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Teaching with comics offers so many opportunities for us in the art room, and so many avenues for our students to explore. In today’s episode, Tim Smyth and Candido Crespo join Tim to share their perspectives on how comics can be used in our classrooms. Listen as they discuss Tim’s experiences teaching with comics, Candido’s use of comics in the art room, and Candido’s presentation at the upcoming NOW Conference. Full Episode Transcript Below.
Tim Bogatz: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
We have a pretty interesting topic today, one that I am looking forward to having a conversation about comics and how we can teach with comics in the art room. I have a couple of great guests, a couple of guys who know far more about the topic than I do, Candido Crespo and Tim Smyth. Now, this episode came about because of Candido. He created a great presentation at the winter NOW Conference about printmaking, and he was incredibly popular there, and with his appearance on my podcast, his appearance on Nic’s Everyday Art Room podcast.
So I asked him to come back for this summer’s conference, which is happening in a couple of weeks, and he said that he wanted to put together a presentation on comics. Well, he has done that and I promise you that you are going to love it. I remember I was a little skeptical when Candido first proposed the idea. I was just thinking, “Oh, is it enough? Is there enough there for a good presentation?” And Candido just told me like, “Tim, this has everything. We’re going to be exploring. We’re going to be checking out sequential art and comics, and interdisciplinary lessons, and culturally relevant pedagogy and comic industry professions, and so much more.”
I have to say my initial thoughts were very, very wrong. I think the world of comic art goes so much wider and so much deeper than I thought. So suffice it to say, I’m still on my journey of learning all of the art that is out there and all of the opportunities that are out there when it comes to comics.
So I asked Candido to come talk to me here so we can explore a lot of these ideas, so I can learn more so we can all continue to learn more. And Candido said, “Sure, I’ll come on. But who we really need to talk to is Tim Smyth.” Now Tim is a history teacher from Philadelphia who utilizes comics to engage and to educate his students. And I think he’s going to have a different perspective coming from outside of the classroom. And I think he’s going to have a lot of great ideas. So super appreciative that he agreed to join us as well. I’m really thankful that he is ready to talk to us. And I think both guys are ready to go. So let me invite them on and we will get started.
All right. I have two incredible guests with me today. First is a returning guest, Candido Crespo. Candido, how are you?
Candido: Yeah, I’m doing well. I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having us.
Tim Bogatz: Awesome, awesome. And also we have Tim Smyth. Tim, how are you?
Tim Smyth: I’m good. Just trying to stay out of the heat.
Tim Bogatz: Yes, for sure. For sure. All right. So let’s start with some introductions. Candido, I know you’ve been on before, but for people hearing you for the first time, can you tell everybody a little bit about yourself?
Candido: Sure. I am a husband, a father, an artist, and next school year I’ll be entering my fifth year of teaching. I’ve had the opportunity of teaching kindergarten through 12th grade in the same school district, Central Islip in Long Island, New York.
Tim Bogatz: All right. Tim, can you give us an introduction?
Tim Smyth: Sure. Do you want the long version or the short version?
Tim Bogatz: Whatever you feel like. We’ll take it on.
Tim Smyth: Candido just made me feel guilty because I always say all these things and then I forget to say, yes, I also have three children and a wife who God bless her, I couldn’t do what I do without her. So I’m a high school social studies teacher. My second day on the job was 9/11.
Tim Bogatz: Wow.
Tim Smyth: Yeah. It’s been interesting. I’m in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m a published author with PBS, and Macmillan, and Scholastic. I write teacher guides and things on comics and education. I run a website teachingwithcomics.com where I share a lot of what I do in the classroom. I also work with the US State Department in a virtual exchange program in about 25 different countries. And we have teachers and students creating comics in a exchange. It’s fantastic. I can go on and on the stuff I do, but just pinch me. My 12-year-old self would never have believed any of this stuff.
Tim Bogatz: Yeah. That’s incredible. I’m feeling wildly unaccomplished all of a sudden. So that’s doing a lot of really, really cool things, Tim. So I’m super excited that you can join us. So let me start with you, Tim. You talked about your 12-year-old self being really excited about this. Obviously, you’ve loved comics for a long time. So any great memories? How did you first get into comics and I guess larger question, how did you start incorporating comics into your teaching in the first place?
