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Comic Book Classroom Super-Powering Literacy in Denver

Comic Book Classroom now reaches about 2,500 students in Denver.

Students don't just draw superheroes -- they work on writing, math and other subjects as well.

A page from a student's comic.

The adventures of Mousy.

The one and only William Shatner read "Where the Wild Things Are" at the 2013 Denver Comic Con.

Comic Book Classroom, through its ever-growing literacy programs and the annual Denver Comic Con, inspires Denver students to reach superhero levels in art and writing as well as math and science.
Illya Kowalchuk remembers the exact epiphanic moment when the flaws of his previous teaching style hit him like a blast from a gamma ray gun.

Home one night, Kowalchuk noticed one of his students also playing the video game Halo 3 on Xbox Live. When the student showed up to math class the following day without his homework done, Kowalchuk took the opportunity to admonish the child, rather than embrace what could have been an ideal teaching and bonding moment.

"We could have built upon that and I chose to use it as a lever to make him feel badly," says Kowalchuk. "I reflected on that as a teacher and I was like, 'That's terrible. You are becoming the teacher you hated.'"

These days, Kowalchuk and the members of Comic Book Classroom are anything but the villain in Denver's schools -- unless, of course, the role calls for it.

Comic Book Classroom will flex its Hulk-like muscles when it plays host to its third annual Denver Comic Con from June 13-15 at the Colorado Convention Center.

And while the likes of William Shatner, Adam West and Lou Ferrigno receive top billing, it's the students of Comic Book Classroom who are waiting in the shadows as the next great superheroes…or graphic artists, writers, mathematicians or any other career path where a dream can take a child with the right opportunities.

Once the barriers to entry are removed, anything can happen, says Kowalchuk, Director of Education for Comic Book Classroom.

Once upon a timeComic Book Classroom now reaches about 2,500 students in Denver.

Comic Book Classroom launched in 2010 as a way to reach students through pop culture and engage them with subjects that could not only teach literacy, but an entire gamut of educational and life lessons. After two years, Comic Book Classroom had introduced its curriculum to about a dozen Denver elementary and middle schools classes.

Since then, the program's success couldn't have been more meteoric if it were wearing a cape. This summer, Comic Book Classroom will reach more than 2,000 Denver students through various teaching programs.

"The link to literacy is perfect," says Elisa Cohen, a teacher at Denver's West Generation Academy and proponent of the Comic Book Classroom program. "We live in an age of Tumblr and Facebook and these visual ways to tell stories and bring out the passion of writing and drawing. To not use it would be foolish."

Cohen's students are among the hundreds using the Comic Book Classroom curriculum during in-class and after-school programs.

Among the activities Cohen and Comic Book Classroom utilize is a program that allows a class to create their very own comic book. In Cohen's case, her class was divided up into artists, writers and website producers. 

The physical result was a hand-drawn 68-page comic book based on the student's interpretations of Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty and Freakonomics -- two different tales with the same basic message of owning up to the consequences of your actions.

The lasting result is a confidence and pride that boils over into their other classes, says Cohen, whose students presented their comic during a panel at last year's Denver Comic Con.

Cohen's students are the epitome of many of the kids that Comic Book Classroom targets -- kids who can't necessarily afford a ticket to the Denver Comic Con. To reach those types of students, Comic Book Classroom provided scholarships to 200 Denver students to this year's convention. Of the 300 hours of programs at this year's convention, all but about 30 of them are dedicated to educational endeavors. 

Up, up and awayA page from a student's comic.

Without the Denver Comic Con, there would be no Comic Book Classroom and vice versa. The two are the Batman to each other's Robin.

"That's the intersection of the two programs," says Kowalchuk. "The work we're doing during the school year and the summers in education outreach dovetails really well into what we're doing at the convention."

As the convention's attendance rises from 61,000 last year to an expected 75,000 in 2014, so, too, does funding for Comic Book Classroom. Unlike other comic conventions throughout the country, Denver's convention is a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization that funds Comic Book Classroom.

With the infrastructure and a modest staff of three full-time and three part-time employees plus an army of volunteers, Kowalchuk estimates that Comic Book Classroom will reach upward of 2,500 Denver students this summer.

Kowalchuk expected to reach those types of numbers about seven years into the program; it took about four. The success is spawning other programs, including a partnership to provide curricula with the city's Youth One Book, One Denver summer literacy program.

"We want to maintain solid footing in the community and work with community-based organizations because that's who we are," says Kowalchuk. "It's a big part of the convention; it's a big part of what we're doing on the educational side. We also want to share our resources with whoever is interested."

That means expanding outside of Denver through Comic Book Classroom's "super dialed-in" curriculum, which will be available for purchase online. The program is free to students in Denver.

Another expansion effort is the creation of a YouTube channel to reach even more students. Comic Book Classroom is bringing in renowned comic-penciller Yanick Paquette after this year's convention to teach the basics of drawing to students in fourth through eighth grades.

"Comics are such a powerful medium, but there are other parts of pop culture that can be used to draw kids into the fold of literacy and learning," says Kowalchuk.

The key is to identify with the students and break down their barriers to entry. Once that is done, no amount of kryptonite can stop them.

Read more articles by Christopher C. Wuensch.

Christopher is a freelance writer and contributor to Confluence
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