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Highlights from Pro Day at New York Comic Con 2017!

By Michael Gianfrancesco
@tryingteacher
& Illya Kowalchuck
@popclassroom

New York Comic Con is probably the largest fan event that Pop Culture Classroom attends each year. It is a four-day whirlwind of superheroes, studios, and sensationalism. We often equate it to Christmas in that it takes months of work to prepare and it’s over in just a couple of days…

…but what a wonderful couple of days it was!

The Highlights

Pop Culture Classroom and our friends found ourselves on a number of amazing educational panels throughout the NYCC weekend. Many of our panels took place at the New York Public Library (NYPL), where the show put together a special “Professional Day” on Thursday, October 5 for teachers, librarians and educators from all over the world. Some of the PCC team attended this event and presented on panels there, while others held down the fort at educational sessions at the Javits Convention Center ten blocks away.

Lesson Planning for the Comics Classroom

This first panel we were fortunate enough to participate in was also the first offered as part of “Pro Day,” and we were excited to find a packed room awaiting us when we arrived at the NYPL Thursday morning!

Moderated by John Shableski (Udon Entertainment) and featuring librarian Claudia McGivney, high school teachers John Weaver and Michael Lopez, and PCC’s Education Program Manager, Adam Kullberg, this panel introduced a packed room of educators and librarians to what an introductory comic unit looks like. It also provided hands-on strategies, tips, and resources meant to help educators incorporate comics into classrooms and libraries.

Books As Flint: Using Graphic Novels to Inspire Social Activism

Later on in the day, PCC presented on a panel aimed at using graphic novels to inspire social activism. And boy, did it live up to its name! Tony Medina and Stacey Robinson (My Name is Alphonso Jones), Meryl Jaffee (Proffesor at Johns Hopkins), R Alan Brooks (The Burning Metronome), and Marjorie Liu (Monstress) joined PCC Director of Education Illya Kowalchuck in lighting up the Trustees Room at the library.

The conversation was on fire from the outset, with each panelist chiming in about stories that echoed the power of graphic novels in their lives and classrooms. The through line for all of this was how easily the medium opens doors for powerful conversations and sheds light on the inequities present in contemporary society. Rather than let these issues smolder, well-chosen graphic novels can hold up a mirror to the reader. What’s more, this evolving art form can ignite students’ awareness and, potentially, inspire change.

Gender Identity: Understanding Through Art

About 10 blocks away from the NYPL, PCC Comics Education Outreach Programming Director Michael Gianfrancesco participated in three of PCC’s sessions that took place there, including two panels and our third-annual Educator Meet & Greet session.

The first panel focused on talking about how to use comics to illustrate and inform students (and anyone, for that matter) about sexual and gender identity with gender identity. It included moderator Dr. Katie Monnin (Teaching Graphic Novels, Teaching Reading Comprehension with Graphic Texts), comic creators Dana Simpson (Phoebe and her Unicorn) and Molly Ostertag (The Witch Boy), and actress, dancer and educator Tami Stronach (The Paper Canoe Company, The Neverending Story).

Throughout the panel, the energy in the room was very powerful and the panelists brilliantly helped the room unpack a topic that is often misunderstood by educational leaders as well as students and parents. As Gianfrancesco put it, “I walked away from this experience with a much greater understanding of gender identity, but more importantly, with a sense that there is so much more for me to learn.”

PCC’s Michael Gianfrancesco participates on the Gender Identity panel at NYCC 2017. Dr. Katie Monnin, Tami Stronach, Dana Simpson, Molly Ostertag (shown left to right).

The Representation Bookshelf: Building a More Diverse Comics Classroom

Next, PCC’s fourth panel of the day brought Gianfrancesco together with creators, educators, and publishers to discuss how to help teachers and librarians choose titles that focus on, or at least include, diverse characters. PCC was honored to share the stage with moderator Gina Gagliano (First Second Books), Geoff Gerber (Lionforge), Jorge Aguirre (Giants Beware, Monsters Beware), Ngozi Ukazu (Check, Please!), and Dr. Katie Monnin.