Tim Smyth: Well, for me growing up in Philly, I’m a big hip hop fan and comics. I was of an age where you didn’t talk about comics, right? You would have gotten beat up, you would have gotten whatever, but Public Enemy was all good to talk about and whatnot. But now, we know that there’s a big connection between hip hop and comics and everything. And we can talk about that later if you want. But I had a tough childhood growing up. I know I’ve heard other people say the same thing. It was comics that Bruce Wayne overcame, instead of giving up watching his parents be murdered, and he decided to make the world a better place.
The X-Men being ostracized so much, but they decided to come together and again, make the world a better place. And that literally helped save me as a child and help put me on a path even to become a teacher with Charles Xavier and all these kinds of things. It’s just something that I found a lot of self-worth out of. But when I taught, I taught for a long time without using comics in my classroom.
I was a very by the book, here’s the curriculum, here’s the textbook. This is what we’re supposed to do. I was afraid to go outside of all that. I started talking about when Miles Morales was first created. I had this young black male in my classroom who was just quiet, same way I was in high school and we never really had personal conversations. And this kid came up to me after class and we started chatting about it. He was more impressed that Spider-Man looked like him than our president did at the time.
I was like, “Damn, I’m on to something here.” So now I use comic books as artifacts like a societal artifacts about change. I mean, I just got done reading Marvel’s new voices for Pride Month. This wouldn’t have existed when I was in high school. So I know we’re going through a lot of issues in our country and things, but my kids are growing up with all kinds of different heroes. And for me, that’s what’s going to lead to change. So I started introducing this in my classroom and I became very passionate about doing this in my classroom.
So my passion then translated to the students. Then we started making comics, I still do everything else. I still do all the research papers. I’m a really hard teacher. Ask my students, they’ll tell you. But whether it’s comics or anything else, if you, as a teacher, and administrators need to let us do this, let us be individuals and human beings in the classroom and bring in that passion. Now, we use hip hop to talk about racial issues.
We listen to Common. We listen to J Cole and we compare it to Public Enemy and then we compare it to protest music in the ’60s. These are the things that I’m very passionate about. So the kids are too. So this idea that social studies, isn’t just like capital H history, it’s literally everything around us and we need to be more open to that.
I just started doing it and I was actually on my way out of the classroom. I had a really awful year and it wasn’t in my classroom. It was just one of those years where outside forces came in and I was going to quit teaching after about 14 years of teaching. I had a staff developer encouraged me to blog about what I did in my classroom. I’m like, “No, that’s what millennials do. I don’t want to brag. I don’t want to…” He’s like, “No. People are going to be interested in what you do.” And so I did.
Literally I got an email from an editor from PBS who said, “Hey, listen. We want you to write some articles for us.” Vicky, the editor, she literally saved my teaching career where…
Tim Bogatz: Wow.
Tim Smyth: Right. I was like, “Other people care what I do.” What’s great about that is now my students are on that journey with me too. So now we’re beyond the four walls of the classroom. So again, whether it’s comics or hip hop, basketball, sewing, whatever your passion is, if you can find a way to weave that into your classroom, it’s just a powerful experience.
Tim Bogatz: Yeah, absolutely. I think on that very last thing you said, I don’t know that validation is something that we need, but it certainly feels good when it comes and it can be incredibly helpful then. So Candido, Tim just said a lot right there. Did any of that resonate with you either how you first got into comics? How you first started teaching with them? What your goals are with them? Any of that, a common experience with you as well?
Candido: Yeah, I think both how I was introduced to comics. I guess the time that I was reading comics and maybe how I’ve started to embed it in my classroom experience. So I guess when I first started reading comics, I think it’s a combination of two things. It was on television with the animated series, such as Marvel and Batman. And also it was just available in my local 7-Eleven, my local convenience store. They were just there. So if my old man wanted to go get a cup of coffee and I go get a Slurpee, I can also pick up a comic book. That was really cool, the thought of just having so much access to it. As a child, I couldn’t have told you, where my local comic shop was.
