As always, the first big day of Comic-Con is dedicated to all things educational. I checked out two panels on July 22: LitX’s Graphic Novels are the New Textbooks and GeekED Rewind 20-21: The True American Horror of Lovecraft Country.
Graphic Novels are the New Textbooks
Modern, dynamic teaching means thinking outside the textbook. Michael Gianfrancesco (LitX founder and teacher), Shveta Miller (author of Hacking Graphic Novels: 8 Ways to Teach Higher-Level Thinking with Comics and Visual Storytelling), Deborah Benjamin (educator), Ronell Whitaker (English curriculum director), and Dr. Jay Hosler (writer/artist The Way of the Hive) discuss techniques to engage students using the comics medium in a way that will demonstrate practical positive educational results.
This panel opened with the standard question of what graphic novels each panelist would recommend to justify the use of comics in the classroom to administrators. Thankfully, each of the panelists went beyond the basics with their responses.
Whitaker explained that he starts off his recommendations with adaptations, including manga, which he feels are the easiest to sell. Benjamin agreed, using graphic adaptations of The Odyssey, for example, to enhance work with the text. From there, Whitaker moves to award-winning titles where books like Maus, Persepolis, and Fun Home appear. Actively using graphic novels in her classroom, Benjamin offers up memoirs like these, as well as They Called Us Enemy and March before moving into the social issues that appear in comics like Supergirl.
Whitaker said that he leans into the idea that comics are a living medium that works well as part of a culturally responsive curriculum. The industry still has many issues when it comes to diversity, but it is easier to draw out the books created by more varied voices.
Miller noted that district-level initiatives are often siloed. When updating curriculums to be more culturally responsive, administration needs to recognize that every element is interconnected. Meaning, comics aren’t simply a tool specific to literacy. Consider how comics can be a vehicle for learning in other classrooms. Hosler’s science classrooms are a prime example of this, though he noted that he has a lot more freedom at the collegiate level and does not necessarily need to convince administration of the value of comics. Instead, he has to convince his students, some of whom consider comics to be low brow. He shared his experience with non-science majors who experience a lot of anxiety in the classroom. These students inspired him to create a comic called Optical Illusions where short stories are interlinked with scientific text. Using this tool, both science majors and non-majors do well in the class, but also, those who didn’t think highly of comics changed their opinions.
Passionate about the connection between comics and science, Hosler points to the entire “swamp of human history,” citing cave drawings, Galileo’s sequence of the moon’s positions, and Einstein’s story of lightning striking a moving train. All of these are examples of how science has been using stories and images in sequence and stories for the entirety of its existence. According to Hosler, to suggest that storytelling and pictures somehow undermine science or any kind of education would be to ignore what textbooks look like, with pages filled with diagrams, images, and words. Comics are simply a platform that use this concept with greater opportunity for engagement.
Gianfrancesco uses American Born Chinese and Ms. Marvel, among other titles, but points to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as his go to. He finds that when administrators see that there is a comic book that explains how to read and teach and learn from comic books, that helps convince them.
When it comes to hard data, Whitaker feels that the only data that truly matters to an administrator is what happens to students immediately. Administrators tend to want to see the data at the end result of the learning. As such, it is necessary to change the mindset of the teachers at the training level, and to engage the students, encouraging them to be part of the process.
Hosler, as the scientist, stressed that the research data and confirmation shouldn’t be dismissed, though he acknowledged that handing the information to someone isn’t going to convince them, but it serves as a buttress — evidence that educators like these aren’t just winging it. Whitaker clarified that he was not trying to “poo poo” the data, but rather, because we’ve “seen how the sausage is made,” we should be able to move beyond sharing those numbers.
Dealing in an environment that still weighs success heavily on standardized testing, Benjamin emphasized that many of those tests rely on imagery. Using comics in the classroom teaches students to hone their skills when it comes to interpreting those images and the stories they tell.
