Wham! Ka-Pow! In the Pop Culture Classroom, Knowledge is the Greatest Super Power of All

Denver Comic Con isn’t just a convention for fanboys and girls — it’s also the economic engine driving some of the most imaginative educational programming in town.

Not all comic cons are created equal. The off-beat conventions  — where fans dress up like super heroes and the like and indulge in their fascination for a once-outsider art form — all have their unique personalities.

Including Denver’s. This June 15 -17, Denver Comic Con 2018 will liven up the Colorado Convention Center for three action-packed days, with its unique brand of eye-popping art, celebrity guest appearances, and plenty of cosplay.

Denver’s yearly convention is the largest independently run comic con in the country, and it stands out from the rest, too, for being one of the nation’s most family-friendly fan meet-ups.

In addition to a kids-only comic contest, DCC allocates space for educational booths designed specifically for young fans. Through a partnership with Illegal Pete’s, DCC gives 300 free tickets to middle and high school students.

Pop Culture Classroom produces Denver Comic Con as a means to further its broader, year-round work. All photos by Jamie Siebrase.

The whole idea is to educate youth using content that interests them: comic books, mainly, along with graphic novels, games, and other pop culture media. And DCC is just the beginning.

More than a fun-filled speculative fiction extravaganza, DCC is also the main fundraiser for Pop Culture Classroom, a Denver-based nonprofit specializing in youth-focused curriculum and camps.

“While most of the other comic cons across the country are for-profit ventures, ours is not,” explains Illya Kowalchuk, director of education for Pop Culture Classroom.

Pop Culture Classroom produces Denver Comic Con as a means to further its broader, year-round work. The educational organization had been a little nomadic since its inception in 2010, relying on area schools and community organizations to provide space (and students!) for its innovative programming.

But this March -- thanks to the success of Denver Comic Con -- Pop Culture Classroom is opening a brick-and-mortar classroom and office building on the border of Denver’s Barnum and Valverde neighborhoods, where local kids, adolescents, and teens will be able to drop in for after-school clubs and camps that speak to their interests.

Pop Culture Classroom moves into its new space in March.

Pop Culture in the Classroom? Really?

As a parent, I’m constantly trying to get my kids away from the TV, and sometimes I hate the pop culture icons that captivate my children.  

I’m not exactly alone. There’s been a long history of teachers and librarians hating comic books. “But there’s also been a long history of teachers who are willing to do whatever it takes to get their students to read,” Kowalchuk points out.

He was one of those teachers.

For ten years, Kowalchuk taught middle school at a charter school in Boulder Valley.

“Our school had a progressive outlook on education,” Kowalchuk says, noting, “We were encouraged to teach the things we loved.”

So Kowalchuk began incorporating comic books, video games, graffiti, and swing dancing into his elective classes — with a lot of success.

Sharing mutual interests helped Kowalchuk bond with his students, and Kowalchuk noticed that many of his pupils were more engaged in class once he started incorporating unconventional teaching materials, like comics.

“My interpretation,” Kowalchuk says, “was that they knew I valued what they valued.”That was something Kowalchuk hadn’t experienced growing up on Long Island. “I never felt like I could be my true self at school,” he says, adding, “I read comics and played video games and street hockey. None of that stuff felt valued during the regular school day.”

How it Works

Pop Culture Classroom reaches youth in two main ways. For school-based learning, the organization creates and disperses a variety of teaching materials educators can use in their classrooms.

Fully documented curricula (developed in accordance with national standards) are available to download online, under the “Resources” tab on the organization’s website, classroom.popcultureclassroom.org. Many offerings are free, including a bi-weekly comic strip called “Colorful History,” which teaches students about significant and diverse characters from Colorado’s past.

Illya Kowalchuk is director of education for Pop Culture Classroom.

In addition to quick lessons like “Colorado History,” Pop Culture Classroom also develops longer, low-cost modules, such as “Storytelling Through Comics,” a one-to-three-week program to be used in conjunction with a larger body of academic content, such as a social studies or science unit.

Here’s the best part: Teachers don’t have to be comic enthusiasts to use Pop Culture Classroom’s materials. “They’ve very accessible,” says Sam Fuqua, executive director of Pop Culture Classroom, offering, “I was just a casual fan of comics and graphic novels before I joined the organization.”

