Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Picks for 2010.

Having been away from the Teach Comics blog for a year and a half, I thought I'd compile a short list of some of my favorite graphic novels from the past year. While I could go on and on about ALL the great graphic novels and comics of 2010, I thought I'd limit it to those that I've added to my own classroom library, or that my colleagues at the middle and elementary level have had success with.

So, without further delay, here are the Teach Comics highlights for 2010:
BOOK #1- The Stuff of Legends, Book 1
Villard Books

Part Toy Story, part Dean Koontz's Oddkins, and part Jim Henson's The Christmas Toy, this sweeping action/adventure from indie creators Raicht, Smith, and Wilson appeals to readers of all levels.

The basic premise is both original and vaguely familiar- It's Brooklyn, 1944, and a young boy is stolen away to the mystical realm known only as THE DARK, by it's ruler the Boogeyman. The boy's only hope? -A band of misfit toys including a lead soldier, a ballerina, an Indian, a piggy bank, a wooden duck, a jack-in-the-box, and a stuffed bear, as well as his puppy. This unlikely group of heroes ventures after the beloved boy, battling the Boogeyman's forces in a race against time.

This is only the first volume of an on-going series, so while it is not a complete story, it sets the stage for a sweeping adventure.

While this story has been insanely popular with both high school and middle school students, I would avoid using it at the elementary levels. The sepia-toned eerie illustrations and battle scenes might be a bit too heavy for that age.

Overall, the book is a really fun read, with crisp illustrations and believable dialog- no easy feat for a story about a group of kid's toys battling the monster in the closet.

BOOK #2-Thor: The Mighty Avenger, vol. 1
Marvel Comics

Thor, a beloved Marvel Comics character (yes, based on the Norse god), is banished to earth after centuries of brash, selfish behavior to learn what it really means to be a hero. As he wanders middle America with his new friend (and possible love interest) museum curator Jane Foster, Thor encounters heroes, villains, monsters, and average folk on his quest of rediscovery.

The beauty of this book is that it works on so many levels. For young readers the story is broken up into chapters (originally published as thirty page single issues) which each feature self-contained stories with flashy characters and plenty of action and humor. For the more sophisticated reader, however, the overarching theme of self discovery and the subplot of a budding romance keeps us flipping the pages. This is an easy fit for any middle or secondary classroom.

All this appeal rests squarely on the shoulders of the capable prose stylings of Roger Landridge and the modern-yet-vintage pencil wok of Chris Samnee. In a market where writers and artists change on titles all the time, once in a while the creators of a book develop such a unique and powerful vision that you can't imagine the character, or it's universe, carrying on without those creators. It doesn't happen often, but this is one of those times.

Which brings me to the great tragedy of this book. Sadly, due to poor sales in a brutal direct market, this true gem has been canceled as a monthly series as of this month. That means that after this volume, there will be a volume 2 collecting the second half of the series and that's it. I could go on and on about the comic industry and how it's shooting itself in the foot by canceling such a brilliant title, but I fear I would be replacing my "teacher hat" with my "fanboy hat," and one must always remember their purpose when blogging.

Suffice to say, in this humble bloggers opinion, any middle or high school teacher building a graphic novel library would due well to add this title (both volumes) to their bookshelf. The appeal crosses age groups, genders, and reading abilities...How often can we say that about a text?

BOOK #3- Reading With Pictures
Reading With Pictures/ The Comic Book Project

Tapping over thirty of the hottest mainstream and independent creators in the comic book world, the nonprofit organization Reading With Pictures has put together a compilation of stories targeted specifically at elementary, middle, and high school student with the goal of building literacy skills through the comics medium. While lesson plans and literacy terms are not discussed explicitly, the book is meant to engage and motivate readers of all levels with short 2 to 6 pages stories. For younger grades the stories like G-Man: Reign of the Robo-Teachers and The Goblin of the Deep are bright, colorful, fun, and easily digestible (meaning that for a reluctant reader the length of the story is not overwhelming). For higher level students the stories in this anthology like Introduction work great as inference building tools, while also providing complex subjects for discussion around visual rhetoric.

ALL teachers interested in using comics in the classroom should definitely pick up a copy of this book.

BOOK #4- Kill Shakespeare, vol. 1
IDW Publishing

Okay, if you grew up on a diet of action adventure stories as a child and now found yourself teaching literature (I know I can't be the only one), you've probably thought at one point or another, "What if Hamlet hung out with Juliet and Othello?" or "Who's worse- Lady Macbeth or Richard III?"

-Welcome to the world of Kill Shakespeare- where all the Bard's most famous characters co-exist in one world. Join the forces of good (Hamlet, Juliet, and Othello) as the struggle against the forces of evil (and man did Shakespeare have some evil characters) to find the mysterious sorcerer Will Shakespeare.

This is a fantastic book for students and teachers alike. I've had fun sharing the text with students as they read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet because for them it's a dynamic action/adventure version of these classic characters to connect with, while for me it's a collection filled with "easter eggs," or small allusions from a variety of Shakespeare's works.