The panel talked about graphic novels with characters of color, with varying religious backgrounds, with disabilities, and of a variety of sexual and gender identities (calling back to the previous panel). A number of amazing title suggestions were handed down by the participants and we later found ourselves running through the show floor trying to get our hands on books like Superb from Lionforge, Mighty Jack from First Second, and Lowriders in Space from Chronicle Books.

 

PCC’s Michael Gianfrancesco takes a selfie with dancer and educator Tami Stronach (The Paper Canoe Company, The Neverending Story).

Educator Meet & Greet Session

Immediately after the second panel wrapped up, PCC staff had to hightail it over to our annual educator meet & greet across the Javits Center. PCC was fortunate enough to partner with First Second Books and The French Comics Association for this innovative session, which connected creators from France with American artist, writers, and teachers from around the country.

The meet & greet was set up with four tables, each which focused on a specific grade level or topic, meant to help teachers easily find out what they needed for their particular classroom and grade level. PCC’s Gianfrancesco was seated at a table geared towards high school and college appropriate texts and got the chance to meet some wonderful creators including French writer Fabien Nury (The Death of Stalin) and Stacey Robinson and Tony Medina. Likewise, PCC’s Kullberg and Kowalchuk were seated at tables for YA books and K-5 Graphic Novels, respectively.

Over the course of an hour, this meet & greet discussion turned to the differences between what is considered acceptable texts in European schools as opposed to here in the US. What fascinated us the most was the fact that, in France, comics are considered viable texts for elementary school age children, regardless of the content, which can sometimes get risky in American culture because of sexual content. We also learned that once a child begins to reach teenage school years, the French education system no longer considers comics or graphic novels usable at all, regardless of the subject matter.

PCC’s Michael Gianfrancesco alongside creators and publishers from the French Comics Association (FCA) including Stacey Robinson, Fabien Nury, Tony Medina, Zep, Meg Lemke (left to right.)

Content Literacy: Teaching STEM With Comics

PCC’s final panel of the NYCC Professional Day was a one-two punch focusing on how graphic novels and comics can improve engagement and retention among students in STEM. Featuring PCC’s Kullberg as a moderator and Kowalchuk as a panelist, we were thrilled to share the stage with artist and teacher Jay Hosler (Last of the Sandwalkers), as well as First Second creators Alison Wilgus and Molly Brooks (Flying Machines) and Joe Flood (Sharks, Dinosaurs).

In addition to discussing these STEM comics creators and educators’ inspirations and insights, this panel offered the audience a comprehensive list of STEM comics that they could bring into elementary through high school classrooms, offering new inroads for students to tackle STEM topics.

In Conclusion

We had a truly enlightening and educational experience at New York Comic Con this year. As always, it was amazing being a part of these discussions because we not only got to share the stage with creators, publishers, librarians, and other educators, but were able to meet the fantastic fans and educators who shared their own experiences using comics with us.

We also picked up a lot of great books from artists and publishers, when soon we will be publishing a blog post or two containing lists of some of the best titles we snagged along with some suggested classroom applications! For now, we returned to our respective homes, families, and day-to-day duties, decompressing and reflecting on a fantastic experience at NYCC.

Comics and Reluctant Learners: Dispelling the Myths

 

By Michael Gianfrancesco

 

I have been doing this whole “teaching with comics” thing for nearly 15 years and I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with teachers all over the country. During panels and workshops, I find that I often hear (or overhear) a specific remark: “I love these books. They’re great for my reluctant readers.”

When I hear teachers say things like this, or that comics are only for the “kids who don’t like to read,” I feel they’re buying into a common myth: that reluctant readers are the only ones who can benefit from comics. While it’s true that comics and graphic novels do work well with reluctant readers, that’s precisely because they work well with nearly all readers. Rather than relegated to only the most struggling students, comics can be useful – even invaluable – for elementary all the way up to College Preparatory or even Advanced Placement classes, offering up countless opportunities for teachers and administrators to better engage their students.

