Archive for PCC Classroom Blog

Announcing the 2nd Annual Educator of the Year Award

Pop Culture Classroom is excited to announce that we are now accepting nominations for the 2nd annual Pop Culture Educator of the Year Award!

At PCC, we believe that pop culture is an incredible educational tool. The Pop Culture Educator of the Year Award is our way of recognizing innovative educators who are using pop culture as a way to engage students, inspire a lifelong love of learning, encourage diversity, and increase literacy in their schools and local communities.

Do you know an educator who fits this description? Be sure to nominate them today! An award will be given out for each of the following four categories:

  • Elementary
  • Middle School
  • High School
  • Post-secondary Education (college/university)

All K-12 and higher education educators (including, but not limited to, teachers, librarians, administrators and informal education practitioners) are eligible for the award. Parents, students, administrators, and fellow educators may submit applications, and one educator can receive multiple nominations. You can even nominate yourself!

In addition to one of PCC’s own pop culture-based curricula, each award-winner will receive two 3-day passes to Denver Comic Con 2018 (June 30- July 2, 2018), a DCC’18 prize package, and even a special spotlight on PCC’s website. One Honorable Mention from each category will also be chosen and featured on our website.

We look forward to hearing about the wonderful educators in your lives and the great work they’re doing to support students using pop culture!

Using Humor in the Classroom


By Michael Mannix

I used to teach 7th grade English, and one of the best parts was that anything I read, watched on TV—anything—could be an artifact for the classroom. Some of these artifacts seemed more obvious—like a New York Times op-ed on the function of the word “like.” Some were less so—like a Taco Bell commercial students adapted as a promotional video for Spirit Day. And then some I just missed totally. One of these was The Onion, and, when I realized it, I wanted to try to make up for it. The result was Teaching with The Onion, a Facebook blog for teachers of all subjects.

Right now, the site publishes about one lesson a week based on parodies from around the internet. The standards and subjects these lessons address are diverse: There’s a lesson on teaching research skills in ELA, Social Studies and Science using an article called “It’s Called ‘Columbusing,’ And It’s The Latest Teen Craze That Has Kids Sailing The Globe In Search Of Spice”; a lesson on teaching public speaking skills with an Onion parody of a TED Talk (shout out to PVLEGS!); and another one designed for students to critique and develop conversational norms in the classroom using an article called “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea.

Parody websites like The Onion, Clickhole, Reductress, McSweeney’s and countless others churn out these articles on a daily basis, and the possibilities for classroom use are endless. I hope that, as the page grows, teachers will contribute their own lessons while also adding feedback to others’. I also plan to expand the page’s purpose, such as posting education-related parody texts with ideas for use in teacher professional development.

At the same time, I realize there is resistance to using parody in the classroom, and, more broadly, even humor. In talking to teachers and even scholars of humor in education, I’ve been reminded of the stigmas—and dangers—of using particular texts in the classroom, particularly those perceived as being separate from “the canon,” or those too closely associated with pop culture. For various, often problematic reasons, some texts are given secure positions within schools, while others face instant skepticism.

Humorous texts pose their own challenges. For one, they aren’t always morally acceptable. When it comes to humor more broadly, there’s humor that punches down, humor that reinforces harmful stereotypes, and humor that just doesn’t fit with the decorum of particular spaces. In general, there can be an ambiguity about the effects of humor on other people, which poses particular risks for schools.

There are other obstacles for teachers, too. Currently, the battle against “fake news” has led to a renewed focus on the importance of teaching the evaluation of sources—but not necessarily the glorification of parody news. Further, in the last half century, influential reports and standards in education, from A Nation at Risk to No Child Left Behind, have pressured educators to focus on practices that look “serious” and focus directly on a particular set of skills, often at the expense of instruction that seems to be more…joyful. Michael Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeff Wilhelm, for example, attribute the rise of “zombie close-reading” practices to the Common Core State Standards. This approach to reading has students focus on the text at the expense of personal response and background knowledge; it also tends to exclude instructional practices like choice reading, book talks, and literature circles.

Finally, there’s the majority of Western philosophy’s take on humor, which has not been so kind. Plato, for example, called laughter a vice, suggesting we should avoid it if possible. Aristotle agreed—he equated wit, famously, with “educated insolence.” The Stoics were, of course, on board with all of this; one was admired by his followers for never laughing at all. He claimed it helped with self-control.

