Friday, November 30, 2007

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Joins!

A new comic has joined the CCP: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner! I'll definitely be using his one-panel comics in upcoming workshops.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Comics and Community Service, Part 3

(Read Part 2 here.)

Once the decision is made to commit to a service project and the type of project is chosen, the next step is to organize it. This means finding a location, choosing a schedule, and advertising. There is no way to describe in detail every possible scenario that can be encountered at this stage - this is meant as a general guide so that others can fashion their own comic service program, like the Create a Comic Project.

The selected venue can often dictate the success of a community service project. Types of venues include libraries, community centers, and art museums. The project ideas described in Part 2 were aimed at students in K-12, so a place that has regular attendance by school children is important.

Public libraries are generally the most diverse in terms of attendance. Most libraries have volunteer programs already in place, making it simple to get permission and advertise the program. Experience has indicated that children who voluntarily go to a library after school will tend to be a motivated group with open minds ready for learning. Be careful of children whose parents are using the library as a babysitter – they will likely not be willing to participate in any programs.

Don’t expect consistent weekly attendance in a library if it’s a multi-week program – kids will often wander in and out at varying times, so every week will have a different audience. It’s best to craft sessions as standalone lessons, requiring little introduction to previous materials, because new students will come and go.

The attendance of a library, as well as its resources, varies widely by neighborhood. Not all libraries are near schools, meaning they won’t have as many school age children in attendance. The best thing to do is ask the Children’s Department librarians who attends. They will often know what demographics they have in abundance.

The comic project was fortunate that the New Haven Public Library was in walking distance of several local schools, providing a steady stream of attendees within its target age group. In Pittsburgh, though, the main branch of the Carnegie Library only had very young children or older teens, due to its location, so the comic project wouldn’t have worked there.

It’s also a good idea to ask what sorts of programs a library is already running. If a library has a packed schedule filled with reading and art programs, it may be best to find another location. Likewise, librarians or volunteer coordinators may be able to say ahead of time whether a proposed project is too ambitious or if it fits their needs well.

Community centers are different from libraries in that they are can be more restrictive in terms of access. Youth oriented centers, for example, can require pre-registration by parents in order for their child to be granted entry. Centers also tend to have a closer link with the neighborhood, often being staffed and run by local residents. For example, the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center was aimed at the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum. This can allow for deeper networking with the broader community.

A community center will generally have a roster of programs and events members can participate in, such as sports, computer classes, or tutoring sessions. A comic program will generally go over well if the center is in need of any kind of art programs. Like the library, there will generally be a volunteer coordinator on staff to make setup easier.

Unlike libraries, community centers will usually have a more regular attendance structure. Once parents know of a program and want their child to attend, they will usually ensure the child attends frequently. This can allow for a more structured program form, with each lesson building on the previous. The Human Services Center (HSC) serves the depressed region of Greater Pittsburgh, drawing students from diverse backgrounds. The HSC was designed as a daily program, where students are formed into classes and attend every day after school. Once a student signed up for an extracurricular activity, it was made part of their daily schedule, ensuring consistency in turnout over time.

Art museums are a potential third venue to explore. Shaenon Garrity has taught children at places like Cartoon Art Museum, for example. As with the previous two venues, be sure to find a volunteer coordinator to ask what kind of programs they’d be interested in running and what sort of attendance they get. If 70-something grandparents mainly attend the local art museum, it’s probably not where a comic project should be held.

The above three are not the only venues possible, of course. Robert Anke and Tycho and Gabe have brought comics into elementary schools. Many universities sponsor one-on-one mentoring programs that could be used for comic education. Faith-based initiatives use churches as bases of operation. Volunteer network sites – such as the United Way – provide lists of locations in the area seeking volunteers. Consult those and find the location that works best for the project.

When approaching a volunteer coordinator to apply for a position, remember to check state regulations on what clearances are needed such as criminal background checks. Write a clear and concise summary of the project to give to the administrator, along with a resume with any relevant teaching or volunteering experience. When the Create a Comic Project was first getting started, a 4 page summary of the project was used to highlight the important aspects of the program: who it was aimed at, what it would do, how it would do it, and what resources it’d require. This made it easier for the volunteer coordinator to explain it to the head of the Children’s Department and also allowed her to know what supplies to allocate for the project’s support.

Letters of recommendation pertaining to teaching and volunteering skills can also be used to bolster credibility. The more credible the project appears, the easier it will be to get permission. Remember when the project is finished to get a letter that can be used later on. If a letter is too much trouble, keep a record of who helped and their contact information so they can at least be used as a reference.

