Comics Education In The Classroom Has Students’ Literacy Soaring Like Superman!

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GTA Students Improve More Than Just Art Skills With Unique Programming That Builds Confidence, Positive Work Habits and Media Literacy With The Help of Real Industry Professionals

Doodling in class used to be grounds for detention while SKL’z Cartoon Workshop Co-Founders Kurt Lehner and Shane Kirshenblatt were growing up in Toronto, during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s respectively. Now professionals in the comics and animation industries and part of the Ontario Arts Council Artists in Education program, they are teaching their “SKL’z” to a new generation who are encouraged to doodle in class as much as they like!

The AIE Program, which allows Ontario schools to host established artists running OAC subsidized special projects, added Kirshenblatt and Lehner to their roster as of the start of term in 2010 and response has already been overwhelming.  “We were booked up before the school year even started,” says Kirshenblatt, who is running his 25 hour Comic Anthology Program at several schools in Toronto and York Region. “My focus is mainly on comic story-telling and communication, whereas Kurt runs his own project which focuses more on Character Design and Development. The programs are separate, though some schools have us running our programs in conjunction.”

One such school who has hosted both of the dynamic duo is Briar Hill Junior Public School, in the Dufferin/Eglinton area of Toronto. Since September, grade 4 and 5 students at the school have learned simplified professional methods for creating characters to be used in their own comic stories, employing cinematic techniques and drawing from their own knowledge and experiences. As if having two pro comic artists at the school wasn’t enough, Kirshenblatt and Lehner also get students attention by making connections and references to movies, television, and video games. “They are de-constructing the media that they regularly consume, really understanding the thinking and approach behind it so they can re-create it for themselves!” says Richard Baxter, grade 4 teacher at Briar Hill. The school principal, Frank Ricci is also a big fan. “The great thing about this kind of program is it engages those kids who are sometimes a bit of a challenge for teachers to reach.”

Engaging students is never an issue for Kirshenblatt (Creator, Author and Illustrator of Freefall Entertainment/ Jack Lake Productions Inc. Dorothy Gale Journey to Oz series and currently adapting the best selling book Ten Marks and a Train Ticket to the graphic novel form in Association with the League of Human Rights) and Lehner (famed Animation Artist for over 20 years on such projects as Disney’s Gargoyles, The Marvel Action Hour, Warner Bros. Space Jam and Designer of Franklin the Turtle for television) who both share an extensive teaching background (over 10 years each) working with students of all ages through a variety of after-school/lunch programs, camp programs and workshops. “We make it an adventure, students immerse themselves in what they are learning,” says Lehner. “We use a lot of expression, humour, voices, whatever it takes to connect with them. It’s always a good sign when the students cheer out loud when they see you in the classroom and are visibly excited about what they are about to learn.”

The biggest challenge for the two in delivering their projects is overcoming misconceptions. “It’s more than just learning to draw but rather, learning to analyze and problem-solve,” says Kirshenblatt of the main focus of the program. “Creators of comics and graphic novels are so much more than just artists and writers; We are observers, researchers and storytellers. It’s the substance behind the final product, whether it be fiction or non-fiction that matters most. It’s not about being the best artist or writer, rather we encourage the students to put in their best effort. The final product may be nice to look at, but that’s the presentation: the polish.”

The two artists are already anticipating a busy year, finishing off the projects at their OAC AIE schools, running their SKL’z Workshops at many other schools and developing numerous projects for both publication and animation as Co-Founders of Toronto-based New Voyage Studios. Despite their busy schedule, however, they always make time to visit schools and share their knowledge with aspiring creators. Lehner states, “We never had this kind of experience growing up. Comics used to be very taboo in the classroom; art teachers hated when you drew that kind of stuff and don’t ever get caught reading Batman in class! Now comics are used as education to appeal to more visual learners. How the times have changed, for the better. Onward!”

For information about Shane Kirshenblatt and Kurt Lehner’s SKL’z Cartoon Workshop, please visit http://www.sklzcartoonworkshop.blogspot.com.

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