I bring up these sources of resistance to humor to acknowledge them as real obstacles, but also to offer alternative perspectives. Humor, after all, is often considered non-serious, and yet it has serious effects: provoking diverging thought, relieving stress, communicating persuasive messages, developing open-mindedness, building solidarity, engaging an audience, and the list goes on.

There are concrete benefits for instruction, too. For one, reading and writing parody requires all kinds of knowledge—of genre, content, and literacy skills in general. As creative writing professor Bev Hogue points out: “The elements that make humor effective—pace, timing, economy of expression, vivid language—also make other kinds of writing effective, so exercising these elements provides skills transferable to other tasks.”

Finally, there are ethical considerations with humor, but these obstacles can be reframed as opportunities: How, for example, do we know what effect our writing will have on others? How do we know what’s offensive? And, as satirists ask all the time, what needs a little offending?

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, then, I would argue that—even in these times—there’s a positive role for fake news in the classroom, both as a genre that can produce positive effects, and as a process that can generate benefits for students and classrooms.

My conviction originated in the classroom, when my students proposed an April Fools edition of the school newspaper. I admit: at first, I was nervous. Although an avid reader of parody news (*ahem*…and The New Yorker), I had never taught it before. I was also aware of how news about other people in the school—fake news—might not be okay with those individuals or even with the school administration. We would have to be careful, serious, rigorous.

This influenced our approach to everything: topics, headlines, word choice, images, even fact-checking. During the entire process, we gave as much attention to entertaining our audience as we did to ethical considerations. We talked about the writing for weeks—in the hallway, over Google docs, in class, even at recess. And our conversations about humor were often serious: What was appropriate to publish? What writing would actually be funny? And what would the writing’s impact be on the school community: a real-world audience of students, peers, teachers, and families? On the day of publication, some of the newspaper’s toughest critics were converted into fans, and the writers felt proud of the work they had done.

As a doctoral student now, I’m motivated to know more about what was going on with this experience. Using some of the research I’ve done on humor studies, education more broadly, and the eighty-two Clickhole articles I see every time I check my Newsfeed, I’ve continued to think of ways to support teachers in using humorous texts to teach reading and writing. In addition to managing Teaching with The Onion, I recently put together a curriculum for creating parody newspapers with students. It contains resources for taking students through a range of experiences, including brainstorming, drafting, revising, conferencing, and publishing.

There’s a lesson on creating what Onion writers call a “Tough Room”—a sort of writing workshop where the main currency is laughter; a lesson on using elements of humor theory to guide the revision of sentences; a lesson on co-constructing ethical guidelines with students, with ideas generated through reading articles about school administrators’ reactions to practical jokes; and a lesson on brainstorming multimodal companions to articles.

My hope is that, when students participate in the lessons, they have the chance to draw on diverse knowledge and literacies, and transform the way they think about writing. I also hope that, when teachers use the guide, they have the opportunity to think about the challenges and opportunities of using humor in the classroom. To support that process, I have included classroom anecdotes and integrated scholarship on humor whenever appropriate. I invite you to continue the conversation by posting work, questions, and experiences—around anything related to teaching humor and literacy—on Teaching with The Onion.


Michael Mannix is a former middle school English teacher and current doctoral student in Reading/Writing/Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania. He works with the Philadelphia Writing Project on a number of programs, including the Philly School Media Network, an initiative to support student journalism. In his research, he is interested in humor studies, ethics, and literacy education.

Highlights from Pro Day at New York Comic Con 2017!

By Michael Gianfrancesco
& Illya Kowalchuck

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.

Now Accepting DCC’18 Panel Submissions

Our Denver Comic Con 2018 lineup of events and activities is going to be bigger than ever with a diverse range of topics for all ages and pop culture and literary interests. 2 Main Events stages, 25 session rooms, with almost 600 hours of panels, workshops and demos!

We want to give YOU the opportunity to present your own session. This is a chance for you to share your wisdom and knowledge with your fellow pop culture enthusiasts. We’re looking for great panels covering comics, sci-fi, fantasy, games, cosplay, literature, film making, art demonstrations and much, much more!

Colorful History in the Classroom

Recently, we reached out to our community to see how they were using “Colorful History” in the classroom. We received lots of responses about the many different ways that these comics are providing educational value.

Erik Burgeson, a library media specialist at Kilbourne Middle School in Worthington, OH, told us that he first started using Colorful History comics in his Graphic Novels course. “At first,” he told us “I used it as an optional read in between longer reads such as Trickster and American Born Chinese.” A few years later, Erik started using the comics frequently in the classroom with his 8th grade students, after Kilbourne Middle School began an effort to do formative and summative assessments in writing across the curriculum.