I didn’t know that because nobody in my family and none of my friends were reading comics. I wasn’t like covered by these things. I just knew that they were super cool. I never really looked at them as filling a void for heroes. I wasn’t looking for heroes. I think it was more just like a validation of my imagination so that I knew that I wasn’t the only one that was creating these worlds in my mind. Then when I get to turn the pages of a comic, it just felt like… It didn’t even feel like escapism. It was almost like a… I don’t know. I just felt like, “Oh, okay. I can be…” So whatever’s going on in my head is also going on in other people’s heads.
So I just enjoyed them in that way. I enjoyed the art. I would say that if anybody ever asks me like, oh, how did I start getting into art? It would be Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. It’s probably an inappropriate comic for the age that I was reading it, but I just thought the art was so cool. So a lot of it went over my head at that time too, so that’s okay.
Tim Bogatz: Yeah.
Candido: How did it start getting into my classroom though is a little bit different. I think very early on, I was under the impression that we couldn’t become friends with our students, because of my pre-service education. I guess I was a little more reserved when I first started teaching, but I noticed immediately that I would get nowhere that way, not with the students that I serve, not with the population that I’m serving.
So over the years, I’ve just started just being super transparent with my students, and anything that I like, I post it on my wall. I include it in my social media. I just let myself be in an open book. And comics has been a big part of that. While I wasn’t so open about it in my youth, as an adult, I feel a lot more confident expressing my fandom. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done justice and wonders for those of us who attended Comic-Cons when they were in the basement of churches as opposed to major convention centers.
That’s where I’m at right now. And just students know I like comics. So whether I included it in the lesson or they just are asking me like, “Hey, can you draw Miles Morales for me at the end of class today?” That brings me a lot of joy because I know that I’m connecting with them. And me just sharing that image with them is probably a lot more than me even having a conversation because now they can keep that piece with them.
Tim Bogatz: Yeah, for sure. And that’s a really good way to put it. And I think it’s important like you both touched on this, just being able to share your values, being able to share your interests is something that humanizes you. It’s something that helps kids connect with you and that it leads to just a lot better teaching, a lot better learning because those connections are there. So Tim, I wanted to ask you, you spoke a little bit about how comics can, I guess, speak to some of the larger concepts that are out there, some of the bigger things that you want to teach. Is that the main reason you use comics? Or I guess I’m looking at it in a bigger picture, why do you think teaching with comics can be so effective?
Tim Smyth: So there’s two ways. One is through my son. So my son’s got a lot of medical issues. He’s got a really rare form of meningitis. He’s been hospitalized multiple times. I mean, he’s like my own superhero. So when he was in kindergarten, his teacher termed him a reluctant reader, like in kindergarten. My son was into superheroes and all this stuff. I had written my master’s thesis as a reading specialist on using comics and pop culture in the classroom to engage students. I watched my son give up on school like in kindergarten because this kid’s already got everything against him. Right? Initially, I went along with the teacher because I was trying to be the good parent and I was a new parent and we took away his superhero lunchbox.
We’re like, “No, no, no. You got to read what she wants you to read.” These little board books were like cat sat on mat and all this stuff. And he didn’t want to read that. So needless to say, we’re no longer at that school. I really realized that he wanted to read comic books. And like this kid now loves to read everything. He’s on the reading Olympics team at his school. A publisher send him books like advance readers copies, because they want him to review on social media for them.
Tim Smyth: Right. It’s an amazing experience. So there’s that personal part of it. And I know with the dyslexia, and I know with Asperger’s, all the research that we know, English language learners, all the scaffolding that we know with comics and things. So I know that from a personal experience. But I also know that with comics, we talk about when my students come in the first week of school, I have comic books from different decades and we go through when we look at comic books as artifacts, and how will things change. The students are analyzing them for gender roles and they’re looking for representation. They’re looking for the technology. They’re looking for the artwork. They’re looking for the letters to the editor.
Just like we would pick apart a letter from George Washington or a typical primary source. It opens up their minds to the rest of the world and what are artifacts? It’s not just a diary entry from a president or something. It’s what average people do. We see Batman tackle issues of police profiling. So I can take an image from a Batman comic and put it up on the smart board and open up a conversation in a way that I can’t do of, “Hey, let’s talk about police profiling.” You know what I mean? The kids are like, “Whoa, that’s a little off in my face.”