This book is just absolute fun from beginning to end, but I'd reserve it for the high school crowd as the visual depictions can be a bit intense for the younger crowd.

BOOK #5- Superboy: The Boy of Steel
DC Comics

It wouldn't be a true Teach Comics list without at least one book related to the greatest superhero ever: Superman. Luckily, this year DC has really stepped up their game when it comes to the big blue boy scout, by releasing multiple noteworthy trades including Superman: Earth One and Superman Secret Origin, but for this blogger one title stands out from the pack- Superboy: Boy of Steel by Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul.

Released originally as a series that ran for the past two years, this collection focuses not on a young Clark Kent, but on his teenage clone, who shares genetic traits with not just Superman, but his greatest enemy: Lex Luthor.

A true teen drama, The Boy of Steel focuses on Superboy's questioning of his own place in the larger world, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest superhero universes to ever exist. We've all felt alone and confused in our lives, but how does that play out when you come from both the greatest hero and villain in your world? How does family play into that? How do our friends figure into the tough decisions we make as young people on the cusp of discovering our own identity? -This book has it all. Geoff Johns is truly a master writer who captures the voice of a believable teenage protagonist struggling with a universal problem- "Who am I?"

An ideal book for middle and secondary students, I can't recommend Superboy: The Boy of Steel enough.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

An introduction to transcendentalism

In my years as a public school English teacher I've found that one particular piece of American Lit. curriculum simultaneously excites and terrifies most educators: transcendentalism.

We're talking about Emerson and Thoreau here- two prominent contributors to American thought and philosophy. If you ask me, that's a lot to present to kids between novels, poetry, grammar lessons, and the ever-increasing standardized test prep. In fact, when I think back to my own high school days I'm pretty sure I walked away from my teacher's presentation of "Self Reliance" and "Civil Disobedience" with little more than the idea that these guys must have been the first hippies and would have gotten along great with my aunt and uncle who still rocked the tie-dye 'Dead shirts. In truth, I was probably more interested in "transcending" my social status so that the cute girl in the front of the class would notice me. It wasn't really until I was in college, really challenging myself for the first time, that I discovered the value of the social-political-psychological movement known as transcendentalism.

Which brings me back to today. How do I do this content justice? How do I present this complicated material in a manner which is accessible for a group of teenagers at strikingly different ability levels? -If you can relate, I present to you the following: John Porcellino's Thoreau at Walden.

Published by the truly outstanding Center for Cartoon Studies, this adaption of arguably Thoreau's greatest work is excerpted out of order to create a truly brilliant sequential narrative that highlights the philosopher's solitary year while complimenting the unique style of Thoreau's prose.

The artist, John Porcellino, is a master illustrator with a powerful minimalist style, mirroring in a sense the minimalist philosophy of H.D.T. -and that is exactly why I use this particular text as my introduction to this philosophical movement.

While purists may argue that starting with the work of the "student" (Thoreau), and not the "teacher" (Emerson) is in itself an affront on the study of this movement, my goal as a high school teacher is to expose my students to the major theoretical underpinnings of the movement, not to give a chronological survey course, and for my money, "Walden" screams "transcendental" like no other.

I usually "go elementary" on my high-schoolers and read selected portions of this book (and show them the niffty pictures) while we sit on the floor in a circle. (In my heart I think Henry David would appreciate us getting out of our factory made plastic chairs and skipping the multiple copies of the book for a shared reading experience.)

As I read to them, I ask my students to consider the intent of the artist in conveying the thoughts of the author. The beauty of this book is that almost every panel provides an opportunity to relate the seemingly simple, yet rhetorically complex illustrations to Thoreau's eloquent writing. When done right, and with ample time for discussion, students walk away from this reading with an understanding of transcendentalism's basic tenants concerning our connection to the natural world, and abhorrence for industrial society, and the ever-present goal of attaining a more simple life.

As a follow-up activity, I have my students mimic Porcellino's style (which, by the way, is much harder than it would seem) to construct mini-comics over other selected portions of the aforementioned works by Emerson and Thoreau.

Thoreau at Walden is an excellent scaffolding text for any teacher seeking to demystify the transcendental movement for their students.

Late Pass?

Hello? Anyone there?


After an AMAZING 2010 filled with a new job, new school, convention presentations, and an academic article or two, I'm "back to basics" and happy as a clam with my baby: the Teach Comics blog.

For the one or two of you who have been kind enough to follow this blog through its "non-existent" year, thank you...your patience and support are the stuff of legends.

Life has felt like it's been on warp speed for the past year, but along the way I've gotten the opportunity to meet some amazing comic creators, educators, and retailers all while gathering a ton of original and shared lesson plans, books, and just plain awesome comic stuff for implementing our favorite medium into classrooms, and I can't wait to share it all with you.

