I’m Teaching Comics and SEL

One of my favorite things about being a teaching artist is the opportunity to dig deeper into my art forms alongside the creative and curious minds of students. I get to learn so much about the art I’m most interested in, and by sharing that experience with students openly, I can hear their questions and I can be inspired by their ideas. 

Lately, the artform I’m most interested in has been comics. Illustration has long held an intrigue, and for me comics is the elevated form of illustration as hybrid storytelling combining not only words and pictures, but also time, movement and atmosphere. Teaching comics to kids has been enlightening on this artform. It’s both so immediately accessible to so many students, and holds depths of possibility that seem endless. 

This past summer, I got to teach comics camps through partnership with some local arts organizations and libraries: The Arts Center (Corvallis), Salem Art Center, Lane Arts Council and Coos Bay Public Library. It’s been a very rich summer of creating and I’m struck with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the experince. Actually, it was in a comics class with middle schoolers this summer that I developed a new character who seemed to leap out at me fully formed and I’ve been enamored with this character’s stories since. 

Comics and Social-Emotional Learning

What has been even more gratifying in these classes, is the opportunity for students’ as well as my own deeper holistic artistic experience through comics. Recently, I’ve been reworking many of my lesson plans to include aspects and goals of Social-Emotional Learning more intentionally. Comics has been a surprising (but then again, not surprising) perfect artform for supporting students in exploring emotional impulses and responses, cultural contexts, curiosity and questioning, hypothesizing and experimenting.

With comics as a medium, we can investigate materials, look for surprises in small moments and think of big possibilities. Students interpret emotional expressions of characters by observing the choices of the artist. Then, with theatre games inspired by Augusto Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed, students can embody experiences with play and performance. Meanwhile, their peers practice close observation and make artistic choices based on what they see and what they want to say. 

In camps and classes this summer, I’ve worked with students in exploring feelings both physical and emotional. We ask what might instigate those feelings and what options we have for response. We’ve practiced linework to explore how small gestures can become stories in their own right. Our fine felt tip pens slope down in thin, feeble lines that melt into exhaustion or sadness. We use the soft flexible tips of brush pens to create bold, spiked zags transformed into blasts of power and energy. With students, I’ve made scores of zines, revolutionizing what a book can be, who can make one and what can be in it. I’ve seen in students how the chance to make something to share freely and openly becomes itself a point of inspiration. 

Comics have inspired discussions about the kind of art we make, the kinds of jokes we tell, and why and how it affects others. Comics as a practice creates the opportunity for student expertise. They know how their characters should look, and students can lead the rest of the class, including the educators, in a drawing tutorial of their own designs. The comics practice of examining sequences while also anticipating different layers and perspectives of stories, as well as the practice of making art among and with each other, have cultural impacts for the comics class or camp.

In a comics camp this summer, a class of a dozen students and I debriefed after a playground brawl, focusing on the stories each person told themselves and believed about others. A camp culture of listening to each other and following each other’s guidance at different times allowed us to have conflict and to also move the story forward to what comes next.

Planning and Teaching with Values

As I prepare each residency and lesson plan about comics, I hold these 5 values in mind:

  • Close attention to the tools we use and small elements will reveal big inspiration.
  • Each story is part of a larger context: What happened before? What can happen next?
  • There are so many ways to make a book or tell a story.
  • Feeling something in our own bodies helps us know it with more intelligence.
  • Observing others with empathy helps us know ourselves and each other with more intelligence.

Comics are an incredibly rich educational resource. Through researching resources on comics, I stubled upon this panel discussion about education through comics featuring Malaka Gharib, Scott McCloud, Whit Taylor, and Kriota Willberg, and Robert Sikoryak. (Check out that resonance with Gharib about teaching people to make zines!) And this page from the UCLA Library is a treasure trove of resources, videos and links.

In my next posts about comics, I’ll share some of my lesson plans and teaching tools I use in my camps. There’s an entire pedagogy of comics that I am thrilled to explore and share with students, educators and folks who are interested in comics and arts experiences.