So we’re able to do it that way. There’s a really great champions comic from Jim Zub where there’s a school shooting at Miles Morales high school. My students turned to me and they’re like, “Mr. Smyth, you talk about comics as artifacts like it’s in our comics now.” The air went out of the room of the realism of all this. And in there even was they were running an active shooter drill. There was a young lady in a hijab. So comics are great for representation because you can write in a paragraph in a prose book, but in a comic, you can put that representation in there in five seconds. And she’s crying.
The student turns and says, “Hey, it’s only a drill. Don’t worry about it.” But it encapsulates this emotional connection that we have. And I know what we go through in our classrooms when we go through these drills because of why we’re doing it. Right? So kind of all those things. So comics come out every week. They represent a lot of what’s in the world around us. So then the second part of that is I have my students create comics. So they’re able to create a comic book about modern civil rights issues after we read the March graphic novel trilogy based on Congressman John Lewis’s life.
So now they become, yes, they’re going to do the research. They’re going to do an annotated work cited page. They’re going to do all that, but now they’re able to visually represent, or they take fairytales. And we talk about fairytales as culture, and they put a modern twist on it, and they create it in a comic book. So now, one that sticks out in my mind, they took Cinderella and this transitioning student wrote a story about Cinderfella.
Tim Bogatz: Nice.
Tim Smyth: All of a sudden now you’re having these conversations individually in a way that, that student is not going to raise their hand in class and say, “Hey, I want to talk about… No, that’s terrifying.” But you do it through the artistic way and you’re able to hook these students in a way that you just can’t in any other medium.
Tim Bogatz: Yeah. That’s a lot there. A lot of incredible ideas. Candido, I want to ask you kind of the similar question, but take it more specifically into the art room. So can you talk a little bit about how you bring comics into the art room and do you see some of those same opportunities that the kids are getting that Tim talked about them?
Candido: Right. So I’m looking forward to re-listening to this conversation, by the way, because I think Tim is just out here just giving out information just like his website. And there’s just so much valuable content. The way I bring comics into the classroom is definitely from the illustrator perspective. But I have attempted to, and I haven’t had success just yet, but to turn it into an interdisciplinary lesson.
I really wanted to work with ELA teachers when I first developed the lesson of the comic strip. And the goal was really that not just the simple like, they write the poem and we illustrate the poem, but really the other way. I wanted them to be able to do storytelling, visual storytelling, and then work with their ELA teachers to develop this story as basically accompanying the images, like how could they tell their story to support these images?
What kind of words were necessary to support the images? Allow the ELA teacher to work with them on dialogue. But for me, I wanted to treat the space like a real pen and ink pencil and paper space to create these stories because I want my students ultimately to be able to develop a drawing ability that allows them to be not just expressive to get their emotions out, but also to serve the purpose of communication as well.
So that’s where I find myself using comics in the classroom. And also giving them an opportunity to do some escapism, some ownership of a story. I want them to experience the problem solving that’s necessary of doing a sequential art project. It’s just so difficult to get that same drawing, that same character over and over again is very different than just developing an original character.
But now when you have four, or five, six panels where you have to draw the same character over and over and maintain that look, it’s a challenge. It’s a big challenge and you start changing their mannerisms. I enjoy that. I think that complexity while frustrating, and you can see it in the students’ faces, I think they’re up for the challenge, and it’s a type of project that provides them just that, because once it’s all done, it’s colored and it’s presentable, then it’s just like, “Oh yeah. You wrote a story. You just wrote what essentially a comic is like.”
Oh, I do want to say though, this is kind of funny. We do a comic strip project so as to reduce the amount of time we’re spending on this one particular lesson, but it can be accompanied earlier with just like gesture drawings and other ways to build like an original character so that you can create the story with. But the comic strip is unlike the comic book. So I use a comic book as my reference to grab their attention. But when I asked my students now, if they know what a comic strip is or what the funnies are in the newspaper, there is no conversation, no discussion. They’re like, “Mr. Crespo, we have no idea what you’re talking about.” I’m like, “All right, let’s just stick to comics for now.”
