Column: How bringing comics into the classroom made me love teaching again

Most teachers would agree that teaching is one of the most exhausting jobs to love. Between meeting the individual needs of our students, keeping up with the latest initiatives and completing the day-to-day tasks required for keeping a classroom productive and positive, the job can be overwhelming and sometimes discouraging.

teachersloungeIn my 15th year of teaching, these feelings only intensified for me. Facing burnout, I realized that I needed a way to regroup and re-energize. If I didn’t, I feared that like so many others, I might have to leave the classroom. I decided to go back to the basics.

Every introductory education class declares that bringing our personal passions into our classroom is fun for us and fun for our students. It was this premise that gave me the permission to finally do what I had been deliberating ever since completing my reading specialist studies: I committed myself to bringing my passion — comics — into the classroom.

Student in Tim Smyth’s social studies class using comics to study history at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa. Photo by Tim Smyth

I said ‘yes’ to being excited and to broadening my approach to teaching social studies. I said ‘yes’ to utilizing social media to exchange ideas with people who share my passion. I said ‘yes’ to new approaches, new experiences and stepping out of my comfort zone. But most of all, I gave myself permission to use my strengths to bring to life the core concepts of my curriculum, and it has made all the difference in my lessons, in my perspective and in my ability to connect with my students.

I wrote about this journey, still in its beginning stages, in a blog one year ago. The reaction was swift. My students responded positively, validating that the approach worked for them. Educators, artists and writers in the industry reached out to me over Twitter. I was asked to present a program about comic books in the classroom at Philadelphia Wizard World. I was terrified, but it was so well-received that it was clear other educators want to know how to do this as well.

Through social media, I received a multitude of requests. I helped college professors develop curriculum materials. I previewed possible educational comic books for publishers. I ran Twitter chats for teachers discussing how to integrate pop culture in the classroom. I was chosen as “Geek of the Week” on

For every opportunity, I stayed committed to saying ‘yes,’ which led me to the Super Bowl of all nerdom–I was asked to present on a panel at the San Diego Comic Con about my experiences in the classroom. And it was awesome. I found my people.

In August, having just returned from my San Diego trip, I began my 16th year of teaching, feeling energized and excited. Despite having two new courses, I began looking for ways to integrate these new ideas into classroom life. I still have a curriculum, data points, special schedules and lesson plans. But now I look for opportunities for broadening my student’s experiences.

This year we used “March,” a graphic novel by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, to explore the civil rights movement. At the same time, a teacher whom I had met over Twitter and I arranged to have our students work together, discussing the historical and modern implications of the story. It just so happened that the teacher and her class were in Norway.

This forced my students to look at the topic differently, to explain their ideas more clearly and more globally. And it is this more worldly perspective that I think I was missing before.

In another instance, while talking about various atrocities in history, we used the comic book “Madaya Mom” which chronicles the real-life experiences of a mom in Syria. This comic was put together by Marvel Comics and ABC News. We discussed the historical and social implications of the panels and applied them to the human experience of groups facing persecution. My students had many questions. They were drawn in by the emotional panels; they had questions I didn’t have answers for.

Students at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa. in social studies teacher Tim Smyth's class. Students used Rep. John Lewis's graphic novel to learn about the civil rights movement.

Students at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa. in social studies teacher Tim Smyth’s class. Students used Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s graphic novel “March” (Top Shelf Productions/IDW Publishing) to learn about the civil rights movement. Photo by Tim Smyth

Through Twitter, we contacted the ABC news correspondent who had interviewed the real life “Madaya Mom” in Syria. My class then Skyped with the two news correspondents, one in New York and one in Paris, to ask their questions, learning about Syria in a way I never would have been able to convey. Several students took the comic books to their after-school organizations, hoping to develop service projects so that they can help the people suffering from the war in Syria. Seeing their reaction made it the single most rewarding day of my teaching career.

And yet some days teaching is still stressful and overwhelming. The grading, the planning, the expectations still overwhelm me. But over the course of the last two years, I have learned to share more and to celebrate my successes more. I have learned to reach out to other educators, writers, artists, publishers, and not to be afraid to use social media. We need to overcome the self-imposed stigma of boasting about our successes – we need to celebrate the awesome things that happen in our classrooms every day.

I have given myself permission to use what I know and what I love in order to bring new experiences and connections to my students. At my most recent Comic Con experience in Chicago, as I was seated on a panel of teachers, authors and a rapper, I said that we must give ourselves permission to use comics, music and pop culture in our classrooms, because we know it works for our students.