Denver Comic Con 2017 Educators’ Day (6/30) recap

Energized. That’s the only word to describe how I’m feeling after another day spent surrounded by teachers and curriculum developers bursting with innovative ideas and strategies for using pop culture as a learning tool in classrooms of all levels. This year, I got to share it with fellow Graduate Teacher Program Lead, Kelly (access her  website here and her own recap of DCC here). And geek out together. All day.

Before our panel, Kelly and I explored the Con, enjoying the cosplayers (I was dressed as Doctor Strange) and attending an impressive selection of educational panels. (You can access the complete list of educational programming at DCC 2017 here.) From the panels, I got several new exciting ideas, such as using film review as an assignment. While I’ve used student films as projects in language classes, a panel suggested assigning students roles, such as director, script writer, etc. Naturally, I came home with a long list of comics to check out for their educational potential. Though I could discuss the other panels for days, I’d most like to talk about my own.

For the second year, I organized a panel with fellow graduate teachers at CU Boulder. (You can access the 2016 presentation here: Using Comics for Second Language Learning: an ACTFL Perspective.) This time, I teamed up with two fellow GTP Leads, Kelly (from Spanish) and Micheal (from Music) to present on concrete ways to use comics for alternative and formative assessment across a variety of subjects.(Side note: We originally had a Lead from STEM as well to round out the presentation. Unfortunately, they dropped out and we were rather Humanities-heavy.) As Educators’ Day is predominantly attended by primary and secondary teachers continuing their professional development requirements, we structured our presentation to be useful across subject levels, not limiting ourselves to our own university-level teaching experience.

Throughout the year, Kelly, Micheal, and I planned and structured our presentation to be as broadly applicable as possible, while still drawing from our own concrete experience in our classrooms. We worked in tandem and independently, collaborating to avoid overlap, but spreading our ideas through out classrooms in order to draw on as wide an experience as possible. You can access the presentation, which I summarize below, here. As you will notice, there are spaces for discussion and group/pair work as we hoped to run the session more as a workshop than a presentation. In this spirit, I invite you to share more ideas or experiences in the comments below.

Micheal kicked off the presentation with a discussion on effective assessment as compared to traditional testing methods. He emphasized the importance of clarifying expectations to students with all assessment, but especially with subjective assessment, and discussed tips for creating rubrics.

I continued the discussion with an explanation of alternative assessment, emphasizing the idea of choice and explaining the advantages from both student and teacher perspectives, many of which I have discussed previously in this blog. From here, I steered the conversation to comics, approaching them from both theoretical and practical angles that explain why the graphic format is particularly well-suited to alternative assessment. In particular, I focused on Scott McCloud’s idea of burden of meaning, whereby pictures can relieve the words of their burden (for both comprehension and expression), allowing students to communicate without being limited to words alone. In my area of foreign languages, textbooks naturally use images to convey meaning in early elementary levels, but the books inevitably drop the images when students acquire some vocabulary. I believe this is a mistake and educators should continue to take advantage of comics to enhance language-learning, in both first and second languages.

I then explained the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory, emphasizing that it should not be used to fix students into boxes, but should rather serve as a tool to vary assessment. I highlight what “doing” means to each of the processing types and argued that these can (and should) be used to create assessments that offer options for students to express themselves in different ways. I must also acknowledge that students also benefit from working out of their comfort zone, so choices throughout a course should be structured in a way that students have choice, but must also step out of their comfort zone. For instance, if a class will have four major assignments, the teacher can instruct students to write creative or analytical papers, but they must have two of each by the end of the semester. In this way, students have control over their individual assignments, but must also fulfill teachers’ expectations. The Kolb document in the slides offers ideas for the types of choices that can be presented to students.

I then concluded my portion of the presentation by describing my alternative assessment final project for FREN 1200 at CU Boulder (more info here and here). If you’re not following along with the Google Slides linked above, I suggest you check out the scans of one student’s dragon-fighting comic. It’s quite impressive!

Kelly then took the discussion, to focus on reading comics/graphic novels for formative assessment in her Spanish classroom. In her words, as cited on the Google Slides, “I tackled the theme of our session—comics and assessment— from a different angle; I used graphic novels for formative assessment in a beginning Spanish class rather than an alternative summative assessment for a ‘content’ course as Jessica just discussed… What I’ll share with you now are three aspects of comics and graphic novels that I find particularly beneficial for those of us that teach a foreign language. Then I’ll move to the practical part and mention my personal experience in class using comics for formative assessment.”

Kelly’s portion of the talk highlighted authenticity and multimodality of graphic novels as tools particularly useful in the language classroom. Kelly describes the importance of multimodal literacies in her own words: “Which brings me to the next aspect I want to address: multimodal literacy. Leber-Cook and Cook define a multimodal text as ‘a single text whose decoding requires mastery of a number of different literacies. Multimodal texts can involve (but certainly are not limited to) two or more of: written language, spoken language, images (both fixed and moving), music, non-musical non-spoken sound, gestures, textures, and smells’ (Leber-Cook and Cook, 27)… Why is multimodal literacy important for a foreign language learner? I would argue that reading a comic or graphic novel models (albeit on a very small scale) what one has to do in a foreign country, namely, negotiate meaning by interpreting a variety of different inputs (visual, linguistic, cultural, etc). Furthermore, a nice side effect of incorporating multimodal texts is modelling the critical consumption of textual and visual information (skills which are essential today what with the whole question of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’).” Finally, Kelly discussed the opportunity graphic novels provide to help students discuss sociohistorical issues that they otherwise may not have the vocabulary to discuss or read about. For Kelly, comics help make connections to culture less abstract. She concluded her discussion with an effective project she ran in her second-semester Spanish class, reading the graphic novel Virus Tropical. At this level, students were thrilled to be able to read an authentic text, a task that would be overwhelming with a words-only text.

Briefly, I piggybacked off Kelly’s discussion of comics in the language classroom by describing an assignment in my Intermediate 2 class, FREN 2120 that targeted verb tenses and telling stories in passé composé and imparfait. As this is always challenging for students, I use the panels of comics to visually represent the distinction between the two tenses, using one imparfait frame for the background information, then a series of them for the series of actions or changes that are represented in passé composé. Even for this assignment, students had a choice (a comic or a blog), and interestingly, my classes normally split about 50/50 on this assignment.

Micheal wrapped up the presentation with a description of the Table Top Opera that blends comics and opera together in another multimodal format for students to encounter. He concluded with the growing trend of comic-format textbooks, discussing Metronome Man, a superhero written to teach music theory to learners of all ages.

Overall, the day (and the presentation) was highly successful. We all connected with educators throughout each of our panels, enthusiastically sharing ideas and feeding off each other’s energy. While a blog cannot capture the feeling of the real thing, I hope we can continue to share ideas here in the comments!


Give Tim Smyth a follow on Twitter (@historycomics). Tim is a high school social studies teacher who is highly involved in Denver Comic Con’s Educators’ Day. He hosts regular discussions on comics in the classroom through #educomix on the first Sunday of every month at 7pm EST. You can access his helpful and informative website here.  He also runs a close group on Facebook called Comic Book Teachers where like-minded educators can share ideas.

Screenshot 2018-07-29 17.15.02

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