From the comic book store to the classroom

Originally posted on illuminate. Written by k.barnes and m.henderson.

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich's collection. photo by k.barnes

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich’s collection. photo by k.barnes

Once thought of as a niche medium appreciated mostly by stereotypical middle-aged comic book collectors like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, the graphic novel has been steadily moving from the fringes to the mainstream since the late 1980s.

In anticipation of Readin Week 2016, we sat down with Gail de Vos, professional storyteller and long-time sessional instructor at UAlberta’s School of Library and Information Studies, and David Lewkowich, assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education, to talk about this relatively new hybrid of text and image and its value as a medium for teaching and research.

De Vos has taught a course focused on graphic novels since 2001. Her favourite character is Baba Yaga, a witch from Slavic European folklore who is depicted as a villain in the comic book series Hellboy. Lewkowich, whose research interests include literary theory, young adult literature and cultural studies, currently loves the character Marlys Mullen, created by cartoonist and author Lynda Barry, because Marlys is able to look through the complexity of her older sister’s experience and tell a joke.

Responses have been edited for length.

Faculty of Education: Why did you start integrating graphic novels into your teaching and research?

David Lewkowich: It is important to me, especially on the first day of class, to help my students understand and break down the view that the “teacher” has a wealth of knowledge. Instead, it’s about creating a relationship and space where the teacher is a beginner every day. I find that comics and graphic novels allow an avenue into this world view.

Comics and graphic novels make us all beginners. There is no one right way to read them, as no one has been formally schooled in how to read comics.

Gail de Vos: As a professional storyteller, I began reading graphic novels and comics because of my research into reworkings of folktales in pop culture. After reading a lot of them, I realized that they are the closest print medium to oral storytelling and folktales. I was truly captivated by this whole idea, which led to my research and teaching on the subject.

Faculty of Education: How does the medium help you interact with students?

Gail de Vos: I often think about the importance of self-interpretation, which is something David has hinted at earlier. This is all about learning to be confident—that there is no right or wrong way to read this. Once a book is in the public domain, the author and illustrator, or sometimes just the illustrator, no longer have control over how the book is read. It becomes about how the reader responds to the illustrations. I often start my courses off with wordless graphic novels, so that there are no words to show the readers where to go.

Often people don’t know how to start reading a graphic novel. They want a “how to read graphic novels” explanation because of their previous exposure to text-based books. This is especially true when you start reading wordless graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I agree with Gail. There is something about how we have been schooled to read language in that we think that it’s a solid structure. There is something about the interaction of words and images, and images alone, that allows us to go more inside ourselves with our reading. It allows us to inspect the connections that we are making with the text.

photo by k.barnes

photo by k.barnes

Faculty of Education: What are the different themes that you seek to explore with students?

Gail de Vos: Self-discovery is a major theme that I’m interested in. It can be found in all forms of literature, and it’s a theme that is repeated over and over again in graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I love graphic novels that tend to explore themes around love, adolescence and memory. These are all aspects of human existence, where it’s all about unanswerable questions and how can we allow the text to play with us.

I’m also interested in how our past experiences in school and our early experiences with teachers can impact a teacher’s future teaching. Words alone don’t seem to fully capture the emotional complexity of these ideas or themes.

Reading graphic novels allows us to explore our emotional past in a way that words can’t. I know that when I set foot back in a high school working as a teacher, I dealt with a lot of insomnia and my own emotional frustration, both of which I didn’t expect; I see that happening again when I look at my students. Working with graphic novels allows me to help support students in their own emotional discovery.

Faculty of Education: What advice do you have for educators, librarians and other information professionals looking to integrate graphic novels into their work?

Gail de Vos: Read them for yourselves. For every class I teach, regardless of the content, I put graphic novels on the reading list. I also suggest using wordless graphic novels so students take time to appreciate the illustrations themselves. It helps students become more observant.

David Lewkowich: Encourage students to dwell on the page. It can be hard to slow down on the page, but when you do, you notice things that you may have thought were only tangential. Sometimes it’s these tangential moments that can add a lot more to the text.

Comics create a level playing field and allow for discussion where no one possesses the knowledge as to what is the meaning of the text and everyone can come to their own conclusions.


