of hits on a Google search for the phrase "teaching comics," and along with specialized institutions devoting more and more classes to learning to draw comics, there is a corresponding groundswell of interest in teaching comics in the classroom. Sometimes it's a last-ditch effort to inspire students dovetailed with the popularity of the medium - whatever works, and as witnessed after the Harry Potter phenomenon, opportunities should be seized whenever possible. I never miss a chance to plug the ongoing efforts of the National Association of Comic Art Educators, which is an organization dedicated to promoting all this and more: a must-read is James Sturm's "A Case for Comics" which I always include in a handout as a succient breakdown of exactly how and why comics are such an effective and powerful educational tool.

I showed up at the classroom armed with a couple dozen sets of handouts: packets of resources and sample lessons & exercises. As usual, I stressed the flexibility that can accommodate individuals and/or groups with collaborative projects, and how all sorts of subject matters can be incorporated such as history and science. Then I blitzed through something like 250+ images showing off the wide range of different styles and content that are available in contemporary, alternative comics. Most folks have heard the term "graphic novel" but still tend to stereotype comics as a strictly superhero genre, or at the most, manga. Which on its own is fine, but there is so much more diversity out there; autobiographical, biographical memoirs, graphic journalism, experimental, etc.

However, after talking for an hour and a half, I totally botched the workshop aspect by once again running out of time to do actual hands-on activities, which was a major disappointment to some attendees. I just get carried away while showing off the amazing amount of stuff that's out there. Even so, after apologizing it seemed most folks were saturated with enough ideas to explore on their own afterwards, and hopefully got inspired by the show & tell. Next time it'll just have to be split into two back-to-back sessions... 

It was a tricky call to gauge participant's level of interest as the conference was billed more along the lines of "literacy" versus the arts, and so I weighted the show & tell a bit (too much) on the theory instead of the practise. There were a few attendees who I knew had some direct experience in comics, both creating and teaching, like the ever-amazing Robin Feinman, who had the pleasure of having one of her own minicomics handed to her as a sample. And I also handed out a specific project that had been emailed to me only the day before by another former student, artist & educator Jeannie Armstrong, who has been introducing a "Sequential Art Project" in her own classes with much success. Thanks again to both you guys, along with all the people who hung out and a big thanks to the Alaska State Literacy Association!

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