“I started with my 8th graders and found the comics and the teacher guide and questions to be extremely valuable as they were aligned with exactly what we were trying to do, increase students reading and writing about non-fiction topics. This year I began using the comics with my 7th graders as well. In fact, right now my eighth graders read one comic every Friday and answer the teacher guide questions as a practice (formative) assessment for their graded writing assignments.”

Another response we received came from the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center. Executive Assistant Tricia Ortega informed us that the publication goes beyond a school setting! She wrote to us, saying:

“Colorful History is not just for kids! I print the comics out and put them on the front counter for the Mayor’s Office. A lot of our staff does not know much about Colorado history other than what we were taught in school a few decades ago. Everyone has enjoyed the comics and they provide something for folks to do while waiting for meetings.”

Janae L., a 4th grade teacher at Bristol Elementary in Colorado Springs, described to us her student’s excitement after reading an issue on the Colorado Flag:

“I downloaded the Colorado Flag comic so students could view it on our Google Classroom site. I created a lesson target that would promote student inquiry. One student said, “I can explain the importance of the Colorado state flag and tell what aspects of Colorado are important to me.” As students read, their hands shot up as they discovered the information. They excitedly shared with me, and students ended the class remembering the information. I LOVED the student excitement and engagement because they were able to gain information from a comic and use technology to access it.”

We are thrilled to hear stories of how Colorful History comics are utilized, both in and out of the classroom!

Click the link below to check out different issues of our comic strip! We hope you find them just as useful!

Announcing Our 2017 Scary Story Design Contest Winners!

Thank you to everyone who participated in our 2nd Annual Tattered Cover Scary Story Cover Design Contest! We were thrilled with all the creative, original and hair-raising artwork we received from students across Colorado.

One winner and honorable mentions were selected for each grade level, and from these awardees a single grand-prize winner was chosen to be featured as the cover of the 34th Annual Scary Story Contest Book of Winners!

In addition, honorees received a collection of all the winning stories with the Grand Prize winning cover, and an invitation to a special reception at the Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue. You can read the full collection of amazing writers and artists at this link!

Many congrats to the winners and honorable mentions listed below!



The 2017 Scary Story Design Contest Grand Prize Winner is…. (drumroll)… Islas Luevano!

Islas will receive two (2) weekend passes to Denver comic Con 2018 and a $25.00 Tattered Cover Book Token for this winning submission.

Likewise, each winner from each grade level below will receive a $25.00 Tattered Cover Book Token, while honorable mentions will receive a $15.00 Book Token.


WINNER: Augusta Ramp (Age 7, Grade 2)

HONORABLE MENTION: Tyler Grantham (Age 7, Grade 2)


WINNER: Leo Ramp (Age 8, Grade 3)

HONORABLE MENTION: Katherine Analovitch (Age 8, Grade 3)


WINNER: Islas Luevano (Age 11, Grade 6)


HONORABLE MENTION: Addison Rafferty (Grade 6)


HONORABLE MENTION: Cal Foster (Age 11, Grade 6)

HONORABLE MENTION: Lexi Rufenacht (Age 11, Grade 6)

HONORABLE MENTION: Avery Dossey (age 11, grade 6)


CONGRATULATIONS again to our wonderful contest winners, and thanks again to everyone who submitted a story cover!

5 Classic Educational Games to Kickstart Your Family Game Night


By Hannah Jorgensen

I grew up playing every kind of board game you can imagine. My family’s board game closet was nothing short of a vault filled with hours of entertainment. Even now, when I visit home from college, we find time to settle in for a couple of rounds of a family favorite.

Instead of watching hours of television, family game night ruled the house. And while it’s hard for me to look back and definitively say, “That one board game specifically expanded my critical thinking skills and made me the person I am today,” I do think that the board games that I spent hours playing benefited my development on a whole.

Board games have been lauded as being educational for children, whether it be their use in a classroom or as a supplement to education in the home. Research suggests that playing games can increase brain speed scores, expand creativity, support memory, and aid in the development of social skills like taking turns and collaboration, among other things. Games can also build executive function, which helps with school performance. And many educators are bringing play into the classroom because of its various benefits.