Tim Bogatz: I mean, nobody gets the newspaper anymore. I have a subscription to the newspaper, and I think I’m the only person on my entire street. It’s great. I mean, kids just, they don’t grow up reading the comics. It’s a little different world. So I guess the other big thing I wanted to do is get recommendations from the both of you. So Tim, I’ll start with you, if you don’t mind. If teachers are interested in getting into comics, bringing comics into their classroom what advice would you have for them on how to get started? Whether it be comics you can use or how you can use different comics with your students?
Tim Smyth: Yeah. First, mad props to Candido. When I come across an art teacher, an English teacher, a math teacher, we need more teachers who are willing to go across the curriculum that you’re doing. That’s fantastic. So hats off to you.
Tim Smyth: But when you mentioned Spawn, so this is always… Whenever I give presentations and new teachers come up and they’re all excited, “Hey, I want to do this too.” I have to say two things. One, comics never replace anything else. It’s not meant to replace prose. I’m not saying we’re not going to read Shakespeare. I’m not saying we’re not going to read whatever. It’s another tool in our toolkit. A lot of students come to me in high school, not knowing how to read a comic book.
They’ve never read one. They’ve never picked one up. They don’t know how to do this. So we need to teach them how to read a comic. We can’t assume that they know how to do these things. The other thing I say, and this goes back to Spawn is in America, an image will get you in trouble faster than anything else that you use in your classroom. Our ninth graders read Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut. And I call it the alien sex war book.
Tim Bogatz: That’s accurate.
Tim Smyth: Right. And that’s okay because it’s literature. But if you’ve got a skin tight suit, or you’ve got two boys kissing in a comic or something like that, and that’s the only thing that that parent sees or that administrator sees. So I do say that you got to know your community. You got to know what you’re doing, particularly when you’re first beginning. I can get away with a lot more things now than I would have tried when I was a beginning teacher because I know what I’m doing and things like that.
In terms of how to access, so first thing I always say to people and it’s surprising is go find a local comic book store. It’s amazing what you can find in there now. I mean, for one thing, girls work there now. I mean, when I was a kid, it was all white boys. It was all white males pretty much in the comic bookstore. In a lot of cases I’m the minority in the store and that’s a great thing to see.
Tim Bogatz: That’s great.
Tim Smyth: And also if I’ll plug my website, it’s all free, but teachingwithcomics.com. The most popular part of my website is whenever I find really good online free comic books to use in the classroom, I park them on that part of my website. There are a lot of free comics that are out there. Sunday Haha they, they send out an email every Sunday with comics that you can use. There’s The Nib for more adult type things. There’s lots of different things you can do. I have a class set of all three of the March graphic novels. I’m blessed that my administration did that.
As teachers always say, “Why don’t I have enough money to buy…” Like I said, I might use one panel from a comic and put it up on a smart board. I don’t buy 30 copies of that. Although sometimes I do that too, and that comes out of my own pocket. The other thing you can do is I have a growing class library is I may not have 30 copies of one title on refugees, but I might have 20 different titles on refugees.
So the students can read them separately and now they’re engaged in a conversation in small group discussions because… Right. So they have different options, different experiences, those sorts of things. So there’s lots of options out there.
Tim Bogatz: Yeah, for sure. So Candido, what about you? Where do you get started with things in the art room or what advice would you have for teachers who want to bring comics into the artist space?
Candido: Right. So first I think it’s only right that we plug the summer NOW Conference because during that time, I’m giving information regarding what I think are some good comic to use in the classroom. I think the first thing to do and Tim mentioned it is understand who you’re serving. By now, if you’re teaching two plus years… I’m going to say two because I’m going to give grace to the one-year teacher, but you should know who your population is by the second year you’re in that classroom, in that community.
You should definitely then search for the comics that you feel are going to make a difference and the impact inside of the classroom. I too agree visit your local comic book shop. I think a great way to do that this summer is actually typically Free Comic Book Day is in May, but it’s moved to August this year. I think if you go on to the Free Comic Book Day website, you type in your zip code, you find out where your local comic book shop is. It’s a great day to go.
It’s a little bit busy, but it’s a great opportunity to find out who the local comic fans are in your community. You get some free comics. You get to build a little community while you’re there. I’ve exchanged business cards in that space before. It’s really cool. So that’s something that I think those people who are interested in doing. So take advantage. August 14th is the Free Comic Book.
