Tim Smyth is a superhero of comics in education, ranging from curricula and teacher guides to presentations at comic cons, school in-services, & teacher workshops. He is also the author of Teaching With Comics and Graphic Novels: Fun and Engaging Strategies to Improve Close Reading and Critical Thinking in Every Classroom, published in 2022 by Routledge.
Thomas: How did historycomics.net get its start, and how has it changed over the years?
Tim: I am eternally grateful to AJ Juliani, a noted educational leader today, who was once upon a time, a staff developer in my school. He kept pushing me to share what I was doing in my classroom on social media and to develop a website. I really did this reluctantly, as I thought that teachers should be “humble” and not show off – and that people wouldn’t care what I do in my classroom. He walked me through the steps of setting up Twitter and gave advice on setting up my website – even sharing it with others once I brought it online. Because of his advice, my world completely changed and I realized how much more impactful educators are once we can share with, and inspire, one another. I am no tech guru and I still have much work to do on my website, but it is a labor of love. I have now linked it to TeachingWithComics.com because I want folx to realize that my work is not “just” on history comics, but comics that can be used in all classrooms and all levels. I always tell educators that we need to share the awesomeness that is going on inside of our classrooms – that we need to control the conversation about education. While we are doing that, we will help to inspire the next generation of teachers as well.
Thomas: Your book, Teaching With Comics and Graphic Novels, joins a growing chorus of professionals advocating for the many benefits of reading comics. It’s a format and not a genre, after all. What have been some of the successes of integrating comics into your classroom? How do you address a student struggling with comics?
Tim: Any student can struggle with reading comics, especially as many have never read a comic before my high school class! GASP! Often, it is my most advanced readers who initially struggle the most with reading comics. Every educator, no matter the subject or grade level, needs to be a teacher of reading and this is no different. Before teaching any comic, it is vital to demonstrate how to read a comic with students, to go in deep on a few pages, and showcase the power of the medium before giving them time to read in a more independent manner. Once this is done, there are so many engaging comics to use, such as Star Wars #021 (2015) where I teach evidence-based essay writing at the beginning of the year. The story is from the Stormtrooper’s point of view and the students debate if they are “good or evil.”
We also have powerful discussions based on the wordless comic, Nat Turner, created by Kyle Baker. Without words, students are challenged to read deeply into the images and to understand that these images will have different meanings for different readers. The March and Run graphic novels (graphic memoir based on Congressman John Lewis’ life) make the Civil Rights movement personal and accessible to my students. The free online comic, Madaya Mom (from ABC News and Marvel) tells the story of a family just trying to survive a horrific siege of their city during the Syrian Civil War. We were lucky enough to have the authors and artists interact with Zoom with our students. I could go on and on, but then, that’s what my book is for! LOL! I share a lot of the lessons that I do in my classes in my book with the intention of helping educators understand how to get started.
Thomas: You present about comics all over the place. What are the most frequent questions you get from other educators?
Tim: The most common question I am asked is how to get comics at low cost, or even free for the classroom as budgets are always tight. The most visited page on my website is where I list free online comics that are perfect for use in the classroom. There are a surprisingly large amount of these free resources available.
Another is how to convince reluctant administrators and/or parents on the literary merit of graphic literacy. I show them the teacher guides I have created, such as this one for the graphic adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerhouse Speak. All of my lessons are connected to Common Core standards and showcase the power of visual literacy. These concrete examples open the door for lesson planning for educators who are just beginning to go down the awesome rabbit hole of teaching with comics.
Thomas: Let’s talk gateways into comics. Your children write reviews of the comics they read – what were their early favorites? For that matter, which comics won over any students who maybe weren’t excited about comics?
Tim: Teagan – anything by Raina Telgemeier, the entire Phoebe and Her Unicorn series from Dana Simpson, the Emmie and Friends series from Terri Libenson, the Friends books by Shannon Hale, and Anne of Green Gables by Mariah Marsden.
Charlotte – The Time Museum by Matthew Loux, Olympians by George O’Connor, anything Archie comics, Poison Ivy.
Liam – New Kid by Jerry Craft, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Dogman by Dav Pilkey
Thomas: What trends in comics and education have you excited right now? Any that make you wary?
Tim: The only thing that makes me a bit concerned is when publishers try to latch onto the success of comics without understanding the power of the medium. I have seen comics that are text heavy and with illustrations that do not add any depth to the storytelling. This is not only disappointing but also dangerous in that it places another hurdle in accepting comics in the classroom.
Where I am most excited is in the representation of not only characters but also the teams who create the comics as well. I LOVE that my own three children are growing up reading stories where they are literally seeing all folx in their heroes. To have heroes such as a bi-racial Spider-Man, a Korean Hulk, a Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, LGBTQIA+ characters, neuro-diverse, non-traditional families, etc. is just amazing. To them, it’s always been the norm.
Thomas: What resources do you recommend for librarians and educators who want to learn more about quality graphic novels for their collections and classrooms?
Tim: There are so many fantastic resources out there that it’s easy to get lost. Of course, there’s No Flying No Tights! I love following the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable and what they share about comics in libraries. One often overlooked gem is that of your students. Seriously – I have found so many great titles just by asking students! Also – don’t be shy about going into your local comic book store. This sounds like an obvious resource, but so many adults are leery about going into this place that they feel may not welcome them if they are not a comics expert. I’ve been in stores across the country and I have never had a negative experience. It is not the exclusive den of nerd-dom that many see in their minds – comic stores are welcoming places – just tell the employees what you are looking for – maybe science class – and they can point you in the right direction. People say to me all the time that I have a comic for everything and that is mainly true!
Thomas: Finally, what is a hidden gem that you would recommend to the world, given the chance? (This is your chance!)
Tim: As I am answering this interview, NASA announced its Artemis mission and intent to return to the moon! I was lucky enough to meet with representatives from NASA at Awesome Con in Washington, DC in the summer of 2022. They showed me a comic that just blew my mind! It is a free online comic about a fictional future mission to the moon to place the first female astronaut there. There is an app that can be downloaded that can read the comic aloud and also makes the text available in both Spanish and English. The app also has a powerful virtual reality component to it that my kids (and I) love! Go to the app store and download the NASA’s First Woman app!