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How comics curriculum boosts SEL

As a learning facilitator focused on STEAM for middle and high school students, I teach everything from math to memoir writing to furniture building, and I infuse social-emotional learning into all of it.

When my students return to Community Regional Charter School in Maine this fall, one way I’ll help them get back in the habit of collaborating and expressing themselves is by having them create comics on a wide variety of subjects. 

Comics are such a powerful SEL tool because they can capture not only spoken conflict between people, but also the unspoken. They can show sarcasm. They can capture internal monologues to point out the difference between what someone is thinking and what they’re saying. And of course they can use humor to diffuse tension. Those are all things that comics do easily that other media does not.

Here are a few ways I plan to use comics in the first weeks of the new school year.

Reintroducing collaboration

My students are 7th- through 12-graders. Some of those students do well in their introverted space, while others really need a partner to help them articulate their personal perspectives. So as we all meet each other for the first time or get reacquainted after the summer, I give students the option to work on their own, or in groups of two or three.

I like to get them into storytelling as quickly as possible, so one of the first comics I have them create answers the question, “How do you treat the physical space around you?” Using the online comic creator Pixton, my students create stories about picking up after themselves, pushing chairs under tables or cleaning up messes that they see.

Once they’ve gotten the hang of it, I tell each group, “I want you to tell a short comic story from your perspective and from someone else's perspective.” The idea is not to make a character who looks like a specific person, but to show multiple characters representing multiple points of view. 

Illustrating different viewpoints

These comics can address serious subjects like people disagreeing about masks, people disagreeing about Black Lives Matter, or people disagreeing about transgender rights. The big question we focus our discussion on is, “Why do some people make the choices they make?” 

Each group tells a story with multiple points of view, all looking at the same situation. Even a four-panel comic can illustrate that they understand the idea of differing points of view, which organically builds empathy. 

Inspiring multimedia creativity

I also encourage my students to combine tech-based and analog forms of creativity. The last year of distance learning created a somewhat adversarial relationship between technology and learners, and I want to show them ways that technology can be a leverage point to help them do things by hand. 

One way to do this is to create remixes by using Pixton to pick backgrounds and characters, then laying them on to other media like pictures that the students have drawn or photos they’ve taken on a tablet. Yes, these projects will use hardware and software, but one of the ways we’ll build community is by agreeing that this is not going to be a year when we all stare at computers for every lesson. We can combine mediums.

No matter what I’m teaching or how I’m teaching it, one of my beliefs is that creativity, content learning and SEL are not mutually exclusive. They all work together. We just have to take a pause and say, “What could I change about how I typically do things so that it becomes a form of creative expression?”

Dan Ryder is a learning facilitator at Community Regional Charter School in Skowhegan, Maine, where he uses Pixton to create comics with his classes. He is the co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom. He can be reached at danryder207@gmail.com

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