With the venue selected, the next step is to schedule the event. If the program is intended to be a long-term weekly or monthly endeavor, anytime during the year is suitable to start. If it’s going to be a one-shot or a limited series of sessions, try to time the event to periods of high turnout by students.

Based on attendance from the Create a Comic Project, the best months are in early spring (March and April): the weather isn’t preventing travel, but athletic programs aren’t yet in full swing. Holidays (late November through early January), deep winter (February), and the summer (June through August) are not good times to expect large crowds. (An exception is if the project is linked to a special summer program at a center or library.)

Come time to do the project, the basic advice for going to a job interview aptly applies: show up on time. Exercise good personal hygiene and grooming. Be polite to all participants (even the ones who are rude). Be sure to use “Thank you” in great quantities to the staff and administrators who assist. An impression of professionalism will ensure the project is invited back a second time and that any reference given will be glowing.

Advertising the program is vital to attract participants. Don’t count on parents or children finding out about new programs on their own. Fliers for in-house distribution are generally a good idea: they’re easy to create and display. Libraries will generally have a location where they advertise their upcoming events, be sure to get added to it. Hand fliers to staff who work with the target age group and have them hand it out to kids. Some libraries and community centers will have mailing lists; see if they’ll mail the flier to that list so parents are notified.

Once the project has gotten off the ground and is running smoothly, it’s important consider the local press. A newspaper article on the service project is a great way to let people all across the neighborhood know about it. It’s also rewarding to the venue, as it helps advertise their services.

Talk to the center’s public relations administrator – many service locations will have contacts with a reporter. Propose the article as a human-interest story; reporters like those because they’re easier to write than regular news and readers enjoy them. College students should consider approaching the school newspaper. Local papers will sometimes pay attention to university press for ideas. The Create a Comic Project, for example, attracted coverage from the New Haven Register after the Yale Daily News ran a story on it.

For more assistance organizing consult a general project management guide; it’ll contain many tips for planning that can help ensure things go smoothly.

Setting up a comic service project may sound arduous, but once a location is found the administration and staff will often be more than willing to lend assistance. The Create a Comic Project was made possible thanks to the invaluable assistance of several librarians. Other projects will no doubt encounter the same level of cooperation.

Support for comic service is not necessarily limited only to the institutions at the front lines. Creators who lack the time for direct intervention can assist through indirect service, a topic for a later essay.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Site Updates

There's a new piece of fanart up; it's one I made a couple years ago and forgot to put on there.

Comic Genesis news box is now on the front page. I'll be making a banner for it soon. I've added Google ads to the blog at the bottom and bellow the profile. Nothing flashy or obtrusive. Any money I raise from them will go to supporting the CCP's need for office supplies and such.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Comics and Community Service, Part 2

(Read Part 1 here.)

Increasing the involvement of webcomic creators with community service projects will serve to increase positive public perception of the medium. There are many things that go into planning a successful community service project. The first thing to consider is the type of activity.

Creating comics, like most art (drawing and writing), is often an individual effort. While collaboration is not uncommon, even when a writer and artist are working together, both often work independently at their respective tasks, communicating mainly where there's intersection. The key is to take what's normally an internal personal process of creation and adapt it to external activities.

Fortunately, there are a number of examples that can be drawn from for how to construct a successful comic service project. The most common way comic creators have engaged with their community is via education. While there are other ways to serve the community through comics (for example, Mike Rouse-Deane's Kid's Book Project raising money for charity), educational projects will be my focus here.

The first educational use is also arguably the most common: teaching others how to express themselves through comics, emphasizing the comic medium and comparing/contrasting it with other art forms. This is how Shaenon Garrity, Tycho and Gabe, and the Create a Comic Project have approached it.

In teaching how to make comics, form will often be emphasized over substance. What's important is that a child or teen understand the tools that go into making a comic. Once they've grasped the basics, it's expected they'll b able to improve their storytelling through self-exploration and practice. With the Create a Comic Project, for example, content is left entirely up to the student - the only guidelines involve instructions on how to utilize captions, thought bubbles, layout, etc.

A second educational use of comics is sequential art as a tool to deliver a message or theme. This is the style used by Michael Bitz's Comic Book Project, Penny Arcade Remix, Robert Anke's classroom activities, and the Create a Comic Project Module. Here, substance is the key, with comics simply being the medium of delivery. The Comic Book Project, for example, uses a single unifying theme each year that all children have to write about. The Create a Comic Project Module is even more generalized, designed to be integrated into any given lecture-centric course to give it an interactive component.

Both of these educational approaches are student-centered, involving active learning - that is, the children are directly participating in the creation of art and applying the general theories presented to them. A third approach to using comics educationally is student-centered and more passive: reading.