For my part, I use comics with all my students who vary in gender, age, and academic performance – from reluctant to engaged and everything in between. Of course, curation is key here. Should you decided to take on the challenge and joy of teaching with comics in your classroom, it is important to understand what titles you have to choose from and the complexity level of these texts – particularly if you are not familiar with them – as some of them are every bit as complex as their chapter-based counterparts. For example, while I’d avoid handing a difficult book like Maus or Persepolis to a student who struggles with reading, I would also be hesitant to hand an elementary-level Smile to an 11th or 12th grade honors or college prep group.

See, that’s the rub! With the diverse range of comics available today, it’s hard to know exactly what works best for your students – especially if you’re new to comics. To help, I have taken the liberty of listing some great examples below, along with a few of the themes that the texts take on to help you decide how to work them into your curriculum:

 

Elementary/Middle School Level:

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

 
An emotional coming of age story about trust, betrayal and acceptance of fate.

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

 
A fantasy epic which explores the concepts of responsibility, reaching one’s potential, and understanding what family is really all about.

The Eternal Smile or American Born Chinese by Gene Yang

 
Three short stories which shatter the concepts of identity, reality, and the ability to be satisfied with our lives.

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook  by Eleanor Davis

 
Illustrates the importance of critical thinking, teamwork and understanding of natural laws to solve practical problems.

Astronaut Academy (Series) by Dave Roman


Lots of short attention span stories that tie together into a larger narrative that explores emotion, science and self-awareness.

The Human Body Theatre by Maris Wicks


All of the systems of the human body join readers on stage in a comical and scientifically accurate exploration of anatomy.

Smile or Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

 
True stories of the author’s life which explore family, friendship, growth and the challenges of passing from one stage of life to another.

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova


Trying to connect to others and maintain some sort of identity amongst peers is the biggest challenge the characters face here.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

 
The story of a long-standing rivalry between a hero and a villain that blurs the line of what is bad and what is good.

 

High School Level:

Maus by Art Speigelman

 
The true story of a couple who survived Auschwitz told through the eyes of the son of the survivors. Pain, loss, survival and redemption are just a few of the themes explored.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

 
Satrapi’s real life experiences growing up in Iran and Europe during and after the Islamic revolution in the 80’s.

Superman: American Alien by Max Landis


Superman is an iconic character, and there are many stories that have been told about him, but none like the ones in this book. Each tale conjuring a different emotion than the last, this book offers amazing new perspectives of the Man of Steel.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller


Batman’s initial successes and failures as a costumed hero are fraught with pain, persistence and an unquenched desire for justice.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly

 
The role of an outsider is never an easy one. This story takes the concept of the other and multiplies it exponentially.

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes


Identity and the path to the future are not always evident.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan


War harms everyone, even the animals in a zoo hit during a bombing run.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

 
Dystopia, anarchy, revolution and the danger of unchecked authority.

The texts above are just a start. If you decide to start with your struggling readers by passing some comics into their hands, just keep in mind that this is where you should be beginning, not ending, your intervention. When you are comfortable with their effectiveness and your ability to implement them successfully, you can take the next step and bring these texts to your other, higher achieving students!

It may take some time but, in my experience, it usually does not take long to discover those books that will make your reading-loving students eager to explore and be challenged by new types of texts, topics, and content.

Littles Need Comics, Too: Comics and Graphic Novels for Early Readers

By Ronell Whitaker

“Are there any comics or graphic novels out there for the primary grades?”

This is a question I get all the time from fellow teachers. It seems simple, but for years I found myself struggling to find a good answer. While I’ve always had great suggestions of comic and graphic novel titles for high schoolers and the middle grades, I had never gotten around to finding out what options there actually were for the K to 2nd grade crowd.

