The First New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference was held this past weekend at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI. The combination of graphic novelists, educators, and industry professionals on a mission to validate comics as a teaching tool created a unique conference experience. Targeted more toward educators rather than comic book fans, this event sought to provide rationales for using graphic novels in the classroom, highlight the appeal and versatility of visual storytelling, and expose teachers to the vast array of meaningful, engaging comics available.

The organizers of NECAC, North Providence High School English teacher Michael Gianfrancesco and Rhode Island College English professor Dr. Jennifer Cook, presented at Fordham University’s “Graphica in Education” conference in 2009. They left with a vision of holding a similar conference of their own. With partners such as Archie Comics, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Brodart, and Rhode Island College, that dream became a reality. “I built the conference I would want to go to,” said Gianfrancesco. In fact, he and Cook built the conference that everyone wanted to go to. NECAC registration reached full capacity quickly, about 120 people attended, published artists and authors, vendors, certified teachers, education students from a variety of subjects and college professors among them, and a glance around the room during the last presentation showed that attendees stayed for the entire program.

What gave cause for celebration was the support from Rhode Island College administration. President Nancy Carriuolo and Vice President of Academic Affairs Ron Pitt were in attendance and clearly on board with the graphic novels in the classroom movement. With some presenters hailing from colleges such as Tufts University, University of Texas, Bryant University, Emerson College and North Carolina State University, NECAC was definitely an academic conference focused on legitimizing the educational benefits of the art and text found in graphic novels.

The day began with opening remarks from Gianfrancesco. “I believe in reading. I believe in reading comics.” This theme ran throughout the entire conference. The emphasis was on using comics to inspire all learners in the areas of reading and writing, not just the ones who might already be interested in graphic novels or the reluctant readers. “There is something for everyone, like regular print text,” said Cook of graphic novels. This soon became obvious from the wide selection of comics discussed in various presentations. Attendees were inundated with titles such as Maus, by Art Spiegelman, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, and Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, all of which have poignant classroom applications.

The author of Smile, Raina Telgemeier, was the keynote speaker. She talked about her journey to publication and a day in the life of a cartoonist, which offered registrants the opportunity to go behind the scenes to see comic book development. Telgemeier also discussed the diversity found in graphic novels. “Comics can tell true stories, sad stories, serious stories…not just funny stories.”

Nancy Silberkleit, Co-CEO of Archie Comics, posed the question, “What will ignite a child to become a reader?” The answer, of course, was comics. Graphic novels spark creative thinking, build vocabulary, and deliver important messages. Students can study the characters in comics through text coupled with images in a way that fosters higher-level reading strategies such as questioning and inferring. The art in graphic novels tells more than the words ever could alone allowing children to enjoy a deeper understanding of story.

John Shableski, well-known evangelist for graphic novels in libraries and schools, was on hand for his first public event since since leaving Diamond Books Distribution to head up a new publishing division at Jeff Corwin Connect. In a presentation titled “The World of Graphic Novels,” Shableski, president, Jeff Corwin Connect Publishing, provided a brief history of comics along with an overview of basic terminology for those new to graphic novels. He pointed out the ability of comics to reach a wider audience because this format embeds the written word in a constructed context giving readers a head start on comprehension. Comics are also able to comment on society through an innovative medium that will get students talking about the major issues of our time. JCC Publishing is preparing to release its first graphic novel, Black Tide, about the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill this year.

Massachusetts librarian Robin Brenner and high school English teacher Maureen Bakis conducted a presentation called “Educator and Librarian Partnerships in Working with Graphic Novels.” They highlighted the benefits of educators consulting their local librarians when attempting to incorporate comics into the classroom. Bakis discussed the fact that librarians know kids, see firsthand the reading about which children are passionate, and have access to titles appropriate for certain age groups. An open relationship between teachers and librarians needs to exist for successful integration of graphic novels into the curriculum. Along with extensive book lists for graphic novels organized by subject and curriculum connections, Brenner also showed a School Library Journal blog called “Good Comics for Kids.” This handy site advises visitors about graphic novels and includes articles, lists, and reviews.

The “Comics and Censorship Panel Discussion,” moderated by Dr. James “Bucky” Carter, explored the rationale-making process for including graphic novels in the school curriculum. A host of college professors and doctoral students who collaborated on Rationales for Teaching Graphic Novels, a CD-ROM/e-book edited by Carter, discussed various comics they chose to include in this publication. Using a format that involves plot summaries, strengths and unique characteristics, possible objections, ideas for thematic braidings and implementation of graphic novels, this CD-ROM provides educators with an invaluable resource meant to aid teaching and defend the use of comics with students.

The final presentation of the day was from Dr. Michael Bitz, Director of The Center for Educational Pathways and The Comic Book Project. This endnote workshop was focused more on the writing of comics than the reading of them. Bitz brings comic book writing into schools across the United States through The Comic Book Project. “It’s about creating something on the page where there was nothing before.” From helping students see how story is conveyed through simple lines and facial expressions and drafting the manuscript where text and art work together, Bitz’s program creates excitement and pride in his participants. Creating comics with children is a must-have in any productive writing curriculum.

I plan to do something similar to Dr. Bitz's Comic Book Project with my writing students. (I am an elementary school teacher). I was so moved by the photos he showed of the students involved in the project. They were so proud and excited about their work, and the finished products that he brought in as samples were phenomenal. I also plan to stock my classroom library with graphic novels. I have picture books, chapter books, and nonfiction, but no graphic novels. I'll probably have to buy them myself, but I think it will be worth the cost in the end.

I've also been asked by my assistant superintendent to be part of our district's Reading Curriculum committee. I plan to ask him to include graphic novels in the curriculum, and thanks to the conference, I have convincing rationales for doing so. Always better to go into these sorts of meetings armed and ready.

Educators who attended NECAC walked away from this conference with either further proof of why comics are, well, awesome, or with many reasons to use graphic novels to create lifelong readers, lifelong learners. Nancy Silberkleit said it best with her motto, “Comic Books + Children = Reading.”

In the end, that’s what every educator wants to accomplish—getting children to love reading. Should NECAC make plans for a second conference in the future, this excited educator will be first in line.

Christine DePetrillo is an elementary teacher and published author. She was named Educator of the Year by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island for her work in getting children reconnected to nature. She blogs about environmental topics to a young audience and now believes comics have an important place in her classroom.