In the 90's, it was found that children who read comic books had better reading skills and were more likely to go on to read other forms of literature than those who didn't read anything. Essentially, comics work as a gateway to regular novels. Using graphic novels in the classroom to introduce reading to students, therefore, is an excellent pedagogical tool. Jeff Smith and Scholastic have been working on this for several years.

Reading projects are generally passive because students are absorbing information written by others. Directed discussions of the reading can enhance the experience. Point out how a creator used a particular scene transition or juxtaposition. Casual readers often miss small details. Teaching kids how to interpret and critically analyze comics can help them study professional works.

Each of these three educational approaches has advantages and disadvantages in terms of content, logistics, and feasibility. The first two are far more potent in terms of educational value, because the children are active learners, not passive recipients of others' creations. However, they also require a much greater time investment on the part of the instructor in terms of planning. Also, a reading program can be done in far more environments than an art program.

Some key factors to consider when choosing the form of the project are:

1. Time. How much time do you have to invest? How long do you want the project to last? If you have months, consider one of the first two. If you can only do an occasional Saturday afternoon, a reading project may be better.

2. Resources. This is largely dependent on location. To do either of the first two style of projects, you'll need art supplies, probably a photocopier, and probably a dedicated room. If you're in a poor neighborhood or a developing country, these things may not be available at the location you want to use.

3. Existing programs. Always check what other community service projects are active in your area. It's sometimes possible to merge your idea with theirs and share resources. This can provide the resources you need and save you time with infrastructure development. However, you may need to modify what you do to match the goals of the organization you join, making the second style (thematic instruction) a good one to select in this instance.

4. Audience. For young kids, making their own comics may be beyond their abilities, especially if they haven't learned how to write yet. Older children may scoff at the idea of a reading program as too simple. Know who you're targeting - and what population you have access to - when choosing an approach. (It's also important to consider whether you want a class or one-on-one tutoring.)

5. Your own teaching style. Not every student learns the same way and not every teacher teaches best the same way. Teaching style is intrinsically linked to your personality type. Some people want to be the center of attention, others prefer being in the background. Some prefer dealing with abstract terms, others with concrete examples. If you don't know your preferences, try some mentoring to find out. Experience is the best indicator of what works for you.

The first two types of programs require a personality that can deal with others. While the lecture component is minimal by design (the emphasis is on the students), you need to be able to oversee and consult with the students as they need help. The third style is more hands-off - you direct the reading, but students are largely on their own. Whether you prefer theory or application will largely determine how you structure the lessons: a theory person may spend time pointing out how panel order affects time perception; an applied person may focus on how good layout will improve a page's clarity.

Choosing what form of service to pursue is an important step to getting involved. The three types of educational projects outlined here (active learning with comic form; active learning with theme; passive learning with reading) encompass a broad array of potential projects. Not every detail can be addressed here, because everyone's circumstances will have special situations that only you can anticipate.

After selecting a type of project, the next step is to organize it. But that's a topic for later.

11/29 Workshop Canceled

Unfortunately, the Human Services Center is going to take longer than expected to shift its offices and classrooms. They had some times early in December available to reschedule, but that conflicts with my own schedule (finals).

As a result, only the 12/20 Workshop is currently planned. I may arrange for a second workshop 1/3/08 if I can manage.

In other news, I'm currently working on creating a research project based on the CCP in the field of health education (related to the CCP Module). If I'm fortunate, I may be able to start a formal study of the use of comics in health education in Fall '08.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

11/7 Videos

The 11/7 module had three videos. They've been posted online and added to the Video Gallery page:

Video 1
Video 2
Video 3

In other news, a couple site modifications. For one, I've changed the default font to Arial, which should make text a bit more readable. I've also added the Comic Genesis Newsbox below the blog on the main page. I'll be creating a CCP banner for the newsbox later.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

11/7 Pictures

The Gallery page has a new subpage dedicated to the CCP Module. 20 pictures from the first event have been posted. The pictures have "streaks" in them as I modified them in sections to improve visibility. The camera I used (a new one) didn't do a good job handling the low light, so Photoshop had to be used to brighten parts. I'll try to do a better job taking photos in the future.

Additionally, the FAQ page has been updated with info on the Module.

Videos will be uploaded soon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

11/7/07 Module

The first run of the Create a Comic Module was a success! 25 templates were used, 81 comics were collected, and the students had fun. The theme for this module: statistics. Hardly kids stuff, but it's relevant to what the class was learning. There'll be a second one later in the month after the current unit is over.

By comparing the before and after comics, I hope to detect that the students learned something (I'm assuming they did, since the course is well taught). If I can detect this change in knowledge, it'll mean comics are a suitable medium for detecting learning.