When I did a preliminary search, I was frustrated to see that even those comics aimed at younger readers – like Marvel’s Little Golden Books, or licensed properties like My Little Pony and Adventure Time – are often rebranded picture books or written above primary reading levels. Frustrated, I began to think that the answer to their question might be a deflating, “No.”

Until now.

Below, I’ve put together a list of great books and resources for the little readers out there. Covering an array of content, styles, and age levels, these books showcase the diversity and potential of comics to reach students of all ages, and make great additions to any ECE or elementary classroom:

The Ordinary People Change The World Series
By Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos

The Ordinary People Change the World Series

These books blend traditional comic style with the readability of picture books. The series is a collection of biographies centered on heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, and Rosa Parks, but the book presents these historical giants in a kid-friendly, pint-sized way that is endearing and relatable for early readers.

Tiny Titans
by Art Balthazar

Tiny Titans

Art Balthazar’s world of crayon and sidewalk chalk heroes is especially appealing to young readers. Although it’s at the upper end of the K-2 age range, the stories in each book are normally no more than five pages, and the vocabulary isn’t overly challenging. The writing is joke a minute, and kids love seeing characters they recognize in the big kids comics.

Owly
by Andy Runton 

Owly

Andy Runton’s Owly is an adorable character, who goes on kid friendly adventures with his forest friends. What makes Owly especially attractive to emerging readers is there are no words. Readers use images to follow along as Owly learns concepts like cooperation, sharing and compassion.

Toon Books

Toon Books

Toon Books was the “A-ha!” find of this entire search. What’s great about them is they organize their titles by age level, and they hire top notch, award winning talent like Jeff Smith (Bone), Eleanor Davis (How To Be Happy), and Toon Books co-founder Art Spiegelman (Maus). Toon Books focus on publishing books specifically for early readers is what makes them the best option for readers ages 3 and up.

Comics are a great way to captivate emerging readers, and these books will go a long way toward creating a life long love of books.


Finding Inspiration: Comics as a Pathway to Reading

By Michael Gianfrancesco, Comics Education Outreach

“Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.”
—Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus, A Survivor’s Tale

When I first began teaching comics in the classroom over a dozen years ago, one of the most dependable brick walls that I could rely on encountering was the dreaded question, “How can you justify the use of comic books in a serious academic setting?” Although I hear it less today, there are still some skeptical educators and administrators that love to question the viability of comics and graphic novels in the classroom.

There are plenty of case studies, scholarly articles, and texts that are helpful in addressing these concerns, and I have found myself hiding behind one or more in the past. While these resources are always effective in opening a dialogue with administrators, when it comes to getting buy-in from other classroom teachers, the simple fact that comics make kids want to read is often a far more powerful explanation. And when my peers ask, “But how?”, I – like so many comic fans – often return to one of my earliest childhood memories as an example.

I was 12 years old. I was watching my best friend Anthony and his family packing up their antique-filled house in preparation for a move to a new state. As Anthony’s father cleaned out an old piano bench, he called me over.

“Put your hands out,” he said.

He slid a very old, very colorful comic out of a plastic sleeve and gently placed it into my outstretched hands. The cover depicted Superman holding up a car, smashing the front end into a rock as horrified witnesses ran for cover. It was Action Comics #1, 1938. The gravity of what I was holding hadn’t yet hit me. In that moment, I was just mesmerized by this book. I didn’t even hear Anthony’s mother creeping up behind me and putting her hands on my shoulders.

“You are going to remember this moment the rest of your life,” she said quietly.

