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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Using Geek Culture to Promote Learning

By Barb Lien-Cooper

Tuesday 2 September 2003, by Webmaster

Obviously, every generation has a gap with the generation following it. But, a place where the generations do come together is in comic book culture, also known as "geek" culture. Take Spider-Man, just for an obvious example. Geeky Peter Parker may get his origin rebooted every so often, but at heart, he’s been the same friendly neighborhood Spider-Man for forty years or so (god, doesn’t that realization make you feel old?!?) Instead of looking down on the younger generation’s tastes in entertainment, there are ways to get through to students by using their forms of pop culture to get them interested in subjects such as literature and writing. Teachers today can use geek culture to bond with their students, gain their interest, give them something to essay about, and to give them topics to ponder. I know. My husband is a high school teacher - and a pop culture geek extraordinaire.

When I was a kid, they used to show these poorly animated literature adaptations on television. I think it was some kind of FCC thing about educational content aimed towards young people. In the same way that Schoolhouse Rock taught kids about numbers and American history, these adaptations gave kids their first taste of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the legend of Robin Hood. To this day, I’m a sucker for anything related to Victorian literature or what my school library used to call (get this, folksies) "Boys’ Own Adventures". Television, the big bad that supposedly caused illiteracy, inflamed my childish need for knowledge. I can cite Schoolhouse Rock for the A plus I got in Social Studies in 7th grade. I knew the Preamble of the Constitution because I learned the song. There are worse lyrics than, "We, the People of the United States..."

Similarly, old back issues of pseudo-Classics Illustrated literary adaptations and Big Book knock-offs helped me become a literature buff - especially Victorian horror literature. God, how many times have I read Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations in comic book form! Heck, I own two great Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations right now (one from NBM and one adapted by the late, great Guido Crepax). Kids love a great story - as long as they don’t know it’s supposed to be good for them. To introduce children to history and literature, therefore, it would behoove a school to encourage the reading of well-written graphic novels and comics, especially those that adapt literature or explain aspects of history, social studies, and science.

While adaptations of historical events such as those depicted in The Age of Bronze or The Golden Vine would work best in college settings, there are age appropriate graphic novels and comics for teaching children. Clan Apis is an excellent book about biology and insect life, for instance. Will Eisner and NBM books have done several literary adaptations including The Princess and The Frog, Moby Dick, and Sundata (an ancient African myth). Frank Miller’s 300 might be appropriate for high school libraries, as it’s about a battle, done in a mature but not too violent manner. Jai Sen’s Malay Mysteries would be good for history classes or English classes that were exploring world myth. Tales of the Cherokee is a comic book that tells about Native American myth, so that would be good for any study of Native people. P. Craig Russell has done extraordinary adaptations of operas and the stories of Oscar Wilde (published by NBM). If you look around in cheapie boxes at comic book stories, you can find Classics Illustrated comics from the 1980’s (the old Classics Illustrated are too cost prohibitive). I own several of them, including a Jill Thompson illustrated version of The Scarlet Letter to Gahan Wilson’s illustrated version of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.

These are just obvious examples of how education can be made more interesting by the creative use of "geek culture". There are less obvious ways, also. Let me take a real life example.

My husband teaches high school English. He tries to make literature interesting to kids that have no interest in literature. Last year, geek culture became part and parcel of his teaching style. One technique my husband used to get through to his kids was to compare the hero’s journey of Beowulf to comic book movies such as X-Men and Spider-Man. To enforce this parallelism, he had his class make posters of key scenes from Beowulf and Canterbury Tales. He also offered to let those gifted in art draw scenes from literature for extra credit. There were a few manga heads and superhero artists that really liked this idea. Another way my husband used pop culture to get to his kids was to allow them to review video games, movies, books, television, and comic books for extra credit. He wanted the kids to practice writing, just to make them express themselves in writing. It worked, as they learned to put down their thoughts and opinions in more or less an organized way.

