READER OF THE MONTH: Comics in the classroom
Hi folks, I’ve got some good news: There will be another Zen Pencils book collection released this October! You can see the cover image here. It’s very exciting and I’ll have more details closer to the launch, but as I’m now working on putting that together, there might not be a new comic update for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, here is a very special edition of Reader of the Month.
The biggest surprise to come out of Zen Pencils was hearing from teachers that the comics were being used for educational purposes. I honestly never intended for that to happen, I was just making these comics for myself. Here’s a great example of how they’re being used at a school in the UK. This post was written by Jane Warren, a journalist and also the mother of Bea, who is featured in the story.
Bea and Phoebe, both aged 10, were introduced to Zen Pencils at Wisborough Green Primary School in West Sussex, UK. Senior teacher Johnny Loizides discovered the book and lent it to Bea. “When you come across a book like this you just have to share it,” he says. “I’m trying to tell my class of nine and 10 year olds how the world works and what they need to do to find happiness and fulfilment.”
Bea was captivated instantly by the book, which she read cover-to-cover the same evening, sharing her revelations with her family as she found truths and insights that felt instantly accessible, meaningful and exciting. “I like Zen Pencils because it’s a way of telling young children about important things but in a fun way, so they actually pay attention,” says Bea, who received her own copy as a 10th birthday present in March from her parents. It now travels to and from school in her book bag every day as an essential bit of her current life’s equipment. “It has made me look at the world differently,” she explains.
Phoebe has found the comics equally valuable. “I like Zen Pencils because they inspire you to do something differently,” she says. “But some of them just help you to be cheerful. I got out of the book that if you try, anything is possible. These cartoons also help people, and they tell you how to be happy.”
“My mummy has always copied quotes onto the walls inside our house and as we’ve got older we have started reading them and remembering them,” says Bea. The quotes include Maya Angelou’s rallying cry to individualism: ‘If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be’, which is inked onto the stairwell so the children can see it whenever they ascend the staircase. “We loved reading them and we started creating our own after my six-year-old brother Willem asked if he could write a quote on the wall too,” says Bea. “Willem wrote ‘Live, it’s the whole point of life’ and another day he wrote ‘The world is big so travel it’. This morning before school I suddenly got inspiration and wrote ‘People may dislike you, people may hate you, however put all these things aside, you must like you.’”
Soon Bea, Phoebe and their friends at school were producing their own original philosophical cartoon strips inspired by Zen Pencils. As Phoebe says: “I think that the pictures express what the words are saying, they make them more visually clearer.” Click image to enlarge.
Johnny has been delighted by the way children in his class have responded to the comics. “I love comic books and I love the informal art form of comics,” he says. “The complex and the profound can be expressed elegantly and poetically, without dumbing down or simplifying the real message,” he says. “The children loved the Zen Pencils book and understood the narrative form. The artwork enhances and contextualises the sometimes complex and deep statements. It never simplifies or patronizes the truth of the statement, but the children understood the ideas because the artwork guides them.” He says it is a book with the power to make children inquisitive about everything and, in turn, question themselves and their own motivations and needs. “When I give them a book like this and students like Bea and Phoebe create their own original ideas I feel that I am doing something right,” he adds. “They looked at the words of the great and the good and said loudly and clearly that they too had something interesting to say.”
One comic in particular to which the children in his class responded was Ira Glass: Advice for Beginners.
“That’s where they are at the moment,” Johnny says.”They so want to express themselves in a variety of ways but they don’t quite know how to do it yet. They realise this as well. The Ira Glass strip tells them that this is how it is at the moment but it gives them hope that soon they will figure it out if they work hard, apply themselves and enjoy what they do.” It is clear that the children under his care are lucky to have such an emotionally aware teacher committed to education in its fullest sense. “I love my job, I love my school, and I love the fact I have the opportunity to share art and ideas with my class,” says Johnny, who has two teenage children of his own. “I’m really touched by the children’s work. But it’s not about my feelings about what they have done. The girls have made the journey and the girls have embarked on the learning.” And exposure to Zen Pencils has also inspired other forms of creativity, including a mosaic based on the front cover of the book that Bea made during the Easter holidays.
“I think Zen Pencils is a great idea,” Bea says. “And I’m happy that Mr Loizides let me borrow it otherwise I would never be making my own cartoons, doing the mosaic, or writing this. I personally think it’s been one of my favourite books yet.” And her final (philosophical) word? “Appreciate art, admire beauty, and be kind!”
Thanks so much to Mr Loizides, Jane, the students of Wisborough Green Primary and of course Bea and Phoebe for the fantastic work! I might have cried reading this, I’m man enough to admit that. Seeing the girls create their own art, inspired by what I’m doing is pretty amazing. I think the new book is better than the first, and I hope Bea and Phoebe enjoy it when it’s released later in the year. If you’re a teacher or someone who uses Zen Pencils comics in an educational way, please share in the comments, I would love to hear more examples. – Gav