And she was right. In fact, that moment lit a fire in me that burns to this day – a love of reading. From then on I started seeking out as many comics as I could find, visiting the public library to dig through the small gold mine of collected editions of classic hero comics form Marvel and DC. I cut my teeth on Silver Age Fantastic Four, X-men, Green Lantern and Batman anthologies. When I had exhausted all of those titles, I asked the librarian for suggestions of other stories with similar elements to comics. This began my journey from comics to more traditional chapter texts. I went from Stan Lee to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Alan Moore to Terry Pratchett. From Neil Gaiman to…well…Neil Gaiman. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

Comics did that for me. It didn’t take a huge leap of logic to realize that it could do it for my students too. When I first started lending out graphic novels to kids in my classroom, the results were hard to argue. Kids devoured the books, sometimes returning the next day having already finished and begging for more. They spread the word that
“Mr. G” had comics to loan out in his classroom, and kids I had never seen before were timidly approaching me asking for my trade paperback of Aquaman, Pride of Baghdad, or Swamp Thing. I recalled then what the librarian had done for me: connecting chapter books to comics and showing me that a good story is a good story, comic or not. I started telling my students that if they liked Maus they should read Night; if they liked A Soldier’s Story they should read Band of Brothers; if they liked Smile, they should check out The Scarlet Letter or even Catcher in the Rye; and on and on…

We are always looking for in-roads to inspire our students to become readers, and it seems to get harder and harder with each passing year. But we all have stories in our lives about the moment we connect, truly connect, with a text, and are suddenly hungry for more. As a teacher, I have seen first-hand that comics and graphic novels have the power to open the door (or at least crack a window) to a love of reading for students, regardless of their backgrounds.

So if you, as a teacher, find yourself challenged to explain how “classics” like Shakespeare or Machiavelli could possibly measure up to Satrapi or Yang, I urge you to search your own history for the moment your love for reading was ignited. For students today, graphic novels and comics can offer a unique (and often untrodden) pathway to literacy, creativity, and a lifelong passion for reading.

Announcing the Comics Education Outreach (CEO) Program!

Contributed by: Jason Nisavic – 2/1/2017

Pop Culture Classroom is excited and proud to announce its newest program, Comics Education Outreach! Organized and managed by veteran teachers from across the United States, Comics Education Outreach (CEO) is dedicated to providing innovative and practical resources that help educators successfully incorporate comics and graphic novels into their classrooms. We offer professional development, lesson guides, comic/graphic novel reviews, and the CEO Lending Library. We believe that comics are more than just a gateway to literacy; they can be the vehicle for deeper engagement.

Who Are We?

The Comics Education Outreach (CEO) is made up of a group of veteran teachers who are passionate about the educational value of graphic novels and comics. In addition, the CEO works with a growing network of educators from all subjects areas and varied backgrounds.

What Do We Do?

Every day, teachers from all grade levels and subject areas are discovering new ways to make their classrooms more engaging with comics. With a rapidly growing market for graphic works, time-stressed educators can have trouble sifting out the useful material from the rest. To help out with this effort, CEO promotes this new approach to literacy in multiple ways:

  • We develop graphic novel & comics reviews across the spectrum of subjects and grade levels to bring attention to educational potential of these unique texts.
  • We share stories of our successes and failures using graphic works in the classroom, helping you to start strong and avoid common mistakes.
  • We host panels and workshops at comic and educational conventions across the United States, joining together with other educators, artists, publishers and authors to spread the word about the teaching and learning potential graphic texts offer.
  • Most excitingly, we’re running a graphic novel/comics lending library of several popular graphic novels — complete with lesson plans! Starting in April 2017, classrooms anywhere in the country can apply to borrow both classroom sets (30 copies) and smaller “Lit Circle” collections (7 copies).

The available titles in April 2017 include:

  • The Lumberjanes
  • March
  • Ghost/Sisters/Smile
  • Persepolis
  • The US Constitution: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
  • American Born Chinese

How Can I Learn More?

Come visit us at our website here, and connect with us on Twitter, to learn about how you can use and discuss comics in the classroom!

Michael Gianfrancesco – @tryingteacher
Eric Kallenborn – @comics_teacher
Ronell Whitaker – @MisterWhitaker
Jason Nisavic – @Teaching_Humans

In addition, CEO is continually searching for exciting artistic works that have educational value and educators from all subjects and backgrounds. For any questions or suggestions, please email info@popcultureclassroom.org.