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Guest post: Steve Saville of Alfriston College, Auckland, on comics in the classroom

Today, we’re joined by Steve Saville, deputy principal at Alfriston College in South Auckland. For four years, Steve has championed the use of comics in the classroom through a series of innovative workshops which have allowed students to develop and publish their own high quality comic books. In the first of a two-part guest post, Steve tells the story of Alfriston’s unique comic book education project.

See more on comics in the classroom via the “comicsedu” tag on this site.

Like most teachers, I can think of numerous times that I have attempted to encourage or develop creativity with students, both in and out of the classroom. Like most teachers, my in-class efforts have fallen firmly in the realm of teacher-directed, and therefore dictated, creativity.

Comic book learning in action at Alfriston College

Comic book learning in action at Auckland’s Alfriston College

More recently, I’ve spent a few years encouraging learners to genuinely take control of the creative process, exploring creativity through the medium of comics. The aim has been to produce original comics that are of a publishable and professional standard. I have done this within a single school environment, Alfriston College. A potted history of our programme follows.

2008

On a whim, I wanted to see if it was possible for young adults to produce quality comics. To that end, I collected a small group of interested learners. In our first year, learners from Year 9 to Year 12 came together for two of Alfriston’s ‘three day episodes.’ These are authentic learning experiences where the timetable is suspended for three days and a mixed-age group of learners forms around a specific project or activity.

The first group’s task, which I set, was to take an extract from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and turn it into a comic. By acknowledging the benefits of giving learners time to focus on one specific activity, it was an example of how an institution can adapt to accommodate creative pursuits – but it was still largely teacher directed.

For the second three day episode, the group had to choose a song that was special to them and interpret the lyrics of that song in original comic form. The task was still chosen by the teacher, but I felt that I was gradually handing over power and choice to the students.

Both of these experiences were successful and encouraging. I had arrived at the school at the same time as a small group of talented comic artists were enrolled there: it was a fortuitous alignment of the stars.

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2009

2008’s sessions could have been the end of it. However, four or so members of the initial group wanted to continue working on comics. We decided to exploit our school’s flexible timetable, and use the Wednesday afternoon slot to meet and create. By now I had considerable respect for this group of highly engaged, hard working learners who were doing well academically as well as in the arts.

We met once a week and this time it was the students who came up with a project. Their aim was to produce a full length comic as a collective. They would all create a character and pool their talents to produce the comic that featured their individual characters together.

This project failed to produce a finished product. Learners may have found out a good deal about group dynamics and choosing manageable tasks, but it was not a success when it came to producing a finished product. Nonetheless, part of sustaining a creative environment is taking risks and allowing room for mistakes as well as collaboration.

These sessions were free of the constraints of assessment and the atmosphere was relaxed, with music played and food shared as the students worked. It was also free of the constraints imposed by specific schedules of learning; thinking time and false starts were tolerated in a way that would be less palatable in a traditional classroom.

I must stress that I never operated as teacher with this group. I was more of an editor – setting deadlines, offering a critical eye, and occasionally giving advice over aspects such as page layout, design, and narrative, but rarely “instructing” students about artistic technique.

2010

It was obvious that the ‘three day episode’ format suited the creation of comics better than the once weekly module meeting. For 2010, both formats were used.

A small group of learners approached me and asked for a space and a project to complete during a ‘three day episode’. I provided a venue and we co-constructed a task for students to accomplish. For these small self-generated projects, learners produced work that was eventually published in the New Zealand Herald or submitted to Learning Media. My intention here was to take them into a further area and ‘employ’ them to produce a comic for a specific audience rather than merely to fulfill the creative urge.

Meanwhile, a large group of around 20 learners ranging from Year 10 to Year 13 met in the Wednesday time slot to work on producing enough material for our first anthology by the end of the year.

We achieved this and completed a 60 + page anthology of original Alfriston comics in conjunction with local publishers DMC Comics. We also produced material for DMC’s Auckland-wide, all-ages New Ground anthology, and held an exhibition of this work at the school.

We were guests at the Armageddon comics convention, interviewed by the press and visited by educators from New Zealand and beyond. Some of the creators were confident enough to attend other pop culture conventions with their own material. The anthology was reviewed favorably and overall it was a productive and positive year.

2010’s lesson for me was that by making the most of a flexible school timetable, you could create an environment where learners could find their creative voice. From there, some would move on and work beyond the school with confidence, while others would dabble, or even remain happily within the school constraints. Still others would struggle to complete work.

2012

After a hiatus in 2011, as the school took a break from ‘three day episodes’ and rebranded its Wednesday afternoon activity slot, I took the opportunity in 2012 to reunite our keenest comic creators. Some new additions came from teacher referrals and others joined as they wanted to give comic creation a go. A number of previous creators had mentored a younger relative into the group: in one case, a kind of dynasty emerged, as an original creator mentored a cousin who in turn mentored another cousin!

While a small group used the ‘three day episodes’ to create a publishable comic under the stewardship of me as an editor, I was approached by NZQA to trial a new academic standard that was in draft form, using comics as the creative response.

This introduced a degree of formality to the group. They coped with this by paying lip service to the administrative demands I imposed on them. I needed to do this as we were part of a trial; they understood this, tolerated it and then carried on with the creation of comics. Gaining academic credits was an exciting by-product of this trial for those participating, but the passion to create was still the overriding driver. The learners generally took the broad topic of ‘school life’ and produced their responses. They completed the administrative demands reluctantly and with scant interest.

Once again, the atmosphere was relaxed and collaborative. The main development I noticed was how, over time, learners had experimented with styles and tools as the need arose. Two were now working completely on computer using their tablets, others had started to incorporate digital technologies, while others still remained traditional in their use of pen and pencil. Group members were free to experiment and take risks when and if they were ready. Another development was that the ability to create coherent comics improved: we had created a positive environment where learners wanted to constructively discuss and share their work, but without over-emphasising judgment on that work.

The trial was successful: we published our second anthology, longer at 80 + pages, and continued to arouse interest and inquiries from beyond the school.

In part 2 of his guest post, coming soon, Steve talks more about the theory and pedagogy behind his comics workshops – and asks how schools can become places of truly creative learning.

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