The following comics were used in this very first use of the CCP in a university setting:

And Shine Heaven Now
Chugworth Academy
Dinosaur Comics
Dr. McNinja
Faking Life
Mac Hall
No Pink Ponies
Okashina Okashi
Penny Arcade
Piled Higher and Deeper
Rob and Elliot
Sparkling Generation Valkyrie Yuuki
Tracy and Tristan
Tsunami Channel
Venus Envy

I wanted to use Questionable Content, but the photocopier I had access to can't handle 8.5x14" paper. Several of the templates used came from the previous run of the CCP, while others were brand new. The second module will use different templates with a slightly different comic roster.

Images were taken, as well as video. They'll be posted later.

Workshop Rescheduling

The 11/20 Workshop will not be occurring on the expected date. Turns out the Human Services Center has had to move their offices to a new building with little advanced notice, so the whole place will be closed for a few weeks during the transition.

Right now, the workshop is tentatively scheduled for 11/29, the CCP's one year anniversary date. More on that when I have confirmation. The 12/20 workshop will proceed as scheduled.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Create a Comic Module

Announcing a new Create a Comic Project related endeavor: the Create a Comic Module.

Unlike the sessions and workshops, the module is not designed to teach now to make comics. Instead, its goal is to use comics for other educational purposes. For example, when the CCP first began, I used it as a classroom activity to teach English, not how to make comics. In some ways, you could say this is the CCP returning to its roots.

Thanks to research by educators, it's known that adding interactive art components to things such as English and History lessons can improve the knowledge retention of students. Likewise, children who read comics and graphic novels at a young age generally have higher literacy levels than those who read nothing. The purpose of the CCP Module is to explore other areas where integrating comics can improve educational activities.

There are currently two planned uses for the module, both related to first establishing efficacy. The first use of the module will occur this Wednesday, 11/7/07. I'll be using several templates from the CCP to test if a change in student knowledge can be detected simply through comparing before-after comics. Wednesday will be collecting the "before" sample. I'll be collecting the "after" sample sometime around 11/26/07.

The second planned module is planned for sometime next spring or possibly next year. The idea is to enhance a health education program by adding an interactive component. This will be a formal analysis, comparing students with and without the module to quantify its effects. The details for this have not been finalized.

The CCP Module is the next logical step in boosting the CCP from a classroom activity, to an afterschool program, to a full fledged academic venture.

Comics and Community Service, Part 1

Something that has always impressed me from organizing the Create a Comic Project (CCP) is the level of support it's received from the general webcomic community. I've contacted dozens of creators, asking them permission to use their comics to teach urban youths, and received overwhelmingly positive replies.

This reflects well on the attitudes underlying today's webcomic culture: the "me first" attitude prevalent in many parts of the entertainment industry have not yet become widespread among webcomic creators. This is likely due to what Ryan North said was the "humbling" experience of being a star in the Internet, but being a regular guy in the real world.

This also indicates an as yet untapped potential among creators: a move towards greater real world visibility through community outreach by volunteering. As Scott McCloud noted in Reinventing Comics: "public perception matters." And there are few things that can create a positive public perception better than community service.

As popular as webcomics have become, they are still far from the mainstream and are subject to the same shadowy misconceptions that have dogged all comics since the 1950's. The anti-comic fervor of that period can be kept from repeating itself if comics increase their public visibility. A preemptive strike of good will, so to speak.

Imagine if, for example, a child's first exposure to comics was through a "how to make comics" program run by a local creator. How would they grow up perceiving the motivations behind the comics they like? What about that child's parents: would they be more or less likely to treat comics with disdain if they saw their child's literacy and creative expression improve thanks to a comics outreach program?

There has been some work in this area over the decades, both from print and online creators. Bill Watterson authorized a teaching guide using Calvin & Hobbes. Jeff Smith has worked with Scholastic to bring graphic novels into the classroom. Michael Bitz of Columbia's Teachers College started the Comic Book Project with the help of Dark Horse.

On the webcomics side, Shaenon Garrity has been volunteering with children since the late 90's at libraries and the Cartoon Art Museum. Tycho and Gabe have written of their exploits in the classroom. Mike Rouse-Deane is raising money for charities with projects like the Kid's Book Project. And, of course, there's the Create a Comic Project.

Despite these efforts, though, there is more that can be done. As large the the webcomic community is, it should be possible to have volunteer events become the nationwide (worldwide?) norm, rather than the exception. The community should begin shifting its attention from "24 hour comics" and toward "24 hour comic volunteering."

Friday, November 2, 2007

ComixTalk Blog

To try and increase the CCP's Internet footprint, I've started a CCP ComixTalk Blog. It'll mirror some of the major content of this blog. Check it out!