Comics in the Classroom, Environmental Lessons Made Fun

Stories shape us, our beliefs and our culture. Those seeking to create a better world must engage in self-reflection and explore the narratives that guide our lives. As we recently learned from Robin Grille, the time and place where our brains are most susceptible to influence is during youth. Positive and conscious effort put towards the healthy education of children’s developing minds is perhaps one of the best things we can do to create a better future. In an age where technology and media is everywhere, many education models are often boring for students. They want to engage, they want learning to be entertaining, colorful, interactive and some educators are embracing these growing possibilities to enhance education with all sorts of media, including comic books.

Teaching through story is universal across cultures since the beginning of time. Indigenous people sat around the fire through the winter learning stories and oral histories. Sacred texts like The Bhagavad Gita teach moral lessons through parable. Folk music around the world bring wisdom through ballads about love, war, and loss. Today we obsess about heroes and villains through movies, television, novels, and comics.

I wrote a piece called Comics Instead of Textbooks a few years back when I first learned that schools in South Africa were having great success teaching about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela through comic books. In it I write:

A few years back I read an inspiring book by Valerie Kirschenbaum called Goodbye Gutenberg: How a Bronx Teacher Defied 500 Years of Traditions and Launched an Astonishing Renaissance. Valerie’s students had the worst reading scores in her district, so she began making the text more visually pleasing for her students. Changing the colors and font of text, enlarging important words, using forward and reverse italics and incorporating design flow into the reading assignments. Her students reading scores rose to the top of the district in no time!

Since that time the field of transmedia, which is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies, has continued to erupt across the planet. There are endless opportunities to use this technology consciously to shape a new narrative that includes social justice, environmental stewardship, and cross-cultural respect. Graphic artist, Charlie LaGreca is one individual who is leading the charge.

In a recent project in collaboration with the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) and the Environmental Protection Agency, a comic book was created called Mayah’s Lot. Written by LaGreca and Rebecca Bratspies this story is about a young girl who plants a garden in a vacant city lot but then learns that they want to use the lot for storing toxic waste. The story follows her on her journey of organizing people to become active in protecting their community. It teaches students the importance of getting involved, and the process of making positive change in their neighborhood. In true transmedia style, the comic book is accompanied with lesson plans for a range of grade levels that work with Core Curriculum and a video (animated by Norman Dillon) which is suitable for classroom adoption. You can download the comic here.

I had the pleasure of working on a similar project with famed illustrators, Bret Blevins and native artist Ryan Huna Smith that teaches the importance of following your dreams and honoring the interconnectedness of all life in nature. The story, called Giggle Bubble Dreams also encourages children to add color to other peoples dreams thus fostering a sense of cooperation and creative expression. Indian Super Hero, Frybread Man, shares historical wisdom about the origin of frybread, the deep cultural resilience of indigenous people in North America, and the importance of eating healthy food.

Stories and creative media are not just for children, but conscious attention should be directed at developing stories that positively influence their psychological and emotional development. What kinds of stories are you drawn to, and what does that say about your own deeply held belief systems? Together we can support each other to develop new stories and dream of a better future for all. The next step is to take action for the things we truly believe are possible and manifest them. We have never had access to so many tools and technology to create a better world, let’s do it!

***This post originally appeared on UPLIFT Connect***

Comics Instead of Textbooks?

4_fmtImagine being in classroom and having your teacher assign you a comic book for the week. Don’t you think that comic book would get read a whole lot quicker than a traditional text book? Learning is one of the most empowering things a person can do with their life and can be quite fun, yet the mediums used in classrooms are dated and have caused students to think that learning is drudgery and boring.

Comics teach in a format that todays younger people can easily absorb. Youth that have grown up in our media-saturated world are visual learners who crave a certain level of stimulation; otherwise they feel bored. Unfortunately, many students are being labeled as ADD when actually they are just having a hard time sitting in a chair all day being bored and underwhelmed. This is obviously not the fault of the student or the teacher; it is time to address the medium.

A few years back I read an inspiring book by Valerie Kirschenbaum called Goodbye Gutenberg: How a Bronx Teacher Defied 500 Years of Traditions and Launched an Astonishing Renaissance. Valerie’s students had the worst reading scores in her district, so she began making the text more visually pleasing for her students. Changing the colors and font of text, enlarging important words, using forward and reverse italics and incorporating design flow into the reading assignments. Her students reading scores rose to the top of the district in no time!