Similarly, he encouraged the students to write about their pop culture in their class journals. He got a lot of journal entries about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dragonball Z. In fact, he found that one young girl wrote Buffy fan fiction. I asked him about this fact, as I know a lot of people in comic book culture that hate fan fic. He said, "She’s writing, which will help her express herself later in life. She is teaching herself how a story is structured, so she’ll learn and remember the elements of a story. She’s using her imagination. She’s interested in something beyond herself, which means she’ll be less likely to turn to drugs out of apathy. I just wish that all my students were as bright and creative as this girl."

Park decided to take a leaf out of the Buffy fan fic writer’s book and had one day where the students wrote little plays based on the world of Macbeth. Macbeth fan fic, in other words. (This year, Park is thinking of digging up some online comic book scripts in order to show how similar the structure of a comic book is to the structure of a play. He’s thinking of letting the kids write short comic book scripts to show them a bit about the creative process and dramatic structure.)

Later in the year, he allowed his kids to write research papers about urban legends and mythology, as well as allowing them to write about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. My husband used what the students knew and cared about in order to show how popular entertainment and literature are not mutually exclusive things. Park and I talked a lot last year concerning how to best communicate literary concepts to students used to action-adventure concepts. One thing we came up with was showing movies of literature. For the unit on Macbeth, Park showed the class key scenes from Akira Kurasawa’s Throne of Blood, a violent but well-done Japanese adaptation of the play. The kids loved it, especially where the evil king got his. The kids may not remember the beauty of Shakespeare’s words, but they’ll forever remember a king that met a violent end because of his ambitions.

He started stocking the classroom with comic books, as there are every so often days where he’d just "babysitting" his students. For instance, a bunch of students had go on a field trip or an out of town game. It wasn’t practical to teach half a classroom, as that would have meant some students would be ahead of others. So, he’d encourage kids to study and to read for pleasure. Comic books are a way to encourage reading for pleasure. We’re constantly checking cheapie boxes of comic book stores for cheap comics that kids might like (and, if we’re lucky, might teach the kids something, if only the pleasure of reading).

On the last day of school, when it was impractical for any work to be done, Park brought in a video of the 1940’s Adventures of Superman. The kids thought it rocked.

My husband is a popular teacher, as he is young enough to know about youth culture and caring enough to listen to students talk about things that don’t interest him. For instance, this year my husband is going to spend a day in class letting kids write rap songs, just to teach them about meter and rhyme schemes. While he’s not the most authoritarian teacher in his school, he is able to relate to his kids in a meeting of minds sort of a way. While he doesn’t openly show his full geek colors, the kids know that he is someone who is interested in their pop culture. For example, my husband had a gifted student named Michelle in class. She was a manga head, with a real talent for drawing. Because of the nice people at ADV Films and all the manga we’ve received as review copies or bought over the years, he was able to talk to this student about her taste in manga. He knew about Chobits and the other Tokyopop mangas that appeal to teenage girls. Believe me, girls are reading comics. The manga graphic novels of Tokyopop are everywhere in the high school where my husband works. The cheapness, subject matter, and sheer availability of this imprint’s comics have brought a lot of high school girls into our world of comics. Michelle was shocked and surprised that Park could talk manga. She said, "I never knew a teacher that knew about manga before."

He also had a good rapport with the Marvel-heads at the school. Park remembers seeing a copy of Ultimate X-Men by Mark Millar and thinking how it would blow his students’ minds that he and I are friends with the book’s author. Instead, he just let the kids prattle on about The Phoenix. Park bit his tongue, because he longed to tell them that Mark based Jean Grey’s look on me. There’s a thin line between cool adult that can run a classroom and over-aged geek that can’t keep a class in line. Park rides that line to perfection, as these kids need to be listened to and respected, but also need to be shown discipline and a certain amount of authority.

The point of all of this is simple: kids have a pop culture as complex and as valid as any other. Instead of condemning their tastes and influences, a good teacher must show respect towards his class by using their pop culture to understand, influence, and teach these children. Because, believe me, they are not stupid. Kids today simply need a little guidance here and there to best facilitate their learning.

As do we all.