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.

Building Bridges with Peter Culley, JOI 2016

Peter Culley, International architect and the founder and director of Spatial Affairs Bureau (UK and US) will open the 2016 Joan Oates Institute with a look at architecture and design through model-making. The hands on making process is intended to stimulate design-thinking as educators use model building to make connections to community inquiry, environmental exploration, community history and ALL disciplines.

If you’re interested in model-making or learning how to use model-making/design in your classroom, this is going to be a great workshop to inspire your students to dream up their own ways of spanning a river, or creating an impact in the city, or solving a math problem.

The concepts of design and build easily apply to all disciplines and subject areas and we can’t wait to show you how!

About Bridge Park RVA bridgeparkforblogBuilding Bridges: A note from Program Coordinator, Amy Williams

As a child, my family moved fairly often; I attended 5 elementary schools in 3 states. In 4th grade, I attended my first school with a gifted and talented education program. These classes quickly became my favorite because they connected school to the outside world. The unit I remember best was a study of bridges. We learned about the collapse of “Galloping Gertie” in Washington state and the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was this unit that taught me one shape could be stronger than another– that a triangle is sturdier than a square. It was after much discussion and research on a variety of bridges and their construction, that we got to design and build.

We were given two materials: popsicle sticks and wood glue. I took the assignment seriously and worked diligently to create the strongest bridge. When we finished, we got to take our bridge to a statewide gifted and talented competition where judges placed weights on our bridges to see how much they could hold– mine held 143 pounds and I still have a piece of it, over 20 years later.


Photo from Instructables Website.

The bridge project got me engaged with learning, making, and doing. It wasn’t limited to one discipline or skill set, it covered many. Project-based, integrated learning has the potential to reach ALL students, where and how they are. This is why I remember the bridge project over all others. It’s the reason I taught an elementary art lesson on bridges and my students created bridges of their own.


Student work sample


Join us at the Joan Oates Institute this summer to learn more and discover your bridge project!

SNOW time like the present!

What do snow, meteorology, climate change and the arts have in common? The foundations of an exciting, integrated project proposal for Partners in the Arts!

Bring local and global weather into your classroom with a guest Meteorologist OR work with a Professional Printmaker to create illustrated zines about climate change!

Get your Engaging Creative Thinkers Award proposals submitted for the 2016/2017 school year!  Proposal Deadline is Monday, February 22.

Apply here:
Man trapped in snowed-in car for two months now awake, says hospital

From Binford to Brazil: University of Richmond program puts integrated learning to the test internationally

University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts (PIA) program is expanding to an international audience this month.

Rob McAdams, interim director of PIA, will take the same arts integration model and teacher-training methods that twenty teachers from Binford Middle School in Richmond received during the summer to sixth and ninth-grade educators and students in Braco do Norte, Brazil.

“How we learn is universal and timeless,” said McAdams, who will travel to Brazil Oct. 11-25. “I believe the differences in language and cultures will actually enhance an integrated learning process.”

“Arts integration allows educators to discover how their students are curious and develop ways to differentiate their instruction to reach each student where and how they are as a learner,” he added.

This opportunity to work with teachers, artists and students in Brazil is funded by a travel grant provided by the U.S. State Department through Partners for the Americas Virginia-Santa Catarina chapter.

The PIA program is offered through Richmond’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies and provides arts integration training and project support to local teachers. Arts integration involves working with PreK-12 educators to engage and empower them with the tools to reach students by utilizing creativity in the classroom.


Meet Erin Thomas-Foley:

Erin Thomas-Foley has more than a decade of experience with SPARC as a teaching artist, program manager, and currently Director of Education. She is among Richmond’s leading acting talents and has performed at the Barksdale Theatre, Theatre IV, and the Firehouse Theatre Project as well as internationally. She has a B.F.A. from Longwood University and a M.F.A. in Theatre Pedagogy from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is Actor’s Equity Eligible and a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Music, dance, and painting all on one stage work together to create a unique, multi-disciplinary, inclusive educational program. Erin Thomas-Foley’s workshop, LIVE ART, is building relationships among arts organizations, educators and artists to expand arts opportunities for students with developmental disabilities and typically developing students alike. LIVE ART is at the leading edge of arts education, integrating performing arts curricula with special education to create a major performance event.


Meet Kristen Jamison:

Image source.

Image source.

Kristen R. Jamison, M.T., Ph.D., is an applied developmental scientist specializing in relationship-based strategies for improving learning capacity and behavior. Dr. Jamison is a Governor-appointed member of the Virginia interagency Coordinating Council and has been invited to speak across Virginia as an early childhood social & emotional development expert. She is currently the Educational Director and Founder of The Loop Center for Social & Emotional Development and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Richmond in the Department of Psychology.
“The human brain cannot learn if it does not feel safe. By unlocking the brain through community, safety, and trust, with the support of the arts, we can leverage day-to-day interactions and improve learning outcomes.”

Meet Rob Levit:

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Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and educator, has created award-winning innovative “Life-Skills through the Arts” programs for hundreds of at-risk youth and adults. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families, and patients. Rob is a 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, 2012 Mentor of the Year for Anne Arundel County and 2011 recipient of the Martin Luther King Peacemaker Award.

While it is not difficult to create arts activities that will excite both student and teacher, educators need to model the creative behavior that is expected from our students. [Rob Levit] will guide participants in developing a creative/artistic toolkit that will allow educators in any domain to identify opportunities for success for students who may otherwise be labeled behavior problems or a non-participants. In this interactive workshop, participants will use various entry points into creating art and engage with feedback protocols drawn from the arts.


Meet Samson Trinh:

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Composer, educator, musical director, producer, saxophonist, and ukuleleist, Samson Trinh was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University earning his Bachelor’s of Music in Jazz Studies. Samson’s composition work spans from studio productions at In Your Ear Recording to commissioned pieces for the Richmond Symphony. As a certified music educator in Virginia, Samson taught at K-12 public schools in Henrico County and Caroline County.

Recently featured in USA Today, Trihn’s workshop Uke ‘n’ Roll utilizes a broad range of musical genres, from the blues to The Beatles, to bring context to curriculum and interactively engage students. The workshop offers a platform for teaching basic concepts of rhythm, time, improvisation and perhaps, most importantly, student self-confidence.


Meet Benjamin Thorp:

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Benjamin Thorp is an environmental artist who works with sound to give form to a variety of media including sculpture, video, and installation. Much of his recent work has been public and site specific installations that engage audiences in sensory experiences that further appreciation and challenge people’s understanding of their surroundings. His work has been shown in large-scale public spaces in Hong Kong and Italy, as well as in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe. Benjamin lives and works in Richmond, Virginia, as a sound designer/engineer and curator. He is currently working on projects to transform the public sphere through interventions in art, education, and other social forms.

Benjamin Thorp will be teaching a workshop exploring the intersection of sound art and social practice through an auditory exploration of the contemporary urban environment as well as examining the ways sound has shaped our understanding of the past. Through reflective listening participants will unpack examples from history and explore the contexts that have shaped our understanding of social and cultural issues. Participants will take part in listening exercises and discussions that explore how audio furthers our understanding of culture, history and self. We will look at projects, tools and methods that encourage playful re-imagining of material, and how sonic experiments in the classroom can provide access to the overlooked narrative of sound. This workshop creates an environment where concept and technique are viewed as parts of a whole and will stimulate ideas and templates for newcomers as well as those who have had previous experience with sound as an artistic medium.