Making Curriculum Pop

I mentioned in an earlier e-mail that I'm still trying to think about a editorial pattern for these "bouncing blogs." This week I focused us on a pop genre (graphic novels) and explored it in multiple disciplines. Going with a weekly theme seems interesting for now. I've had some non-genre themes in mind too, things like:

• Me, You and Everybody
• Pop Culture and Social Justice
• Dealing with Administrators who Despise Pop Pedagogy

Open weekly themes might allow resources to be more eclectic - but I'm down with whatever people think would be most useful. If you have a hot minute I'd love feedback on what YOU THINK would be best - please click here to share.

Returning to this week's theme - inspired by the New York Times we're going to have a science thursday. But before we embark on our first scientific journey I must make a full confession - I'm a science moron.

A moron you ask? Yes, a moron, but I have good reasons. First, I'm wildly uncomfortable with blood and guts. In freshman biology we did the 'ol fetal pig dissection and my lab partners thought it would be funny to use pig intestines as a jump rope in the back of the classroom. Because of this I certainly understand how long large intestines are but I haven't eaten ham since I was 14. Thankfully, we never dissected a chicken or cow.

Second, I was always the dumb (maybe dumbest) kid in the smart science classes. My high school offered "early bird" AP Physics. The class was 7:30-9:00AM. Three days a week I'd come to class after a 5:30AM swim practice packing a Phelps sized breakfast that would include portable foods like bananas and yogurt. When the teacher filled three dry erase boards with a single equation I was usually lost before the first variable hit the board. Reliable sources told me that I would slowly drift into sleep with my head bobbing above the surface of the lab desk. Inevitably, the whole class would be distracted by my cranial oscillations anticipating the moment I would face-plant into the mountain of yogurt and banana slime my lab partner had smeared all over the desk. When I finally touched down I would awake not to the sound of one hand clapping, but the sound of the whole class laughing at my face full of food. Yes, I slept through many of the "great lessons" and struggled to intelligently answer almost every questions posed to me in that class. In college I figured out that was/am mildly dyslexic. This explained why I failed so many grade school spelling tests and why all most of my physics peers answered their equations in meters per seconds squared while my answers were in units like ice cream scoopers over broken sundials.

Thirdly, at 22 I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis - this condition has forced me to confront my needle phobia and scientific ignorance on a regular basis; my doctors love to shove and stick gross things into all kinds of places that weren't designed to be punctured, poked or prodded. At one point at when I was 23 a nurse drawing my blood insisted on telling me "how great my veins were" and "what wonderful blood I had." This caused me to "accidentally" kick her splattering the needle and my blood all over the hospital suite. Had she been a vampire, as I suspected, she would have leapt onto the walls and licked them clean of blood. While she was distracted with this fine cuisine I would have escaped her evil clutches by dashing out of the hospital and hitchhiking home in an ambulance. Instead, she calmly handed me a Big Bird doll and suggested I hold on to him while she poked me again. Holding the bird tightly I fixated on the Jackson Pollock I had created and I just wanted to vomit. Ten years later I've made no improvements in this area of my life.

The upside of this is that I'm not likely to become a heroin addict or an M.D. The down side? Learning science (especially biology) was like a field trip to Dante's inferno. I share these stories because I empathize with kids that can't find ways into science. As an adult I've caused multiple, uh, complications at hospitals and I usually make Nicole read medical literature for some of the more intense medications I've been on - but I've made some progress. I can now wrap my head around science concepts if they're hung on a great narrative. NPR's Science Friday, the New York Times' Science Thursday, Wired, Seed, Myth-Busters and science-fiction films have allowed me to at least fake conversation with the wise science folks out there and my brother-in-law who is a neuroscientist at Cornell.

This openness to science stories has been helpful in the classroom. A biology teacher I'm working with this year was struggling with his genetics unit. He was trying to stuff kids brains full of proteins, double helixes, and Punnett Squares. Kids weren't as engaged with the material as he had hoped. A majority of the kids out here in the South Bronx were not even familiar with the word cloning - one girl mispronounced it "clowning" in one of the early classes I co-taught with him. If his classroom was a movie, it had scenes but no plot. Thinking of my own experience with the sciences I quickly thought about ways we could make his curriculum pop. To engage the kids we created a monster unit around Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's film The 6th Day and an incredible set of comics I found produced by the South African Government.

Sometimes Google gives you gifts and finding these biotech comics was like having the Berlin Airlift visit my office. There are myriad links worth checking out here but I suggest starting with the illustrative posters and the educational cartoons. They will blow your mind!