These benefits can be maximized through family game nights, or nights set aside specifically for playing games. And while I love my phone as much as the next person, there is something to be said for tuning out technology for a little bit and playing a tangible game with real people face-to-face.

Below are some of my favorites that I grew up with for your family to try.


The goal of Blokus is for players to fit all of their variously shaped pieces onto the board. It promotes strategic thinking and spatial awareness as you try to block out your opponents and fit in your own oddly shaped pieces.


Settlers of Catan

In this resource management game, players have to collect and trade resources, culminating in a game that requires strategic thinking, problem-solving and social skills. For younger kiddos and first-timers, consider starting with Catan Junior.



A classic party game, Scattergories requires players to brainstorm words to fit into certain categories, and skills like word recall and creative thinking are rewarded. If you’re looking to get a bit more vocal with your gameplay, consider Taboo as well.



Players race against each other to build a crossword grid and use up all their tiles. Kids get to practice spelling and vocabulary skills, plus the pace of play is much, much faster than Scrabble, keeping kids invested.


Clue (any version)

By taking good notes and making valid inferences, players can eventually deduce the correct identity of the hidden cards, strengthening deductive reasoning skills, in this classic game. If you’re wary of playing the original version, consider using one of the many adaptations of Clue, including everything from Junior to Harry Potter to Game of Thrones versions.

Solidarity Forever: A Review of On The Ropes

By Jason Nisavic (@Teaching_Humans)

My fifth year as a teacher almost began with a strike. As the contract negotiation process between our union leaders and the administration stalled out, whispers of greed and corruption began to poison the community on both sides.

For the first time, the day-to-day joy evaporated and I saw this career that I love as it really is: a sterile business arrangement forged in conflict. Thankfully, a compromise was reached, and classes began normally. I relate this story because, during my reading of On The Ropes (2013) by James Vance and Dan E. Burr, I realized how tame our contract negotiations really were.



Set in American in 1937, On The Ropes, the long-awaited sequel to the award-winning Kings in Disguise (1988) comic series, follows a undercover labor organizer named Fred Bloch, weaving in and out between his present and past. Over 250 gripping pages of art and story, we follow Fred’s perilous journey of survival and liberation through a violent world of unrest and upheaval during The Great Depression.

The graphic novel begins as Fred joins a unionized circus that was formed by the Works Progress Administration, one of the most influential New Deal Programs. In his time there, Fred assists stuntman Gordon Corey, a broken alcoholic with a death wish. Their side show attraction is simple: Gordon is handcuffed and a noose is tied to his neck. On the count of three, Fred triggers the trap door. Gordon has until the count of three to loosen the cuffs and save himself.

This acts as a perfect metaphor for both the personal anguish that our protagonists have found themselves in, as well as the larger struggle of the working class in this time period. Vance and Burr work well together to convey the desperation of the times as a backdrop to the story.

During the course of the book, we are reminded of exactly how bloody and painful the fight to form unions in the 20th Century actually was. On The Ropes holds nothing back, showing the barbaric tactics of union-busting business owners at the time.

We see organizers being dragged from their beds by hired goons. We see murder. And we are not-so-subtly lead to believe that multiple women are raped and killed. 

Many other characters inhabit and expand the plot. A female reporter and a precocious love interest highlight the plight of women in the 30’s working world, while the long-suffering manager of the circus gives us a manager’s agony over how to keep money flowing in tight times.

Perhaps the only drawback of the story are the two hired “goons” characters that serve as the main antagonists and come off as a little too ghoulishly superhuman. For most of the story, they pursue Fred with a terminator-like determination and relentlessness that undermine the book’s otherwise reliable authenticity, and it’s not until nearly the very end of the story that one of them gets a humanizing, semi-relatable backstory.

Throughout it all, there is rarely a moment of safety found in this book, and that’s the way it should be. It’s obvious that the authors have meticulously researched each element of the book, and their passion and dedicated consistently shines through. Readers will come away with an engaging and humanizing impression of the depression, the rise of labor, and the lengths that those in power did and can go in the pursuit of maintaining the status quo.



Most importantly, due to the book’s language and intense violence, the content of this book means it’s most appropriate to high school students, though it can be adapted to lower grades at a teacher’s discretion. Yet, despite the mature themes, the book’s characters communicate at a relatively easy reading level, making it accessible for a variety of students.

