High Tech High is a charter school in Chula Vista, California, specializing in math, science, and engineering course work for its students. It’s also the home to multimedia instructor Patrick Yurick, who three years ago founded the Graphic Novel Project. It was an afterschool venture with 15 students and a dream that, as Patrick describes it, “based on the quality of their dedication and work, we would create a comic that would be of the quality to exhibit at Comic-Con International.” This past summer, Patrick and his students’ dream was realized when they exhibited at the con and even hosted a panel there. Here, Patrick describes what made the Graphic Novel Project (GNP) so successful.
My job as a teacher is to create an education project that incorporates personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and the teacher as designer. The best example of this is the project that I spend most of my waking moments thinking about and reflecting on: the High Tech High Graphic Novel Project.
When originally challenged with creating a project around the four design principles of High Tech High, I realized immediately that the culminating goal of the project itself had to be in the presentation of the final product to an audience. Luckily, we had an audience right down the street that could help make that happen, Comic Con International. The mission then became simple: create a comic book using limited resources and created by students that would be exhibited at Comic-Con. I gathered students I identified as potential candidates to make this work and enticed them with the promise that if we worked hard enough, we could make this happen.
What followed was 13 weeks of on-the-job training in scripting, drawing, and computer graphics to a group of students who had NEVER worked with those media before. I chose the topic of the comic. We needed something gripping, relevant, and important—and thus was born “La Sombra de America” (“The Shadow of America”), which highlighted true crime stories from the heart of neighboring Tijuana, Mexico. That summer we did not get into Comic Con. It turned out that the wait list was long and we needed to establish ourselves first. We had to learn the oldest lesson known to start-up businesses: We had to work our way up. Six more books and four smaller comic conventions later, we accomplished our goal. At Comic-Con International 2011 this past summer, we not only exhibited on the sales floor, but we also hosted a panel that highlighted and taught others how to accomplish what we had just done.
What I plan to do here is break down, from my perspective as a teacher, the elements I believe were essential in making the GNP successful.
Nontraditional Work Environment
It is not the setup of the classroom that enhances success or assigned seating—it is an active engagement with the students without a pretense of inherent superiority by the instructor. GNP blurs the line between classroom and a new business venture. The important concept to understand is that GNP is not simulating a workplace environment; rather we are working together to take our classroom and actively use it for the site of our actual business enterprise. Henry Jenkins sums up this method of education in his coined term “Collegial Pedagogy.”
There is a core group of GNP members that totals 16 students. Last year, the GNP membership requirements included collaborating with other teachers in other disciplines across all grade levels within our high school. For example, the GNP worked last year over the course of two months to fully develop an 84-page comic with 9th graders named “Jenny Feels Very Excited to Show Them What She Can Do.” It was aimed at being used as an educational tool to help the public understand how to work with students with learning disabilities. Using collaboration within GNP as a means of professional development has been pivotal in our collective success.
The Graphic Novel Project has experienced quite a bit of growth and experimentation over the course of the past three years. We do not have a model for what we are trying to accomplish. It has therefore been extremely important to remain focused on our original vision/mission for who we are and what we do. Our mission statement:
“The Graphic Novel Project's mission is to create professional quality graphic novels that incorporate socially conscious stories that may serve to affect the community in a positive way. We actively solicit the support and critique of professionals in related industries to create a quality product.”
Community Meetings and Community Support
There is no way we could have accomplished any of our successes without including the families of all members in our process. Once a month, GNP hosts an hour-long community meeting. The community meeting is designed to address needs and concerns about the whole community and has GNP student members work with parents in groups based on the top priority needs of the group. The groups work together with a student leader to tackle topics ranging from fundraising to sales training. The parents are ultimately the decision makers in regards to our success and getting them excited about the project is vital to our continued success.
In the 2010–2011 school year, we have exhibited at five different conventions: The Alternative Press Expo (APE), So-Cal Comic Con, Wondercon, Wizard Comic-Con, and Comic-Con International. We have also presented on panels at both Comic-Con and Wondercon. Without these exhibitions for our work, it would be hard to progress as a project/business. When we attend, we all meet other professionals and due to this continued showing of our own work at the conventions we have raised the bar of quality in student work to being compared and elevated to that of a professional. This has helped us all raise excitement, create deadlines for work, and give us real-world standards to aspire to.
At the heart of all that is GNP is a continued camaraderie and commitment to a creative and laughter-filled work environment. The best memories I have of working with the students are hours in cars on the way to conventions, or even at the conventions themselves, spent laughing and enjoying each other’s company. As much as the members of GNP are my students, I would consider them more to be my family. Laughter and a familial environment where the students act as colleagues is the heart of why the Graphic Novel Project is such a success.