Comic Books As Curriculum

Comic Books As Curriculum

Richard Jenkins (no relation to the character actor) is best known as the artist of the surreal Sky Ape graphic novels. But now he’s helping teachers bring comics to kids in a unique way – by incorporating them into their lesson plans.

Along with Debra Detamore, Jenkins has authored a new book called Comics in Your Curriculum. It’s a how-to guide for teachers looking to incorporate comics into different subjects. Whether it’s math, history or even science, its lessons help make learning fun…with comics! We talked to Jenkins about his book, and how it works.

Newsarama: Richard, tell us about your book.

Richard Jenkins: My latest book is a teacher’s manual, and it’s called Comics in Your Curriculum. It’s a handbook for third-to-sixth-grade teachers, and it teaches them about the form and function of comics. It teaches them how to teach their students how to make comics, and there’s lesson plans for how integrate comics into all the different curriculums, such as math, social studies, science and language arts.

NRAMA: How did you come to write this book?

RJ: I had been doing some “artist in residence” programs teaching kids about comics in places like Utah, Arkansas and Oklahoma. I’d been teaching kids how to do comics, and a friend of mine said, “you should write a book about how to do that.” I looked around, and there weren’t any books about that! Most books are about how to draw cartoon characters or people, but there wasn’t anything about how to do a story with words and pictures.

I told a teacher about this idea, and she was really excited about it. We hit it off – I’d never written a lesson plan before, but we became collaborators and worked on it over the course of a couple of years. I did the artwork, and we both worked on the lesson plan. We had a good time working on it!

NRAMA: What’s your background in education?

RJ: Well, I’m trained as an artist, so I have a bachelor’s degree in art and painting. After college, when I was getting started with Sky Ape, I became involved with an artist-in-residence program, which is a thing where an artist comes in to a classroom for a week or two weeks and works in a classroom. The teachers are present, but I’m there to help the students learn how to make art, ranting from illustration to animation. So that’s where my career in education got started.

NRAMA: How do you teach people how to use comics in the classroom in your book?

RJ: We outline the various steps of how to make a comic for a creating writing or drawing activity. The kids will first write out a story, several sentences long, and then do a rough draft comic, and add dialogue to that, in a rough draft, and then a final draft with more clearly-defined panels, more detailed backgrounds, that sort of thing. And it keeps evolving – the writing, the drawing the background -- and they can add to it and elaborate it as it’s revised.

NRAMA: Now, you’ve already gotten some good feedback from teachers…

RJ: Definitely! The publisher says sales are going well so far, but what’s exciting is that I’ve been developing the lessons in these books in classrooms across the country for several years. So it’s been proven to work.

NRAMA: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten?

RJ: The lessons are clear, the steps are simple, and just from reading over those steps, kids are able to apply them to their work. The book has drawing resources for the kids, to show them how to draw characters and backgrounds and lettering, so if a teacher can’t draw, he or she has resources they can show to the kids.

Also, all the lesson plans are connected to national education standards, so there are curriculum benchmarks at the heading of each lesson plan. There are also clear time limits for each lesson, which I’ve figured out over years of doing this. This allows teachers the right amount of time to let students work through each lesson.

NRAMA: Now, you’ve said this is geared toward grades three through six. Do you have plans to do a book for an older age group?

RJ: Not at this time.

NRAMA: Do you plan to use books that use comics for different subjects?

RJ: Nothing in the works, but I might do some more cartooning books that focus on drawing and language arts. This last book has a broad scope with math, science, social studies and language arts. I’ve got some ideas for another book that’s more specific to visual arts and language arts, but it’s simmering on the stove at this time.

NRAMA: What comic projects are you working on at this time?

RJ: Right now, I’m doing a children’s storybook! It’s by a friend of mine named Hiep Phan, and it’s called The Easter Bunny’s Gift. I’m illustrating it, and it’s out in 2009. And I’m taking some notes on some more comic projects as well.

NRAMA: Why do you feel comics are such a great tool for the classroom?

RJ: The first thing is the obvious appeal of comics. Kids are really familiar with comics, and they get excited about them. And once teachers understand the linguistic nature of comics, they can really take advantage of them as an educational tool. It’s a highly effective way for engaging kids in their learning – they have ownership of their projects.

We have a lesson plan, for example, where kids get to create different kinds of aliens. Then they have to create political parties for the aliens, and then create a comic story about the election taking place on this foreign planet. It inspires them to be creative in many different ways.

NRAMA: How do you see comics expanding their presence in the classroom over time?

RJ: Well, first, there need to be more comics geared toward kids, and spread around the classroom as reading material. Most teachers I know try and accumulate as much free-time reading material as they can in the classroom, and comics are a really engaging literary form for kids. So it’s a great tool for kids who want to read for fun.

We’re starting to see more comics being made for kids these days, things like Bone or the Little Lit books that are being marketed for kids and are age-appropriate. That’s very important. And the other thing is getting teachers connected to comics and having a language for them – understanding that there are different genres. I think they’ll be developing lesson plans of their own once they understand the language of comics.

NRAMA: There haven’t been many comics with an educational bent in the past, unless you count things like Classics Illustrated . Did you ever enjoy any comics in the classroom when you were a kid?

RJ: Just what my friends and I brought from home! We’d trade comics on our lunch break, to read them or draw pictures that we saw in them. Well, some teachers had French comics like Asterix or Tintin, but they were in French – they were a segue into learning a foreign language through these storybooks.

NRAMA: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

RJ: Well, the website is www.piecesoflearning.com, and you can order the book there (http://www.piecesoflearning.com/store/clc0438.html). It’s about 120 pages and it’s $18.95, if you want to put that in there!

For more of Richard Jenkins’ work, check out http://www.studiohijinx.com

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