Comics in the classroom: An interview with comics teacher Eric Kallenborn

July 30th, 2018

Chicago-based high school teacher Eric Kallenborn digs comic books so much that he’s introduced a Graphic Novels elective to his school district! His ambitious plans include students writing scripts for professional artists to fund their bigger ambitions! We chat about what makes for good classroom comics, students’ preferences for licensed versus original books, and Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels.

If we were knocking back some beers in a bar, how would you describe what you do?

I’m a high school teacher who tries in all ways possible to bring engaging, real-world experiences to my students. I went head-first into exploring my passions - including helping teachers to engage their students. I teach Film, Graphic Novels, and Creative Writing, so it’s important for me to take that blessing and do as much as possible with it. I tend to focus on visual literacy. In addition to teaching Film and Graphic Novels, I’m now turning to Gamification and Storytelling as motivational tools as well.

Has the popularity of “comic book movies”, helped your students appreciate comic books?

Overall, yes. The kids know about the films. Shows like The Walking Dead have helped as well. A ton of people don’t even know that The Walking Dead was a comic. It sounds silly to people like me, but it’s true.

How do you read and teach a comic in a classroom?

Teaching a comic or graphic novel is the same as teaching any other book, except now you have a whole new set of vocabulary to discuss. Also, it’s more relatable.

Students live in a world where they are bombarded by images constantly, so helping them explore what images mean is valuable. I do have to introduce some of my students to the medium, but most of them take to it like fish to water.

What makes some comics work better for the classroom than others?

That’s a tough one. I have a massive amount of graphic novels in my classroom that kids can - and do - read all the time. Many are silly, fun books, and then a good deal of them are heavy and academic. I think the answer to this question is different for each teacher or parent. I will say that to teach the medium, it’s ideal to start with books that have less words in order to more successfully analyse the images.

Licensed comics are great, but amazing original material is what creates the buzz.

Have you noticed whether students get more invested in licensed comics (say, the continuation of Avatar: the Legend of Korra books, or adaptations of Harry Potter), or original stories (such as Persepolis or Scott Pilgrim)?

When I show them comics based on shows like Bob’s Burgers or Rick & Morty, the ones who are into those shows get excited, and the ones that don’t care... won’t care. For the most part, original stories sells more to my kids because we all want new stories in our lives. Those licensed comics are great, but amazing original material is what creates the buzz and need for the licenses.

Do you have any advice for comics creators who’d like to get their work considered by schools? For example, what are some aspects of Raina Telgemeier’s work which makes it so successful in the classroom?

First, add page numbers!

Second, if your book has one-two panels of nudity, consider editing them for school use.

Regarding Raina’s success… she has done a wonderful job of telling stories to which people can relate. Sci-fi, fantasy, big-action books are all cool, but the class is most engaged when we have characters and stories that we can relate to. I see it in my own classroom as well. Make us think and relate, and you have something special.

Surprisingly, there is a difference between younger reader prose books and young reader graphic novels. Older readers are more likely to read a younger graphic novel, and I think that is because of our love for cartoons.

We still watch cartoons, and comics can give us a similar enjoyment. And the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” rings true as well. The vocabulary of a young reader’s prose book is limited, but images on a page are boundless in how we interpret them, making many younger-reader graphic novels more appealing to older audiences.

A Raina book is like looking through an old photo album, which would not happen if the book was written in prose

Books like Smile and Sisters have a way of “showing” us what our childhood was like. So for many readers, a Raina book is like looking through an old photo album, which would not happen if the book was written in prose.

Are there ways that a writer can make sure their writing suits a given reading age?

For writers preparing for their audiences… I’d tell them to read as much of the successful material in that grouping as possible and see what makes it tick. As I was writing my list of 365 Graphic Novel Reviews, I’d ask creators “What comics are you reading?” Most of them told me they are too busy to read. That’s a problem. If a writer has these concerns, they should be doing research to what’s out there.

It’s been a long time since I was a student in an English class… how would you draw a distinction between plot, theme, and story?

Plot is what happens, the meat and potatoes of the story, the “what” of the story.

Themes are the bigger ideas that come out of the work. Themes can expose themselves as simply as “man vs nature”, or they can show themselves as complex as “mankind’s quest to expose forbidden realities”. As an English teacher, I feel it’s important to state that theme is different than moral.