History and Social Studies: At its core, On The Ropes is a period piece. Characters make references and wear clothing that are appropriate and intuitive for the 1930’s, but might present a challenge a modern history or social studies student (e.g., characters referring to each other as “Trotsky”). With the right support and by using these references and the period-specific art as a guide, a teacher could build into the reading experience a research project on everything from the Labor Movement to The Great Depression, or simply spur discussions about these time periods from diverse perspectives. *

*For any fellow Illinois educators reading, I’ve included a list of Illinois state standards below that the book addresses specifically using the context of The Great Depression.

Literature: In a more general setting, educators might use this book as part of a spring break or summer reading assignment for honors+ level students. Teachers might craft a project that will encourage them to use inductive thinking and use Fred’s experiences to draw conclusions about the lives of 1930’s Americans.

Diversity: Part of the beauty of On The Ropes is that it feels timeless and contemporary despite its Depression-era roots. With the graphic novel’s focus on labor unions and its message of perseverance in the face of tremendous odds, this book offers numerous opportunities for discussions on issues of equality, fairness, free expression, fighting for what’s right, and The American Dream, to name a few. In addition, because of its ties into ideas of social justice and representation, the book can inspire great community-driven projects and collaborations in any subject area.



Overall, On The Ropes is a great casual read for a teacher to connect with those challenging times before diving into a Depression unit. A story of transformation and teamwork against tremendous odds, this no-frills graphic novel will engage your students in this time period in new ways and hopefully inspire them to seek change in their own communities.

P.S. – I do recommend playing some Pete Seeger in the background while reading this book…it sets the tone well.

Jason Nisavic has taught social studies on the south side of Chicago for 12 years and is enthusiastic about making the classroom a more engaging place. He has experimented with incorporating games, graphic novels, and online projects into his curriculum to great. Reach out to him on Twitter @Teaching_humans to keep the conversation going!

All images © Dan E. Burr / James Vance / W.W. Norton


Illinois State Standards addressed through On The Ropes:

  • SS.CV.8.9-12: Analyze how individuals use and challenge laws to address a variety of public issues.
  • SS.CV.9.9-12: Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes and related consequences.
  • SS.H.3.9-12: Evaluate the methods utilized by people and institutions to promote change.
  • SS.H.5.9-12: Analyze the factors and historical context that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
  • SS.H.6.9-12: Analyze the concept and pursuit of the American Dream.
  • SS.H.7.9-12: Identify the role of individuals, groups, and institutions in people’s struggle for safety, freedom, equality and justice.
  • SS.H.12.9-12: Analyze the geographic and cultural forces that have resulted in conflict and cooperation.

Note: If you live in a different state, your standards likely overlap with just about all of these. In addition, the book directly references the Republic Steel Massacre of 1937 which occurred just outside of Chicago. This oft overlooked real-life tragedy creates a turning point in Fred’s life and would make for a great discussion anchor.

Pop Culture Classroom at New York Comic Con

Come check out all the Pop Culture Classroom panels at New York Comic Con next weekend! We’re set up at the convention center and at the Berger Forum of the New York Public Library. What’s more, we will be presenting with authors and artists from Scholastic, First Second, the French Comics Association, Image and more! Don’t miss out on these informative and entertaining panels.  


Title:  Lesson Planning for the Comics Classroom 

Description: Attendees of this workshop/panel will take with them strategies that they can use almost immediately in their classrooms. We will discuss what an ideal introductory comic unit looks like as well as a skills-based unit incorporating comics. Other items of note include how to put on Socratic Seminars and Lit Circles using graphic novels, and using single issues as writing prompts.     

Date: 10/5/2017 
Time: 11:15 AM – 12:00 PM 
Location: Classrooms A&B, New York Public Library  
Speakers: John Shableski (moderator), John Weaver, Adam Kullberg, Claudia McGivney, Michael Lopez   


Title:  Gender Identity: Understanding Through Art         

Description: At the forefront of modern social debate is the nature of gender identity and how we move forward culturally with new understanding of the diversity within. Many contemporary graphic novels directly and indirectly address this debate by providing fictional and non-fictional representations of individuals expressing and explaining how the definitions of both identity and gender have evolved. This panel will explore how this discussion can enter into the classroom. 

Date: 10/5/2017 
Time: 12:15 PM – 1:15 PM 
Location: 1B03  
Speakers: Dr. Katie Monnin (moderator), Tami Stronach, Molly Osterly, Michael Gianfrancesco, Dana Simpson   


Title:  Books As Flint: Using Graphic Novels to Spark Political Activism         

Description: Whether it be in the classroom or in the home, it can be difficult to open conversations about politics, race, religion, misogyny, and bigotry.  This panel will explore comic/graphic novel titles that work to open up those conversations as well as hopefully spark some political/social activism among those affected.  We will also explore activism options that could be/have been incepted from these reads.   

