Using Comics to Teach Science in the Library

Here’s how I get all sorts of students engaged in learning about everything from vaccines to Mars—in less than an hour per week.

By Kelly Burbage

As a former high school and community college science teacher, I love to see students getting excited about science. As a current elementary school librarian, creating those learning opportunities can be a challenge.

At Mitchell Math and Science Elementary School, we have a fixed schedule, so I only see each class once a week. I prepare a lesson for students each week, reserving some time at the end to check out books or to have a book talk. Collaborating with students’ classroom teachers can be quite challenging because their planning time coincides with the time their students are in my classroom so we rely on catching each other in the hallways before or after faculty meetings when possible.

Recently, I’ve begun asking students to create their own comics to explore scientific concepts with students in the library. With a general understanding of each grade’s standards and what they’re learning about at various times of the year, I’ve found comics creation to be an engaging activity that gives students the opportunity to describe their own learning in the brief time we have together each week.

Why Comics?

As librarians, we tend to be isolated in our libraries. We rarely have other educators in our department to brainstorm and bounce ideas off the way other educators do, so I spend a lot of time on Twitter, looking for classroom ideas and inspiration.

When I came upon someone talking about Pixton, a comics-creation tool designed for use in the classroom, I decided to give it a shot. We have a whole graphic novel section in our library and there were several series that were always in circulation, so I figured students would be interested in creating their own. And they were! Several of them jumped right in, and now students ask me all the time, “Are we using Pixton today?”

Fun as the Key to Self-Expression

The first time I introduced my students to creating comics, I didn’t have any requirements or objectives for them. I just told them to create an avatar, explore the software, and have some fun. Next I had them create comics about a specific topic.

One of the first topics was vaccines. We learned a little about the polio vaccine and some other vaccine history, and we talked about some common misunderstandings that people have regarding vaccines. Then I challenged them to make a comic encouraging people to get vaccinated.

One of my favorites was called “Be the Best Nurse.” The student chose a heart background and it was the cutest thing ever. More importantly, this comic came from a student who hardly ever talks. There are always a few of those students who are just a little shyer than the rest, but with comics, they’re able to express themselves without drawing attention. This year especially I wanted to give students every opportunity to express themselves and to accept whatever they felt comfortable doing in the library.

It works pretty well for students at the other end of that spectrum, as well. I had another student who was always looking for attention, and not particularly concerned if it was the good or bad kind. With comics, I give students an opportunity to share what they’ve created and talk about their choices. This particular student was always eager to share and stayed productive to make sure he’d be able to.

Exploring the Solar System with Comics

I’m a solar system ambassador with NASA, so when the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, I asked my students to make a comic about the planet. For this one, after we learned about Mars, I simply asked them to teach the reader of their strip about the red planet.

One of my favorite examples from this batch was from a student who had their avatar take off their helmet after landing and then say, “Oh no! Don’t take off your helmet!” I thought it was great because it was a simple story that was nevertheless funny and demonstrated some learning on the topic. Perseverance may be able to survive on Mars, but humans need some protective gear before they can let it all hang out on the red planet.

With comics, though, you don’t need any protective equipment to explore the natural world—or the other worlds in our solar system and beyond. Just dive in and start asking questions! Your students may surprise you with their creative comic answers.

Kelly Burbage recently retired after 27 years in education, including four years as school librarian at Mitchell Math and Science Elementary School. She can be reached at [email protected].

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