Miller spoke about some of the inspiration for her upcoming book, Hacking Graphic Novels, a lot of which came from Slow Looking by Shari Tishman, which encourages looking at things with rigor and paying close attention in order to become critical consumers. Slow Looking informed a lot of what is written in Miller’s book in terms of cultivating the craft of encouraging students to take the time and care to look deeply and in collaboration with others.
I want to believe that all academic institutions understand the literary value of comics as a teaching tool, but educators still face pushback in the classroom from students, parents, other teachers, and administrators. In my own experience with a child in grade 7 and another in grade 10, I have only come across two teachers who actively promoted graphic novels in their classroom. Only one of them actually used them as part of their curriculum. Panels like this one are a valuable place to hopefully inspire educators who are looking to implement comics in their classrooms, but there is a need for a stronger follow through on the how that feeds off of that inspiration.
GeekED Rewind 20-21: The True American Horror of Lovecraft Country
The experiences of college students and educators during the last year were inseparable from the horrors of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the realities of anti-Black racism. Enter Lovecraft Country, a powerful horror sci-fi story set in Jim Crow America, where the onscreen monsters and ghosts paled in comparison to the true horrors facing the protagonists. Numerous courses, lesson plans, and campus conversations emerged from Lovecraft Country, which served as both an analogy and an outlet for college students and educators alike. Join this panel of educators as they reflect on the impact this story had on their experiences, the impact of Black horror and sci-fi, and the power of telling our own story. Featuring Jada Anderson, assistant resident director, UCLA; Alfred Day, associate dean of students, UC Berkeley; Dr. Andrea Letamendi, director of student resilience, UCLA; The Arkham Sessions Podcast; Dr. David Surratt, vice president and dean of students, University of Oklahoma
After introductions and offering up their favourite characters from the series (Hippolyta and Ruby shared top spot), the panelists got caught up in gushing about the show.
Is it a sign of progress for characters — particularly characters of colour — do some downright bad things, Day asked. Lovecraft Country raised the bar by allowing the characters to live their Black experience but also be human — for better and for worse. Anderson suggested that it opens the door for other shows to write actual three-dimensional characters who happen to be from marginalized groups.
The show is meant to make you uncomfortable — with the additional context of what are you reckoning with at the end. In contrast, Letamendi drew in Falcon and the Winter Soldier as an example of a show that also dealt with racial issues and trauma, but noted that the delivery often fell flat. The aftermath of those experiences were not addressed though and the show didn’t fully explore the nuances in a way that Lovecraft Country did. Lovecraft Country was intended to be heavy and force viewers to walk away considering these issues on a deeper level, especially because it connects the past with the present through context and also stylistically.
Day raised the concept of racism as horror as a more compelling narrative tool. Not a fan of the genre himself, he still found the series incredibly powerful because of how it infused the horror of racism with the horror of supernatural monsters.
The show wasn’t just uncomfortable for those who don’t experience the generational trauma of Black people, but for Black people themselves. As Day explained, Lovecraft Country spends a lot of time airing cultural “laundry” in the street. Letamendi confessed to her shock at Ruby’s transformation in the show, noting that that wasn’t the kind of white woman she expected her to turn into and sharing her own childhood imaginings of blond hair and blue eyes and the safety of whiteness. In many ways, Lovecraft Country also offered an opportunity to analyze ourselves and how we process our own trauma.
Day expressed concerns about where the show was intentionally problematic in ways that affected other marginalized communities — particularly the Indigenous and 2SLGBTQIA+ community who are epitomized in a character that is around for a short time and then used for shock value both in appearance and brutal murder. Letamendi agreed that those executive intentional decisions come with a cost that we need to be aware of when presenting them on screen.
Overall, the panel was insightful as a coffee table discussion about Lovecraft Country, but it lacked any educational connection in regard to how to introduce these conversations into the classroom. Of the few questions Day asked, the responses often went off on tangents — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the points addressed were all interesting, but it was clear that this panel didn’t really have a particular angle and agenda to guide the discussion.
“Graphic Novels are the New Textbooks” and “GeekED Rewind 20-21: The True American Horror of Lovecraft Country” can be found on Comic-Con International’s YouTube channel.