Date: 10/5/2017 
Time: 2:15 PM – 3:00 PM 
Location: Berger Forum, New York Public Library  
Speakers: John Shableski (moderator), Alan Brooks, Tony Medina, Stacy Robinson, Meryl Jaffee, Illya Kowalchuk        


Title:  The Representation Book Shelf: Building A More Diverse Comics Classroom         

Description: This panel will discuss the importance of diverse titles in classroom libraries as well as suggestions for titles to fill that shelf. 

Date: 10/5/2017 
Time: 2:45 PM – 3:45 PM 
Location: 1B03  
Speakers: Gina Gagliano (Moderator), Katie Monnin, Ngozi Ukazu, Michael Gianfrancesco, Geoff Gerber, Jorge Aguirre 


Title:  Content Literacy: Teaching STEM with Comics         

Description: Bring a one-two punch to teaching STEM: text and images teaming up in comics! Comics have been shown to improve reader engagement while enhancing both comprehension and retention. And with the new emphasis on reading nonfiction, academic vocabulary, and reading in the subject areas, comics are more relevant than ever. Join educators and comics creators as they present their specific strategies as well as a list of some of the best comics and graphic novels for teaching STEM topics. 

Date: 10/5/2017 
Time: 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM 
Location: 1B03  
Speakers: Adam Kullberg (moderator), Jay Hosler, Alison Wilgus, Molly Brooks, Illya Kowachuk, Joe Flood 


Title:  Get Parisian in the Classroom: An Educator Meetup with French Comics Association and Pop Culture Classroom!       

Description: Teachers and other education professionals are invited to an exclusive meet-up with international graphic novel creators, co-hosted with the French Comics Association and Pop Culture Classroom. French artists will join with teachers with proven success introducing and analyzing comics in their classes, to engage and educate students from k-12 and secondary school. An interactive, small-group format where you’ll get the chance for personal discussion with these renowned stars of the bande dessinée scene about their accessible new releases, all translated in English (no foreign language knowledge required!). We’ll brainstorm lesson questions together and leave with new ideas you can use in class next week!   

Date: 10/5/2017 
Time: 3:45-4:45 
Location: Javitz Meeting Room 
Speakers:  Meg Lemke, Michael Gianfrancesco, Mark Daponte, Jon Eric Schneiderhan, John Hoffman, Laura Irene Miller 


Title:  Ready for Adventure? Action (and Romance) Packed YA / All-Ages Comics     
 An exclusive look at new teen and all-ages titles—swashbuckling, world-traveling, magical and action-packed adventure comics! Romance and adventure await in graphic novels by Patricia Lyfoung (The Scarlet Rose), Scott Westerfeld (Spill Zone), Nidhi Chanani (Pashmina), and Valerie Vernay (Water Memory) and Ngozi Ukazu (Check, Please!). Moderated by Adam Kullberg (Pop Culture Classroom). 

Date: Sunday, 10/8/2017
3:45 PM – 4:45 PM
 1A05 in Javits Center

12 Teachable Graphic Novels You (Probably) Haven’t Heard Of

By Michael Gianfrancesco

Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve watched as a renaissance has taken place in the graphic novel medium. Educators and institutions have realized that these books can be a valuable resource for inroads to skills based lesson planning, and as a result graphic novels have found their way into the hands of more teachers and students today than ever before.

But what’s most amazing to me is the fact that there seems to be canonical texts that have broken through to the modern pedagogical zeitgeist. In other words, there are graphic novels with which nearly all teachers are familiar—books like Maus, Persepolis, Smile, American Born Chinese, Watchmen, Fun Home, and The Sandman, to name a few.

However, while this is a great thing for the comics in the classroom movement, I feel like a lot of amazing titles have gone unnoticed because most mainstream teachers gravitate to the list above. Don’t get me wrong: These books are all marvelous titles well worth addition to any classroom library… but there are so many other books that don’t end up on the “Best Comics to Teach” lists out there on the interwebs.

Below I’ve put together a list of my top 12 favorites teachable graphic novels that you may have never heard of or considered for classroom use. Each of the titles also includes a short overview and descriptions of how it might be best utilized in your classroom.