A moral is a lesson learned, while theme is an idea that runs throughout a tale. Theme is a difficult thing to get right. A lot of the time, if a story is well thought out and complex, its themes naturally comes to the surface. A great concept is accompanied by theme, almost always because genuine storytelling has something to say, and it’s not always just a simple moral.

And story, for me, is the combination of plot, character, and setting.

Do you find that physical or digital books are more/less useful as teaching aides?

For me, physical books are always a better tool. We can hold them, mark them up (if we are allowed), physically interact with the page. I read Josh Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans After The Deluge, and being able to hold the physical and metaphorical weight of the book adds power to the message.

As humans, we want stories that make us feel good. We want to be assured that learning a lesson and being the good person is OK.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up reading and watching He-Man. And I always love the little morality message at the end of the cartoon. In your experience, how do modern kids tend to react to overt discussions of morality?

They enjoy it. We live in a world filled with cyberbullying, hate, and selfishness. Any bit of sunshine in a dark corner is welcome. As humans, for the most part, we want stories that make us feel good. We want to be inspired. We want to be assured that learning a lesson and being the good person is OK. That might sound a bit depressing, but we do need to be reminded that doing right is not uncommon.

Speaking of He-Man… the character designs for the new Netflix She-Ra series emerged recently, to a small amount of controversy among the fan community. Do you talk about good geek etiquette as part of your teaching?

I saw something in passing, but I haven’t clicked on it yet.

If you are talking about squashing negativity like the hate about the all-women Ghostbusters… I’ve never really had to get into that type of discussion in my classroom. I wouldn’t shy away from it, but we don’t dive too deep into geek culture. I do take kids to C2E2, and I do get some students on con panels, but it’s a small percentage of the kids that really want to get into that deep geek culture with me.

Could you tell us about some success stories you’ve had with your students over the years?

There are a bunch! I’d honestly have a hard time listing them, so what I’ll do is share a project that I’m working on that is, in my opinion, awesome.

In my Graphic Novel class, we read Jonny Sun’s everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too. We took the idea of little life lessons, made our own, and scripted - not drew - what they would look like if they were in the style of an aliebn book. Then we voted on the top six from my two classes, hired professional artists to draw the prints, and we are going to sell them to fund a class comic book.

My goal is to make more prints this coming semester, sell them all at a couple of cons, and get the ball rolling on an actual comic

My goal is to make more prints this coming semester, sell them all at a couple of cons, and get the ball rolling on an actual comic.

The kids are involved in every step: Creating the ideas, editing them, finding and talking to the artists. It’s very real-world, and it’s been exciting. Luckily, I’ve started to make friends with some cool artists that I was able to hire for the prints, and I’d like to get even more cool artists on board!

That sounds so cool! I’ve got goosebumps!

In your personal reading time, which characters, writers, or artists do you tend to follow?

I’m all over the place. My pull list stuff has piled up to the point that I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish it. I do read Marvel over DC, but I prefer Image, Dark Horse, and publishing houses like Lion Forge and Oni Press even more. I’m sort of getting tired of hero books, especially when there are so many great non-hero books out there, and the non-fiction stuff coming out has been amazing.

As far as artists and writers go, I will immediately pick up work by Jeff Lemire, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Joe Hill, and Fiona Staples.

Do you follow any webcomics?

Sadly, I do not. I need to. Kids recommend stuff to me all the time, but I’m reading paper comics. I am planning on starting my own webcomic sometime this year, so I better start doing some research!

Grab your preferred music device and set it on random - what are the first five songs it plays? No cheating!

  • He Got Game - Public Enemy
  • Apartment - Young The Giant
  • What’s Golden - Jurassic 5
  • Come Clean - Jeru The Damaja
  • Slam - Onyx

There’s a few musicians on this list I’m not familiar with… I’ll have to give them a listen!

Eric, thanks so much for your time and insight. I’m so curious to see what stories you and your students create! Eric Kallenborn can be found on Twitter, or at his website Mr Kallenborn: The Other Comic Book Teacher.

Main image: Brittany Sowacke, The Deseret News
Other images: Supplied.

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