In addition to building imaginative curriculum, Pop Culture Classroom employs a dozen teachers, sending them to schools, libraries, bookstores, boys and girls clubs, and other community organizations. From 4-hour workshops on school days off to 12-week-long after-school programs in public school districts, Pop Culture Classroom’s teachers have had a lot of success reaching kids since its direct service programming started in 2011.

Pop Culture’s Positive Impact

“We’re speaking to kids in a language they understand, using a medium -- comics -- that they love,” Kowalchuk says.

As it turns out, comic books actually help students develop a number of useful language and literacy skills.

Studies have shown that kids who read comics develop the same skills students gain from reading text-based books, including connecting narratives to their own experiences and making predictions and inferences. What’s more, comics introduce advanced concepts, such as narrative structure and character development. There’s even some evidence supporting the notion that comic books provide a “gateway” to other literary genres.

Teachers don't have to be comic enthusiasts to use Pop Culture Classroom's materials.

Research has also shown that reading comic books can improve literacy among reluctant readers and those who speak English as a second language. Fuqua explains that, “Short bursts of text with pictures can really help those who are struggling to learn to read.”

At the Sun Valley Youth Center —  where Pop Culture Classroom has been providing summertime programming since 2014 —  this has definitely been the case.

“We have a lot of second language learners, and we’re always trying to find unique avenues to get them growing in their literacy,” says Kris Rollerson, the center’s executive director.  “Sun Valley is a neighborhood that’s going through a lot of transition and redevelopment,” continues Rollerson.

When she learned about Pop Culture Classroom, Rollerson “fell in love with the idea,” she says. And the kids served by the Sun Valley Youth Center have been equally enamored. “They love the classes,” Rollerson says. “They remember the teachers, and ask when they’re coming back.”

An Unexpected Student Body

For several years, Pop Culture Classroom has worked with the Boulder County Jail to provide classes to inmates enrolled in JET, a jail education and transition program for those who will be integrating back into society.

Twice a week, two Pop Culture Classroom educators teach 90-minute classes to small groups. Classes start out like a book club, with students discussing a work (usually a graphic novel) that they read beforehand.

Studies have shown that kids who read comics develop the same skills students gain from reading text-based books.

“Then they’ll do some writing assignments, and we teach comic drawing strategies and skills,” says Kowalchuk. By the end of the 8-week session, the goal is for participants to create a 6-panel comic telling the story of their lives.

“Because this population is going to be transitioning back into society, we want to help them find ways to deal with their emotions,” Kowalchuk explains, adding, “Our classes give participants literacy and art skills they can use to express themselves.”

Since launching the program in 2015, Pop Culture Classroom has reached about 450 adults in the Boulder County Jail. Fuqua points out an interesting connection: “We know that as literacy improves, recidivism goes down,” he says.

Pop Culture’s New Digs

When Pop Culture Classroom introduced its educational programming in 2011, Kowalchuk says, “We were in two Denver Public Schools, and we were all volunteers teaching with donated materials.”

The organization’s first office was Kowalchuk’s living room. “For seven years, we’ve been bouncing around,” he says. Still, Pop Culture Classroom has served upwards of 10,000 kids annually through its classes and events. That number is about to expand.

“Since Denver Comic Con is widely popular, Pop Culture Classroom has been able to build a beautiful new facility to use for after-school programs and camps,” says Kowalchuk. “Now we have a 4,000-square-foot space, an on-site classroom, almost a dozen employees, and a full board of directors,” he adds.

“As a nonprofit in Denver, you can imagine that it is challenging to find affordable office space,” continues Kowalchuk. But Pop Culture Classroom had another reason for setting up shop in Barnum and Valverde.

“We knew we wanted to be in a neighborhood that could benefit from our services,” Kowalchuk says, pointing out that the surrounding neighborhood is in transition, and in need of support. “Right now the city is putting a lot of money into this area, and we’d like to provide some literacy, art, and culture support for the kids,” Kowalchuk adds.

On-site programming will begin for youth ages 8 to 14 during spring break, March 26 through March 30. Summer camps will run June 11 through July 27, and registration is now open for all sessions, which include themes such as “Manga Madness,” “Camp Comic Con,” “Sci-Fi Camp,” and “Game On!”

As Fuqua puts it, “At the heart of the pop culture we love are these really powerful stories — stories that have the power to inspire and to educate and to help us through difficult times in life.”

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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