Voices from the Classroom: Marek Bennett
I'm thrilled to introduce New Hampshire’s Marek Bennett as this month’s Voices from the Classroom featured comics educator. A multitalented cartoonist, musician, and teacher, Marek houses an impressive potpourri of comics projects on his website, www.MarekBennett.com. I urge you to page through all of his fabulous cartoons, comics, videos, travelogues, and student work samples. Marek’s work really captures the flexibility and scope of comics and education both in an outside a formal classroom setting.
Marek received his Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and music from Brown University in 1997 and earned his Master of Education degree from Keene State College in Curriculum and Instruction in 2004. He also holds his New Hampshire elementary certification and achieved “Highly Qualified” status in 2007. He has written grants to support international cultural exchanges between multiple community organizations, and his diverse clientele includes Keene State College, Monadnock Humane Society, New Hampshire National Guard, Norman Rockwell Museum, New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, Deerfield Academy, Harvard University, Weeks Act Centennial Committee, Henniker Community School, Columbia University Teacher’s College, Center for Cartoon Studies, Museum of Comics & Cartoon Art in New York City, and Children’s Literacy Foundation.
When I asked Marek, why comics in education, he directed me to his website, where he states:
· EVERYBODY can do comics…
· Comics can be ANYTHING…
· Comics GRAB YOUR ATTENTION… And if they are done well, they hold it, too!
· Comics are CHEAP…
· Comics are CHALLENGING TO CREATE.
Marek also writes on his site: “Comics artists develop their skills of literacy—including reading, writing, spelling, grammar…but even more importantly, involving questions of character, setting, plot, voicing, and authorial intention.” He notes that comics artists also must develop and exercise an understanding of logic and causal relationships, details and appearances, graphic design and artistic representation, as well as time management and organization.
According to Marek’s program description, his “Comics Workshop” facilitates learning visual literacy, language skills, conceptual storytelling, production skills, and social skills, all of which are tied to the New Hampshire State curriculum frameworks. Workshops tailored to meet specific needs include student workshops, teacher training and community workshops, as well as publishing workshops.
Along with his “Comics Workshop” Marek produces Mimi's Doughnuts, a comic strip appearing in several New England newspapers since 2003 and quarterly in his Mimi’s Doughnuts Zine.
Marek’s been busy this summer helping celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act around the state of New Hampshire by creating arts programming and “conservation comics” as part of his partnership with the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire and the Weeks Act Centennial Committee.
As if conducting workshops and creating weekly comic strips isn’t enough, Marek also facilitates a comics exchange between students in Henniker, New Hampshire, with students in San Ramon, Nicaragua. Part of the mission of the Henniker-San Ramon Comics Exchange is for participants to “work together to produce original comic books about their communities, self-publish and translate the comics, and share them with each other, with their community members, and with their peers in their sister community.” Marek stores photos of his exchange trip and examples of the students’ comics created in the program at his website. According to Marek’s educational overview of the exchange program, the learning outcomes include being able to “read and respond to original comics from both communities” as well as “recognize similarities and differences between communities and cultures.” Further, “participants understand and practice concepts of both local and global solidarity and community” and “demonstrate and articulate the value of comics as an information-rich medium in community, educational, and public settings.” Unconventional perhaps, but Marek’s work promotes authentic global education!
Marek’s latest global comics trip begins this month in Slovakia, where he will be studying the ancient cultural stories found in the sequential art embedded in stained glass, painted altars, and murals he discovered in decaying medieval cathedrals on his first trip to visit relatives. While traveling, Marek will record his observations as a web comic including his experiences teaching Comics Workshop classes with students at Roma community centers. He plans to create a graphic novel about his trip when he returns to New Hampshire.
In addition to Marek’s “multiple intelligences” poster he developed for the New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference last winter, Marek shared ten comics tips for teachers:
1. Draw along with the students–they will teach you how!
2. Create projects that are driven by student decisions AND curriculum. Establish clear expectations, but emphasize the ways each artist's “personal style” holds our attention and bring us to new understanding of the material.
3. Foster innovation within set parameters. Creativity generates new responses to old limitations.
4. Encourage peer conferencing, where readers read aloud to silent (attentive) artists.
5. Explicitly sidestep “Good” and “Bad”–The question “Is this good?” forces judgment and limitation. Instead, try more complex questions like “Does this accomplish my goals?” and see what kinds of conversations ensue!
6. Use POSITIVE situational language (“Who wants to share?” is quite different from “Who doesn't want to share?” The most encouraging environments focus on opportunity and collective support.)
7. Teach artists to solicit feedback with open-ended questions–“What do you see here?” is infinitely more useful than “Do you see the tiger on the unicycle?”
8. Create open spaces for improvisation! Help artists cultivate a nonjudgmental mindset that accepts and learns from unplanned effects.
9. Comics are all about ATTENTION. Students will spend time and effort on authentic projects, and through their art you'll learn how they think, work, and understand the curriculum.
10. Celebrate completion with “publishing parties” or “comics conventions” to share artwork with the community.
Marek Bennett is a talented artist and a dynamic, inspiring educator who uses comics as his primary language for teaching and learning. Invite him to your school or community center soon!