In South Africa, The Nelson Mandela Centre For Memory introduced a series of comic books to tell the story of Nelson Mandela to youth who were born after he was released from prison. The first comic was released in October 2005, and each subsequent comic has been distributed at intervals of several months. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory wishes to make the comics interactive by using them as a teaching tool in schools and by means of feedback sessions with rural communities in particular. As a result, they’ve developed an interactive comics exhibition to support the outreach of the Madiba Legacy comic series and it has been quite successful.

Now, PBSKids has introduced WordGirl, SuperWhy, and Cyberchase as educational comics for kids that are partnered with engaging television shows. Scholastic has jumped on board with authors like Sari Wilson, who wrote State of Emergency, True Tales of Survival in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina which is also an educational comic. There is even a book by Katie Monin called Teaching Graphic Novels, Strategies for the Secondary ELA which promises to “Harness the power of graphic novels to promote literacy and engage all secondary students.” Comic creator Josh Elder founded the educational nonprofit organization Reading With Pictures to promote the use of comics in the classroom.The use of transmedia storytelling will continue to evolve in the classroom as technology and the market catches up and I will be doing an article about that in the near future.

Giggle Bubble Dreams is a recently completed book that teaches children about the interconnectedness of nature while empowering youth with notions of community social responsibility using fantasy and comics. Giggle Bubble Dreams is a collaboration between myself and Bret Blevins (Emmy Awarded Artist whose video blog was featured in my previous post) with contributions from multiple artists including music from Grammy-Winning musician, Cyril Neville and illustrator, Ryan Huna Smith. Smith is a Native American Artist who contributed to “Tribal Force” a collection of Native Superheroes including Frybread Man. The notion of superheroes teaching social responsibility and defending nature and tribal ways instead of beating each other up is a notion whose time has come! Please enjoy the interview with Ryan Smith below, see his beautiful art and learn a little something about native culture in America.

Education is multidimensional, and there is an interconnectedness that visual art and creative design can convey beyond words that keep students engaged and having fun while learning. Free Comic Book Day is May 5th and participating comic book shops around the world give away comic books absolutely FREE to anyone who comes into their stores. So go to your local comic store and ask what kinds of educational comics they have available!

Read Article on Huffington Post Here 

Inspiration IS Currency, an Interview With Bret Blevins

Artists influence our culture, but what influences the artists? Inspired art has always shaped the culture around us, though it’s a relatively new concept that art would be used for individual profit rather than community enrichment. What are the differences between art that is created for the pleasure of personal expression or with the intention of conveying inspiration versus art created for the sole purpose of selling a product or lifestyle? Both forms of art still influence and shape the culture around us, but in different ways.
For example, when large companies are deciding which music to play on the radio, they do surveys. They ask people to vote on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the favorite and 1 being the least favorite. Since people have varying opinions, the music that receives the most 5′s also is the same music that receives the most 1′s. It goes to reason that if some people really love it, others will really hate it, whereas the music that receives consistent 3′s elicits the least positive or negative feeling and is therefore the music that gets picked for airplay. Commercial media seeks the largest target to make the most sales.
As individuals become more empowered to be creators of art in the form of media, instead of purely consumers of media, it will continue to shape the language of the medium. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t be likely to see a film that was purely created for the passion of a cause because the production costs would have demanded a financial return.
The messages that define who we are as people, and our responsibilities as an emerging global community may not be profitable in dollars (in fact they may be the death of business as usual), but their value in terms of social equity is priceless. This is the dawn of an era where inspiration and meaning have become their own form of currency. Financial influence continues to be exposed for its flaws of hollow self interest at the expense of many things valued by a healthy community.
Though there is an endless discussion to be had when we talk about sexualization and body-image, demeaning messages in rap music, violence in video games and how it shapes our culture, but the bottom line is the bottom line when the intention is to sell a product. Our media and art have been shaped by the invisible hand of finance that lacks the integrity and accountability that art and artists should uphold for the sake of the greater community. Though short-term financial gain is always tempting, art almost always outlives the artist. What is the creative legacy of our generation, and how will the future define us through the art we leave behind?
Master artist, Bret Blevins has some very balanced and insightful perspectives on the pros and cons of these different influences within commercial media and our culture. As a commercial artist for over 20 years, illustrating & making storyboards for Disney, Warner Brothers, Marvel, DC, Darkhorse and others, you have probably seen his work on many occasions.
The same way that we make conscious choices about our food and where it comes from, we must also make our media diet reflect our desire to live a healthy and inspired life. The birth of independent media, and the democratization of the media through the digital revolution is a hopeful sign for the return of art for the purpose of enriching the community, personal expression, and shaping the future of our culture in a healthy and creative way.

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