I would say, use comic conventions as professional development. Find your way. Speak to your administrators and tell them like, “Hey, I’m going to go to this comic convention, and it’s provided me with a lot more access and networking than me sitting here, listening to somebody talk about group settings inside of my classroom.” Push your administration.
Our teachers know all about fighting for advocacy. I think we’re all going through it. I think DEI is going to be a big push. Tim provides some excellent resources on his website. If you asked me and Tim wasn’t on this conversation, what a resource of mine would be, I would say his website. It just has it broken down in a way that just allows you to really jump into a lesson and understand and have some good foundation. So yeah, I’m an advocate for his website as well. Yeah, that’s it.
I think if I could give one graphic novel just now is Nubia: Real One is pretty cool. It’s a different take on Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has a black sister and it follows, instead of it just being an Amazon based… Or an adult version, she is a teenager going through teenage life. And it is a really inclusive story that tackles a lot of issues. I enjoyed the illustrations and the writing very much. So Nubia: Real One.
Tim Bogatz: Nice. I’m intrigued. So Tim, not to put you on the spot, but I’m going to put you on the spot. Can you give us one recommendation for people to check out something that you’ve been a fan of recently?
Tim Smyth: I actually just read, They Called Us Enemy. It’s George Takei’s experience as a four or five-year-old in Japanese-American internment camps. I had the pleasure of interviewing the authors of the book. Just now I’m reading his autobiography where they kind of based the story on. So I want to use that next year in my classroom alongside of March, because we need to understand that the civil rights movement isn’t a black and white issue. It wasn’t just a ’60s issue. It’s much wider. It’s much broader. It’s still going on.
And I think when you use a comic book in that way… In fact, I had one kid who just hated comics, and that’s okay. So she brought her dad in to like I’m the comic teacher and that’s not real teaching. And she sold me out.
Tim Bogatz: Sold me out.
Tim Smyth: Right. Instead of me defending it, I literally just handed the dad March. And he’s like, “Wow.” He had the idea like a lot of people do that comics are not real literature, not real reading. He went up like talking to his daughter about… And again, it’s not the only thing that we do. So that was pretty much like, “Look, if you really don’t like it, read it, and then you’ll move on to the things that you do like, and that’s part of life too.” But man, dad was like emailing me all throughout the year for recommendations and that kind of stuff too.
Tim Bogatz: Nice. I like that. All right. Well, Candido, we’ll direct everybody to your NOW presentation, so they can check out more. Tim, can you tell us one more time about your website so everybody can explore that and find some resources there?
Candido: Yeah. So it’s easy, teachingwithcomics.com. I’m @historycomics on social media. Feel free to get in contact with me if you need any help with selling your administration, parents or getting started. I am more than happy to help in any way that I can.
Tim Bogatz: Awesome. Sounds great. Thank you both for your time. This has been an awesome conversation. Hope everybody enjoys it. I hope everybody learns a little bit, but like I said, I really appreciate your time. So thank you both.
Tim Smyth: All right. Thank you.
Candido: Thank you.
Tim Bogatz: That was really fun, and for me a really eye-opening conversation. So thank you to Tim. Thank you to Candido. I think we might have another line of exploration there with the connections between hip hop and comics. It might be worth some further discussion.
So what now? What next? If you want to explore more about comics and what next, if you want to learn about how comics can be used in your classroom? I would recommend just a great place to get started is Tim’s website. Check out historycomics.net, follow him @historycomics on social media. I believe he has a Facebook page as well, and just a plethora of great ideas and great opportunities to further your own learning and get some ideas on how you can bring comics into your classroom.
And of course, as Candido mentioned toward the end there, the NOW Conference is coming up in a couple of weeks. His presentation there is going to be spectacular. If you have not registered yet, get on it. And that is coming up on Thursday, July 29th. You can find everything you need to know about the conference and you can get registered on the AOEU website. Until then, I would say go read some comics, go see what resources you can find that can help you teach with comics and think about how those things might be helpful, might be helpful for you, for your classroom, for your students. I think it’ll be enjoyable for you every step along the way.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening and we will be back with you again next week.