The University of Alberta is proud to be a partner of Read In Week Edmonton 2016. The purpose of Read In Week is to create a greater awareness of the importance of reading. Historically, the event has successfully promoted the school as an important place for the development of lifelong literacy. Read In Week Edmonton runs from October 3-7, 2016. Visit the website for more information.

Students get creative in summer course

Originally published on UAlberta News.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

This summer a group of future and current Career and Technology Foundations teachers honed their skills in the workshop.

The course, taught by Don McPherson, gave students hands-on experience in developing projects they could take back to their classrooms. From making end tables to gumball machines, this was a new experience for some.

“I’ve never touched any construction or woodwork, so this is a lot of firsts for me, but I’m having lots of fun and making a lot of cool things” said Jamie Lambert-Brown, a foods teacher.

More than having fun, the students are also learning how to teach

“I’ve learned how to make meaningful learning opportunities,” said Ryan Siemens, a future mechanics teacher.

“In this course, we learned how to connect projects to occupations, as well as other curriculum, so the students are learning, interested and engaged.”

Check out the photo gallery below to see more of the students’ work. 

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Secondary Education welcomes new Social Studies professor

Originally published on UAlberta News

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

Understanding and conceptualizing evil when learning about horrific events like genocide and war is a topic new Secondary Education faculty member Cathryn van Kessel has wrestled with since she discovered the extent of her family’s role in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

“My grandmother’s family had resistance fighters, including the man who became my grandfather, in the basement or their barn when occupying Nazi troops would stop at their house while on their rounds,” explained van Kessel.

“I can’t imagine what it is like to make that decision. No matter what you choose to do, you’re putting your family at risk.”

The perception that youth have of the dark chapters of human history is something that van Kessel started exploring academically when she was a high school teacher covering “really disheartening things” such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor. This experience forced her to re-evaluate how she taught these topics.

“I wanted to teach for social justice and about these horrible events in history so we don’t repeat them,” she said.

“I wanted to make them feel, and not just hear cold statistics, so I’d show them things like the original footage from Auschwitz, thinking I was doing a great job. Instead I was destroying any hope they had for the future.”

Rather than repeating the same teaching method for future students, van Kessel started looking into other ways to present the heavy material and learning more about students’ conceptualization of evil.

“I was concerned about how we teach genocide, but at the heart of it, I was more interested in the idea of evil and how that can either shut down or open up thinking.”

As a PhD student, van Kessel kept busy working on this research, even presenting it in the UAlberta Three Minute Thesis competition. As a faculty member she plans to continue researching into youth’s perception of evil in social studies curriculum by collaborating with colleagues who focus on terror management theory, wisdom traditions, world views and bringing it to an educational perspective.

Transitioning from graduate student to faculty member

One of the unique parts of van Kessel’s transition from graduate student to faculty member is that she made the switch at the same institution and in the same department.  She considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to remain at UAlberta and continue working with those who supported her as a graduate student.

“I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s real,” she joked.

“I just want to make sure I’m making everyone proud. It’s such an honour to be counted as their colleague and they mean a lot to me already.”

One change in particular that van Kessel is excited for is the opportunity to pay it forward to the graduate students she will work with in the future.

“It’s fun for me to think of mentoring people through the process that is still so fresh in my mind,” van Kessel said.

“I think back to when I started my doctoral degree and all the skills I built. I hope I can give them all the great experiences I had when I was mentored by other people in the department.”

Mentoring future educators isn’t new to van Kessel, however. When she was a graduate student, she transitioned from teaching high school students into educating their future teachers. Something that always surprised van Kessel’s students is her use of diverse genres of music in the classroom.

“I’ll use metal and punk, but I’ll also use really sweet, gentle and melodic stuff like The Weepies. At the end of the semester I always get asked  ‘What do you actually listen to? Is it Public Enemy? Is it Rage Against the Machine? Is it The Weepies?’”

Still, educating the next generation of social studies teachers is a task van Kessel does not take lightly.

“In some ways it is more high stakes since you have a bigger ripple which can either be a really nice thing, or a really horrifying thing depending on how it goes, but I love it,” she said.

“It’s exciting to hear how these future teachers are wrestling with the these tough topics, and telling them that it’s okay for them to be grappling with those things and how they might bring that into the classroom.”