A Story in Comics

Guest post written by Ben Towle, a three time Eisner-nominated cartoonist

Here is a story:

Many years ago, there was a trapper. He was interested in trapping a beaver so that he could sell its pelt, so he purchased a beaver trap. He set off into the woods with the trap, found a likely spot by a riverbank, and began to set the trap. Unknown to him, though, a clever beaver was nearby and observed what he was doing. The beaver, noting that the trapper was at work in close proximity to a nearby tree, quickly used his teeth to cut down that tree, which then fell directly onto the man, effectively (and ironically) trapping the trapper.

Here is the same story:


The Far Side © Gary Larson

You may have laughed at the second version; I doubt you did at the first. In order for this story to function as intended—to evoke an immediate response—the narrative must be delivered instantaneously and the tone must be unmistakable. In this case, a drawing can accomplish this where words do not.

Through much of our history, the written has enjoyed primacy over the visual—and for compelling reasons. There is a specificity and precision to words that images cannot match. However, with the ubiquity of the internet—which is after all essentially an enormous system of words and pictures—I think we are beginning to realize that pictures (and in the case of comics, my field of study: words combined with pictures) can be powerful communicators of certain types of information.

This certainly isn’t wholly new. When important information needs to be communicated directly, clearly, and immediately, often pictures (or sequences of pictures) are employed.AirplaneComic

In the classroom, the word/picture combination we’re most likely to encounter is, of course, comics. Children’s and “all ages” comics have experienced a tremendous boom in the last decade or so and I’d be surprised if many K-12 teachers aren’t at least passingly familiar with books like Smile, Bone, Awkward, and Babymouse.

Past generations have seen comics as a “lower” form of reading than pure prose and have often sought to excise it from the classroom. In today’s classroom, though, I encourage teachers to embrace comics and recognize that it’s simply a different mode of reading—a mode with its own complex grammar, a type of literature that imparts information in a way that’s simply different than pure prose.

Can comics serve as a “gateway” for reluctant readers to eventually embrace prose reading? Sure. But a gateway is something we move through and then leave behind. In my experience, students who embrace comics initially continue to read comics as they add prose reading to their palette. Why should we view the two as mutually exclusive—one a stepping stone and the other our end goal?

And of course, there’s also a world of amazing classroom activities centered on making comics. Children love to draw. Comics have the ability to harness that love of drawing. Consider activities like making a comics autobiography or short memoir story, researching and drawing a comic book biography of a favorite historical figure, or make a comics adaptation of a chapter of a favorite prose book.

The children currently populating our classrooms have grown up in a ubiquity of word/picture combinations. Let’s embrace this and put it to good use by using comics—both reading comics and creating comics—in our classrooms.


If you would like to work with Ben and other innovative experts in education, visit our website and register for the 2016 Joan Oates Institute today!

Here be Dragons!

A guest post by Rob Levit, founder and Executive Director of Creating Communities

When lacking information on what was known beyond the visible world, ancient maps were inscribed with the words “Here Be Dragons” and frightening images to warn travelers to stay away. To be a creative individual and a master educator however, we must train ourselves to move beyond our own fears, limitations and perceived weaknesses to find the beauty and freedom in what I call “The Undiscovered Country” where our old models of teaching and doing don’t hold up anymore.


A perfect example of this in “real life” is dealing with a difficult student. From our “Here Be Dragons” perspective, we may shut down or, gulp, admit that we don’t like the student. We can even come home after a long day feeling exhausted and depleted and have it affect our personal lives. But what’s the cost – to ourselves and to the student – when our energy is expended on staying away rather than navigating through? Anger or resentment can build up toward ourselves and the student. Why?  Because we care, and because we are human. The problem with this is that it may not be the child – but our own lack of tools, insights, and strategies to reach a child that desperately, and perhaps silently, wants structure – even though their behavior shows otherwise. The master educator recognizes the amazing and at times exasperating avoidance techniques that failing and/or troubled students unknowingly practice. It reminds me of the famous quote: “The child who needs the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” That’s where personal creativity and arts integration come into play. To navigate successfully into “The Undiscovered Country” we must first have mastery of the conventional, tried and true techniques. This requires personal honesty, assessment, and practice.

Beyond that, we need new approaches like improvisation, creating poems and songs on the fly, being confident and enthusiastic about our hidden talents, and embracing that our most difficult students need new ways of learning that are hands-on and experiential. I thrive on being a guide to “The Undiscovered Country” and equipping teachers with confidence, tools, encouragement, and new skills to reach students. It’s amazing – once teachers grab onto these approaches, breakthrough after breakthrough happens in the classroom and our difficult students, although still struggling, begin to emerge because we have recognized opportunity, freshness, and possibility in them.  What once looked like a frightening dragon turned out to be the harmless shadow of ourselves. 

-Rob Levit

Rob Levit is an acclaimed educator, creative artist and community leader. He has created award-winning, innovative “Life-Skills Through The Arts” programs for hundreds of at-risk youth and adults. Levit is the founder and the current Executive Director of Creating Communities.

Register now to join us for Levit’s workshop and many others at the 2016 Joan Oates Institute, June 27-July 1, 2016.

The Art of the Memoir

I recently visited Chesterfield’s Clover Hill High School, which has a PIA Award this year for a project called “Paths.” Students in the tenth through twelfth grade are working with a writer and a visual artist to interview local World War II veterans and their families to create literary and visual depictions of their stories.

The project team consists of Clover Hill creative writing teacher Barbara Bingham, history teacher James Triesler, and fine arts teacher Donna Stables. The visiting artists are painter Kendra Dawn Wadsworth and writer Erica Orloff. Kendra is a former student of Donna’s, which makes her a great role model for any young person who has a passionate interest but is not sure if it is okay to pursue that passion as an adult. Barbara has created a blog about the project and Erica has recently written a post for it. Barbara has also contributed a post to PIA’s blog, where she writes about the importance of learning from other teachers.

I sat in on a senior class that was working with Erica on the meaning, structure and making of memoir. This is a genre I feel very close to (perhaps because I like to talk about myself) and Erica laid out her information and insights in a compelling way. She asked the students to make a list of ten important events or transitional moments in their lives. Not just getting your driver’s license, for example, but what that meant to you. I joined in with the list-making and was surprised by what I came up with.

Erica then asked the students to do 15-20 minutes of free writing on one of the topics they had listed. With this approach, you try very hard not to edit yourself but to keep writing and let it take you where it will. I did this as well and once again was surprised that my pen seemed to be in charge. I appreciated that Erica and Barbara did not ask the students to share what they had written; their work was still private, something to think about and develop. Writing a little of their own memoir will help the Clover Hill students understand how personal experiences can have universal significance. And that is a lesson in itself.


The very first ever Joan Oates Institute!

True, last week was Partners in the Arts’ seventeenth summer institute for teachers, but who’s counting?  It was our first Joan Oates Institute for Partners in the Arts.  More info about the week to come, but here’s a cool photo taken by Alexandra Hunter, UR Downtown’s Events and Projects Coordinator.

The talented trio who performed at JOI’s jazz and STEM workshop. From left to right, Russell Wilson, Michael Hawkins, and Abinnet Berhanu, along with vocalist (and literature professor!) Hermine Pinson seated on the right.  The workshop took place in Frederick Rehearsal Hall at UR’s Modlin Center.  Photo credit Alexandra Hunter