Conference makes a graphic case for comic art in the classroom

“Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.”
–Art Spiegelman, author of “Maus”

Conference directors Michael Gianfrancesco and Jennifer Cook.
The first New England Comic Arts in the Classroom conference drew more than 120 teachers, teacher candidates, artists, librarians and authors to Rhode Island College on March 26 to discuss the possibilities that exist when you introduce the comic arts into traditional and non-traditional educational settings.

The conference was organized and directed by Jennifer Cook, RIC associate professor of English, and by Michael Gianfrancesco ’92, an English teacher at North Providence High School.

The conference grew out of the co-directors’ shared passion for comic books and graphic novels, and out of their interest in using comic arts and visual storytelling in their respective English classrooms at RIC and North Providence High School.

The keynote speaker, Raina Telgemeier, chronicled her life as a cartoonist and spoke about the teachers and opportunities that influenced her art along the way.

Telgemeier also spoke about her creative process, her many influences, her best-selling graphic novel Smile, and her work in progress – a new graphic novel, geared toward middle school students, about stagehands in a school’s theater club.

Twelve workshop sessions were offered to participants throughout the day, ranging from topics like conquering fear of art to the cognitive processes that are heightened through reading comics and other visual texts.

Student Julie Kessler displays a comic she made in a workshop.
In attendance were several well-known graphic novel authors and cartoonists, including Tracy White, author of “How I Made it to 18,” Jay Hosler, author of “Clan Apis,” Matt Madden, co-author of “Drawing Words, Writing Pictures,” and Barbara Slate, author of “You Can Do a Graphic Novel.”

Nancy Silberkleit, CEO of Archie Comics, one of the major sponsors of this event, also attended. She spoke about how comics – Archie Comics, specifically – turned her into a reader.

Plans are in the works for follow-up events – including a screening of a documentary on comics in education and a comics workshop – and for a second conference next year.

The event was sponsored by the Rhode Island Council on the Humanities, Archie Comics, RIC's vice president for academic affairs, RIC’s Art Education Program and the Rhode Island Writing Project.