On an earlier post this week John Weaver mentioned another great series of science comics that includes Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists. Nicole and I actually came across that comic at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm two years ago only to find, after living for 7 years in Ann Arbor (A2), that there is a whole series of science comics published by this A2 dude named Jim Ottaviani. His website is loaded with awesome science themed comics. If you're ever in Ann Arbor stop by the Vault of Midnight as they carry all his stuff and know a ton about him and his work.

Tuesday I mentioned Larry Gonick's work as he does both history and science comics but I would love to hear about other graphic novel + science resources people have come across. As usual, please try and get this discussion into the hands of science teachers so they can share their insight with us.

One caveat - please don't post cartoons of people using needles. It will make me puke all over this thread (note my crafty tags below)

100,000 Vibes Per Second Cubed,


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On the blog I maintain for the NCTE Assembly of Media Arts, I posted info about two articles in NSTA publications related to science, critical thinking and media literacy. And just yesterday, I participated in an NSTA/WGBH webinar about the importance of media literacy in the science classroom. The title of the webinar was "Media Literacy in the 21st Century: WGBH Teachers Domain." The archived webinar and support materials are posted here.
Hey Dude, it's Larry Gonick...
Thanks for the lists, these are great.... Also, a big shoutout to Ottaviani.
Oops, got the fix above - Gonpnik is a New Yorker editor - my bad. Can't wait to share your mating comics!!
Jeff Harris has a comic series that appears in newspapers called Shortcuts. The topics of the cartoon fall into four categories; Plants & Animals / Air & Space / People & Places / Food & Things

Here's his site, some of the links on his page are broken, if you click on "Past Issues" you can see his cartoons...


At the end of the year, I have my 7th graders use his format and create their own shortcut on a topic/issue of their choice.

Hey man, thanks for sharing this - very cool. Do you have any cool student work samples you could share?

Great to hear from you - since I'm a Midwesterner at heart - I don't know where Oneonta is - forgive my dumbness - are you upstate? How far from NYC?
Thanks Ryan,

John here, Jeff is the creator of Shortcuts.

Don't have samples of this project but here are some cool student exemplars and 3D memorial projects created for Social Studies and Health courses, not directly related to comics, though if you scroll down to the visual arts section there are links to numerous student drawings and illustrations...


Yes, Oneonta is upstate or central NY, about 3 to 4 hour drive from NYC.

I grew up in the suburbs of NYC, came to college here in Oneonta, got my teaching degree and never left.

Sorry for the small brain move -I can't help it as it is genetic...the archive is cool. I think we may have met before briefly - did you do a presentation once upon a time in Cleveland about your teachingwithlyics site? You too have an incredible load of great resources up there. When we get to a music theme week you should really share that site.

Thanks for posting and sorry for the name flip...

A good friend of mine, Deborah Beribechez, who is a brilliant and very charming woman with a PhD in biophysics from Stanford, has as her mission the goal of getting girls interested in science through her blog The Science Babe and through videos of The Science of Everyday Life. Check out her videos and information.
Y'know- it's always about the narrative- whether it's through cartooning or something more "serious." I think I've always asked myself what story I wanted to tell through my science classes. I talk about that to teachers I work with- especially at middle school. When a teacher is struggling with a new curriculum, I always ask, "What is the story you want to tell?" For some, it's an eye-opening experience- science actually has a story? Teachers haven't always thought about that.
My best personal experience with this was in 9th grade when my bio teacher required us to read Microbe Hunters (I still own a copy of that book and always will). I've had high school kids read portions of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, John McPhee's geology trilogy, etc. I love using scifi with kids and asking them how true the story is to what we can actually do with science and technology (we did a whole unit using Jurassic Park to explore genetics and ethics in science). Try The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston- talk about relevant today with the flu outbreak- those will scare the kids into wanting to learn more about biology, viruses, and genetic engineering! And of course, there's always Calvin and Hobbes, and how about working King Kong or Mr. Bill into those physics problems? I know a middle school teacher who uses SpongeBob SqPants and his girlfriend Patty for Punnett Sq. problems- those 7th graders are pretty motivated to see what characteristics their offspring might inherit!
There are so many ways to hook kids into science, and many times, it's not through "science," it's through media of some kind.
I've posted some student art samples and a unit plan from my Solar System Comics unit here:

My students were so psyched that they could use comics to get INTO the subject matter and really explore it, and they couldn't wait to read (and learn about) all their classmates' projects.

Very cool stuff - I made comments on this in the Middle School, Science Teachers and Graphic Novel walls.

If you have any other incredible comic units to share feel free to do an advertisement/ resource post in the discussion forum that relates to your comic topic. I try to have people post things in the discussion forums (instead of the comment walls) because that way the resource is archived and easily searchable!!

Thanks again!

Sure, Ryan... I post anything having to do with developing curriculum in the "CURRICULUM" category:
... which includes science, language arts, history, etc. ...



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