Creating Comics in the Classroom
By Nathan Tubbs

Nathan TubbsWhen I first began teaching 6 years ago, I thought that comic books would only serve to help me connect to students on their level. I simply wanted to be the "cool teacher" with shared interests who could engage the students in the classroom using examples from comics to support my lessons. However, I quickly realized that using comics in my classroom would become so much more than talking about how Superman defied Newton's laws of motion.

My first school had a high English-Language-Learner (ELL) population. Many of our students were brand new immigrants, and the others who may have been born in the states had a first language other than English. This is where comics and graphic novels became very useful. I made comic books readily available to my students, and encouraged them to grab a book when finished with other assignments. Soon, I noticed that students were excited to read. Students who normally refused to read traditional novels were reading because they did not feel overwhelmed by the amount of text. Students who had struggled with vocabulary were learning new words as they saw them used in the context of illustrations. Furthermore, those who only read for class credit were now reading for fun as they were given the choice of which books to read and found enjoyment in the stories and characters.

This year, I moved to a new school, and because of my new context, my focus had to shift. At the beginning of the school year, I was given the opportunity to teach a group of students in an afterschool program. Where I had previously focused more on reading, my program director wanted more focus on creating and writing. Therefore, I decided that I would have students work to create a two-page comic book introducing a character of their own design.

We began our project by simply reading comics. A few of my students had never read a comic book before, and I enjoyed watching them devour issues of Justice League and X-Men. After this, I had them design a character of their choice. This involved two activities. First, they drew their character. Then, they wrote a one-page description of their character that described his or her background, setting, abilities, and other important details. The students were also given time to critique one another's work and refine their details.
Green Arrow: Year One
Before writing scripts, I showed my class a copy of Green Arrow: Year One by Andy Diggle. My copy includes a portion of the script by Diggle, and I allowed students to compare the script to the panels. Using this example, the students wrote a script for their story, being sure to describe each panel in detail. Following this, the students used the script to complete pencil sketches for their story.

After the scripts were completed and edited, we used iPads, to import the pencil sketches into the app "Sketch Book Pro" with which students digitally colored their sketches. After the sketches were properly colored and edited, we imported the panels into another app, "Comic-Life," which was used to adjust the layout and lettering. Comic-Life then provided us with a print-ready .pdf file.

During this process, not only did the students learn about making comics, but I learned something as well. First, I learned that I did not need to limit myself as an artist. I have never felt I was a good artist, yet during this experience, I functioned as an artist. I found myself learning and teaching art techniques and enjoying each aspect of the process. I was totally involved in the artistic process, which was completely foreign to me. I was surprised at how much I loved it! 

Second, I continued to learn the importance of looking beyond superhero comics. Over the last few years, I have sought to read books beyond this genre, but my default is always Batman. While I may enjoy reading about superheroes, I need to better affirm and explore my students' interests. Of the stories written this year in my class, not one involved a superhero. One student who particularly excelled created a wonderful, full-colored, two-page book called, "Two Worlds," which is loosely based on characters from the Broadway musical, Wicked. The story is short, funny, and leaves the reader wanting more. Seeing her face light up when she saw her story emerge from the printer was priceless.

One student's pencilled comic The comic, digitally colored

I encourage all educators who are comic book fans to find ways to inspire your students using comic books. Not only will you likely become the "cool-teacher" because you’re letting them borrow copies of Batman, but you will also likely push your students to be more creative than they realized they could be. And, you may learn that you’re more talented than you realized as well.

Nathan Tubbs is a science educator in Brooklyn, NY. The first comic book he remembers reading is Adventures of Superman #500 from June 1993. He's been hooked since then. You can find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @sciencenate.