If you like this list, let us know and we can offer up more in a future blog post!


#1 – Superman: Red Son by writer Mark Millar and artists Dave Johnson & Kilian Plunkett

What if Superman landed in the Soviet Union in the early 1950’s instead of the USA? How would the DC Universe be different? This compelling tale focuses on a revisionist history of a fictional world and opens up a number of opportunities for teachers to explore Cold War culture, how the Soviet regime operated (and ultimately fell), as well as the nature of the man versus the superman (literally, philosophically, and socio-politically).


#2 – Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner

My personal favorite Eisner graphic novel, this book explores the origin of the street on which many of his other stories are set. The story starts in the 1870s in the spot where the fictional Bronx street will eventually be built. The farmland, settled by the Dutch Van Dropsie family, is where it all begins. Each new immigrant family that takes up residence scares off the previous. The Dutch are run off by the English, who leave when the Irish begin to move in around them. From there, Italian, Jewish, Latino, and African American communities rise and fall in sync with the buildings around them. The book is a harsh yet ironic look at the nature of class and cultural conflict and how superficial differences continue to divide the residents. The portrayal of an almost stacked oppression carried on from generation to generation will create many opportunities for classroom discussion.


#3 – Civil War by writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven

After an irresponsible group of young superheroes accidentally causes an explosion which obliterates Stamford Connecticut live on a reality show, the government introduces the controversial Superhero Registration Act which requires all costumed heroes to reveal their presence and powers to the government. Iron Man and Captain America disagree fundamentally about this, Iron Man supporting it as a way to safeguard the country and Cap feels that it violates the basic human rights. The two leaders and their teams square off in an internal conflict that claims the lives of more than one of their friends. In a time of division in our country where passions ignite over political differences, what better way to start the conversation over whether fighting for our cause is worth the fallout of real conflict.


#4 – Green Lantern/Green Arrow by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams

Inspired by the “find yourself” films of the 1960’s and 1970’s (Easy Rider in particular), Dennis O’Neil decided to write what would become one of the most iconic DC teamups in comic book history. The story arc, unofficially dubbed “The Hard Drivin Heroes” sees the two emerald clad heroes take to the road and meet real people with real problems. They confront racism, drug use, the displacement of Native Americans, and the political strife of the time in a story which forces the normally space-bound Green Lantern to realize that he didn’t understand the problems in the world because he wasn’t really part of it. This book is a great look at the post-Vietnam War era in this country and offers an opportunity to open discussion on civil rights and what people knew and thought they new about the struggles of the oppressed in this country.


#5 – Saga of the Swamp Thing by writer Alan Moore and artist Stephen Bissette

When Alan Moore puts his name on a book, you can count on it being something special. When he decided to reinvent the failing Swamp Thing book for Vertigo, he started almost from scratch and turned a fifth string plant man into one of the most powerful and relevant superhumans of all. The book takes the origin of the character, originally believed to be a man who had been turned into a plant, and flips it around (he’s a plant who is pretending to be a man) and in doing so, explores the relationship between mankind and the environment by creating a spiritual and ecological connection between these two entities. This would be a fantastic supplement to any climate change or other environmental lesson.


#6 – Far Arden by Kevin Cannon

The search for paradise, Utopia, Shangri-La, or whatever other name it may go by is a fairly common motif in literature. In the case of this book, Kevin Canon dubs his promised land Far Arden and his hero, Army Shanks, is gruff, resourceful, and, at times, even emotionally fractured. During the course of his adventure, he meets strange and wonderful characters, most notable is his companion, the orphaned Alistair Cavendish. Shanks is forced to start relying on others in order to be successful (and stay alive) and this is a hard lesson learned by a hard man. The book explores the nature of the father/son relationship, the desire of excitement and adventure, vulnerability, and the hero’s journey. You could pair this with Beowulf, The Odyssey or any other classic or modern adventure story.


#7 – Top 10 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon

This is far and away one of the most unique explorations of a world with superhumans that has ever been published, and it’s one of my all-time favorite series. Imagine, if you will, the Earth being overrun with magical, scientific, and genetic superheroes to the degree that normal humans are tired of their nonsense and create a city where all of them can live together. That’s Neopolis and Top 10 follows the exploits of the cops of Precinct 10 who have to deal with the day to day minutia of robot gangsters, Norse Gods acting out their classic brother versus brother combat, otherworldly threats who accidentally teleport into a busy intersection, and the like. You know, normal, everyday stuff. The book takes the mythos of the modern superhero genre and turns it on its head with silliness and a dose of intrigue and mystery. Great text to illustrate the nature of satire as your students will no doubt recognize some of the tropes being roasted in this book.