Which brings me to my next point:

With a new year comes a new goal for the rejuvenated Teach Comics blog. While I will still dedicate the lion's share of this year's posts to ready-to-use comic lesson plans, I will also be recommending books that I think are noteworthy for classroom libraries, linking to new and exciting on-line resources, talking about awesome some technology for teaching comics in the classroom, holding a contest (yes, that means prizes) and sharing some hopefully thought-provoking videos and articles about the dire importance of the comic medium and it's necessity in the 21st century classroom.

Okay, Teach Comics is back. Thanks for holding out, or stopping by to read this...I promise the next post will be much more entertaining and useful and a lot less like an apologetic, absentee boyfriend.


P.S.- I'll try to post every Wednesday to start off, and if followers demand it I'll push it up to twice a week. That said, tonight I'm just too giddy and need to post something...I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

All Ages Graphic Novels

A few elementary teachers (grades k-3) have recently requested a list of "kid-friendly" graphic novels to add to their classroom libraries. Below I've highlighted three books (or two books and one series) that I know are used at this age level with some success. That said, I also have these books on the shelves of my high school classroom because like all great children's lit., they're great stories for any age!

* A note to the faithful readers: Please add any of your own suggestions to the "comment" section below!


Robot Dreams by Sara Varon

Varon's story of a dog who builds his own friend (a robot) contains a powerful, almost completely wordless narrative dealing with friendship, loss, and love. What I enjoy most about this graphic novel is that it works on so many levels, and can be analyzed by both elementary and high school students with great interest.

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave Mckean
While this book can be a bit scary for those that spook easy, Wolves is really a story about family and the strength (and smarts) of children. You'll probably find this text in the "picture book" section of your local bookseller as opposed to the graphic novel shelf, but Mckean's beautiful sequntial images truly makes Wolves a real highlight of early-childhood graphic novels.

Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey

This hilarious series is the story of two enterprising elementary comic book creators, their principal, and the most unlikely hero of them all...Captain Underpants! I've met many teachers and young students alike who profess great love for this clothing-challenged avenger.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Teachers Talking Comics

Today I visited the 2009 Maine Writing Project at the University of Maine in Orono. The MWP is an affiliate of the National Writing Project. MWP is dedicated to the improvement of teaching and learning across the curriculum at all grade levels.

I was invited by friends and colleagues to speak about professional development presentations and their natural progressions. I talked for an hour about my graduate studies involving comics and how that led me to hosting academic workshops and starting my beloved blog.

I couldn't ask for a better group to present to than the thirteen teachers who were present for this workshop. These folks give me hope for not only the future of our medium (as a teaching tool), but also for the future generations who will be lucky to have these progressive educators as teachers.

During the demo a few questions arose which I thought I would pass on to you, O' Kindly Reader(s). Let me know what you think by posting a response below...

QUESTION #1- Do you think comics have a place in canonical literature? If "yes," what would that place be?

QUESTION #2- Is there a particular type of student who would benefit more from graphic novels than traditional text?

QUESTION #3- Should teachers focus on building a library of graphic novel adaptations (of classical work)? Should they attain original-to-the-medium material? Or should there be a marriage of both on the classroom bookshelf?

-I know my answers. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Comics in College???

Do you have a student who wants to pursue a career in the comic book world? Well, did you know that there are actual college programs dedicated to the almighty comic book? Here are some of the most notable programs in this field (with links provided):

-A relatively new program, Emerson's certificate program is truly indisciplinary in nature, spending equal time focusing on both the visual and word-based narratives.

The Center for Cartoon Studies
-Don't be fooled by the name- this is the "Artist's Artist" school. The curriculum traverses the vast landscape of sequential art, and the graduates have produced some of the most powerful autobiographical (and semi-autobiographical ) graphic novels in the past few years.

The Joe Kubert School
-This is the granddaddy of all academic studies in this particular field. Founded in 1976 by Joe Kubert (one of my personal heroes), The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art is dedicated to aspiring cartoonists who are dedicated to becoming professionals in cartooning, comic book, and the general field of commercial art.

Liberty vs. Security

"Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither."

While Benjamin Franklin spoke these words well over two hundred years ago, this quote has gained new relevance in our post 9/11 world.

I've had an informal boy's book club up and running for some time now (which is not limited to just comics...though they are a favorite), and not too long ago I threw out this quote for my students to mentally chew on. Though I'm not that much older than my current kiddos, my adolescent years were over before America's "War on Terror" began. As we talked about this quote I noticed that my students' perspective on civil liberties varied greatly. As per my normal style, I quickly produced a graphic novel from my "free read" shelf that held both allegorical and thematic ties to the conversation at hand. That graphic novel was Marvel Comics' "Civil War."

In this teacher's humble opinion, "Civil War" is a powerful allegory for the modern American landscape we citizens navigate today. Surprisingly, when we see our favorite brightly-colored superheroes internally struggle with that same concept of liberty vs. security it reads like a punch to the gut. For example, how does Captain America, our country's fighting spirit personified, respond to government mandates for heroes? -The answer makes for some of the most exciting, heart-wrenching, and thought-provoking mainstream comic book reading of the past few years.

If you're a history or English teacher looking to spice things up with a timely debate, consider sharing this exciting book with your students.