Teaching comics to teens day 1: Using comics to tell your story

With this post, we inaugurate a fantastic new series by Derek Mainhart, a cartoonist and teacher of comics at the high school level. Derek is setting out to write up an entire year‘s curriculum for a comics class at the secondary level: middle school and high school. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s going to be entertaining, well-planned, and incredibly useful.

We plan to post this series approximately once a week. Follow us via rss, Facebook, or Twitter (buttons above to the right) to be informed when new posts go up. To search for all the posts by Derek, including all in this series, click here

Jessica & Matt

Day 1

One of the great things about teaching a full year is you have the time to really get to know your students (well, usually it’s a good thing). So in the beginning, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the school year is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The first week is a good time to ease students into their new environment (your class) as they shake the summer cobwebs off (those beautiful, sun-drenched cobwebs) Use this time to set the tone. Accustom them to the structure and rules, but always remember to keep it fun and engaging (you’re teaching cartooning!)

A note on format: I’ll be presenting these as Lesson Plans with additional commentary added. For the uninitiated, Lesson Plans are precisely that: structured plans to be used as guides for your lesson. These can, of course, be adapted to your particular teaching situation or to fit the requirements of your school. To wit, the Objective (this is sometimes referred to as the Aim). This is the first piece of information that students see upon entering the room. It can be presented in the form of a question or as a stated goal to be accomplished by the end of class. (There are actual philosophical differences on this.) In any case, it gives the students an entry point into the material about to be covered. So on the first day, students entering my classroom will se something like:

Welcome to Cartooning!

Objective: Using comics to tell your story 

A useful way to actually start the lesson is a Do Now. This is a brief task to be performed by the students during the first few minutes of class. This serves a couple of purposes. It lets you take care of housekeeping (attendance, etc), but more importantly, it focuses the students on the lesson. As such, you should tailor the Do Now so that it feeds organically into your lesson—no busy work! The Do Now’s I use usually take the form of a drawing exercise or a question the students have to respond to in written or (more often) drawn form. Circulate as they’re doing it. If someone is doing something interesting, tell them! If someone is doing something that relates directly to what you’re about to teach, share it with the class. (I always ask permission first. Teenagers are bundles of nerves, especially at the beginning. I don’t want to inadvertently embarrass someone—If you embarrass someone, it should be on purpose!)

For the first day I keep it simple. I hand out index cards and ask something along the lines of :

Do Now: Why did you choose Cartooning?

Encourage them to elaborate as much as possible. Assure them that you will be reading each response. Students will only care if you do.

Activities (or Procedure, or the like):

  • Class discussion based on the Do Now

After a few minutes, I elicit student responses. I then answer the question myself: I didn’t choose cartooning – it chose me. I show them some of my personal work (the ONLY time I do this) and talk about my experiences and background. Again, if they see that you’re serious, they are more likely to be. If you don’t have a cartooning background, tell them why you’re so excited to teach it. What comics do you read? What cartoons do you watch? I answer questions as they arise (I usually get “Why did you become a teacher?”)

  • Teacher will introduce Class Expectations

Next I distribute a brief hand out that includes a general course description and my expectations of the students (including grading policies, etc – the boring, necessary stuff stuff). I then whet their appetites with some of the projects they’ll be doing over the course of the year – in my case, a fully-produced comic book, zoetrope strips, animation cels, etc (the fun, exciting stuff) The whole discussion / intro takes about 10-15 minutes max. I then have them complete a quick

  • Exercise – Draw a cartoon about the First Day of School.

I tell them these can be funny, realistic or fantastic (i.e., the first day of Robot School). They can be single or multiple panels. (Take the opportunity to introduce your first vocabulary word—panels! I usually ask them directly, “What are the boxes in which all the action takes place called?” See what they know)

  • Collect their work at the end of class.

Before they leave, tell them how excited you are to be working with them. Then check out their work. That’s the fun part.

Here’s an example from a student whom we’ll call Andy. Because that’s his name. Having some fun with my Do Now:


Derek Mainhart is an art teacher at Deer Park High School and at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He has taught widely at many institutions such as Molloy College, Boricua College and Hofstra, among others. He teaches cartooning workshops in the greater New York area. In addition, he was the first Vice President of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in Manhattan, and was instrumental in the formation of its annual MoCCA Art Festival. He has organized and participated in numerous gallery exhibits in and around NYC. His self-published works include The Iraqi Tinies and W. He is married to web-cartoonist and fellow art teacher Ali Solomon. They live with their daughter in Forest Hills (not far from the house where Peter Parker grew up.)


4 Comments to Teaching comics to teens day 1: Using comics to tell your story

  • by Helena Juhasz

    On April 23, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    This is great! Thank you! My brother’s an art teacher and is always looking for something different.

  • by Derek Mainhart

    On April 23, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    You’re most welcome! Tell your brother I’d love to hear from him!

  • by Sean O'Brien

    On April 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks for posting this. There are ideas I can use. I’m looking forward to the next post.

  • by Derek Mainhart

    On April 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    thanks! Let me know how it goes

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