#8 – Taxes, the Tea Party and those Revolting Rebels – A History in Comics of the American Revolution by Stan Mack

There are a lot of amazing historical-based comics out there. In fact, I could dedicate a single list to just those titles (and maybe I will at some point) but in the meantime, I wanted to share this little gem. Spanning the history of our country’s origin from 1761 to 1789, this book tells a ground level tale of the rebels and scoundrels that were instrumental in helping found our nation. The artwork is fun but serious when it needs to be, and Mack pulls no punches when it comes to historical accuracy. He uses historical imagery, allegory, and geographic maps and locales to make these crucial decades accessible and powerfully rendered. This would work really well as a supplement to any American history or civics lesson and the concept of resistance and revolution is always poignant in the tumultuous and connected world of the 21st Century.


#9 – Clan Apis by Jay Hosler

If you are teaching biology and have a unit on entomology, this book needs to be part of your instruction. Dr. Jay Hosler is a professor of biology at Juniata College and one amazing artist/author. His book tracks the life cycle of a honeybee from birth to death using a narrative structure and amazing characters. Readers follow Nyuki from her larval stage all the way to the end of her adventures which allows her to cross paths with all sorts of other flora and fauna as she learns what the circle of nature really means and how all creatures feed each other and that keeps the world turning. Hosler doesn’t use cutesy art with his characters, choosing instead to make them look anatomically correct but using subtle artistic choices to convey emotions. It’s a book to read for pleasure that secretly teaches you when you aren’t looking. Great addition to any biology or life science classroom.


#10 – Slovakia – Fall in the Heart of Europe by Marek Bennett

I first met Marek Bennett at the Maine Comics Art Festival many years ago. I was just starting my work with teachers and comics in the classroom and he came highly recommended as an educator and an artist. Turns out, that recommendation was pretty well deserved as Marek and I have worked together many times over the years. This book, one of many that he has produced in his career, focuses on a visit to the land of his familial origins, Slovakia where he reconnects with his heritage and his family, and does some educational outreach work too. This graphic memoir has simple art where the characters are represented as different animals. Marek’s experiences are recounted in brutal honesty and we learn about the cultural and social world of this seldom talked about Central European country. This is a great book to illustrate biographical storytelling, travel writing, and European culture.


#11 – Tangles by Sarah Leavitt

This autobiographical account of Sarah Leavitt’s struggle with helping her mother as she slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease is a tour of emotional explosions. Her portrayal of her vibrant and witty mother who has to cope with the knowledge that her mind is slowly fading is heartbreaking but also strikingly inspirational. You will learn a real lesson about courage and fortitude as Sarah and her mother face the darkness together, until Sarah is forced to face it alone. It’s every bit as amazing as it sounds and my simple words here cannot possibly do justice to what lies within these pages. The art, though minimal is complex in its portrayal of themes. You can almost feel the pain and power with each stroke of the pen. Bring this to a psychology class or even a college level course on neurological diseases as it tells a very real tale of Alzheimer’s which transcends the medical reality and brings us face to face with what it can do to a person and a family.


#12 – Tomboy by Liz Prince

Liz Prince’s graphic memoir about her own understanding of her personal identity as a woman who wasn’t, as she puts it, “a girly girl” nor was she “one of the guys.” Instead she places herself squarely in “the middle,” which is not an advantageous place to be in a world of absolutes. She worlds through her childhood and adolescence in the book, exploring her identity in all ways, from clothing and hairstyle, to choice of companionship, hobbies and passions, and all the choices, desires, and impulses that make her who she is. It’s a frank and amazing story that I read at least every six months. This would work well in just about any memoir unit or a psychology class.



So there you have it. Check out these titles, tell us what you think, and feel free to post your own choices for this list in the comments below.

If you like this post, let us know and we can do it again in the future! And be sure to follow me on Twitter @tryingteacher and you will see weekly recommendations for texts you can use in your classroom! Happy reading!

Michael Gianfrancesco is a high school English teacher and adjunct professor of English who has been advocating for the use of comics in the classroom since he was a pre-service educator. Over the years he has done workshops and panels at Harvard, Brown, Fordham, New York Comic Con, C2E2, Denver Comic Con, and NCTE.