NYCC: Teachers explain how comic books help kids learn at the NY Public Library

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Oct 5, 2018, 6:29 AM EDT

Erica Buddington, founder of The Langston League, which designs socially responsible and relevant curricula for students of color, recently worked with a sixth-grade student who didn't want to study ancient civilizations. So she tried to get on the middle-schooler's level.

"Did you like Black Panther? Did you like Wakanda?" she asked him.

"Duh," he responded. "Of course."

Bingo. She was in. Buddington explained that ancient civilizations had tools, innovations, and artistic achievements — just like Wakanda had vibranium and an invisible force field. Suddenly, the student saw how the force field worked just like the Great Wall of China.

Black Panther was his way in.

Shuri, Letitia Wright

Credit: Marvel Studios

She advised the audience that they could do the same: "Start using [comic books] as cultural lenses."

Buddington spoke on Thursday at the New York Comic Con panel "Teaching Race, Culture, and Comics." But rather than appear at the Javits Center, the convention was held at the New York Public Library. This con-within-a-con, dubbed NYCC@NYPL, contains content that was aimed at issues pertaining to librarians, teachers, and educators.

The "Teaching" panel was led by African-American comic book writers, including John Jennings — also a professor at UC Riverside — who writes to "unpack stereotypes and create avenues of subjectivity... to show the breadth of human experience through these stories."

Other writers, such as Adawummi Roye Okupe, write to entertain as well as educate. "My stories are inspired by African mythology and culture," Okupe said. "Africa is very rich in history and mythology, and up until Black Panther, there was nothing that portrayed Africa as a rich continent full of culture and lore... I want to impart knowledge about where I come from."

Every educator who spoke at NYCC@NYPL emphasized the importance of using pop culture as a way to thoroughly engage students. "I use pop culture [because the students] understand what it is I'm talking about," Brooke Odle, a teacher, said. "If I can, I capitalize on whatever movie is out. I can really get buy-in from them." Pop culture brings difficult subjects — gender politics, identity politics, cultural theories — down to a level that students easily grasp.

Sources of inspiration, the panelists said, include Marvel and Disney movies, Splice, Altered Carbon, The Simpsons, and Drunk History, the YouTube series Thug Notes, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

bill nye netflix lab season 3.jpg

But there's more to comic books than analogies for teachers to lean on. In the panel "Science Nerds, Turds, and Dead Birds," we learned that comic books are good… but digital comics are better.

Specifically, digital comics allows readers to interact with the text, explained author and artist Ezra Claytan Daniels, who is heading the web-based interactive science experience "Transmissions: Gone Wild" (release date TBA). "Transmissions: Gone Wild" tells the story of three children who become involved with the real-world West Nile Virus outbreak of 1999.

At first glance, it looks a typical comic converted into a .pdf for online viewing. But readers can delve deeper into more than the text. Want to explore a subject more? Press a button, and more information unfolds, all at the reader's pace.

"One of the core strategies we wanted to embrace is the technology of the device itself, its capabilities and design around there," Daniels said about digital comics. Readers of digital comics can expect to use a device's sound, as well as its accelerometer, to experience the story.

These three panels typified the philosophy of NYCC@NYPL. Attendees really did have fun while learning.