It’s no secret the arts are disappearing from standards-stressed urban classrooms. Victoria Alvarez, MAT Teaching of History student, says the arts have a role beyond just an art classroom—she wants arts integrated into core subjects like history.
Her after-school project, My Comics My Story, at Hernandez Middle School in Gage Park, serves as a space for students to engage with and create dialogue around social issues through comics. The project is an outgrowth of her own comics series, Scholar, which plays off the term “Chola,” a reference to a blue collar Latina identity.
“There are things kids are expected to learn at home, from their friends, but often times that doesn’t happen,” Alvarez said. “Comics are effective at engaging in dialogue about social issues, to ask, ‘Why does this happen?’”
One comic Alvarez uses depicts her character, ScholaR, watching a rather misogynistic telenovela favorited by ScholaR’s mother. Alvarez used the comic to start a discussion about the meaning of acting like a girl and acting like a boy. She says students often just need a slight prompt like a comic to start their minds racing; one question sets off an entire conversation.
Alvarez helps guide the discussions to address broader social issues. For example, as students explored gender identity, Alvarez pointed out that identity needs to be understood within the context of one’s entire life—their location in the Gage Park neighborhood, their race, their family composition and more.
Comics are an effective teaching device because they encourage creative thinking, Alvarez said. If a teacher puts a blank canvas in front of a student and provides just a bit of structure, students are encouraged to explore on their own.
“They look beyond what they have been instructed to do, beyond the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to do anything and problem solve for themselves,” Alvarez said. “The arts are a great tool for questioning others, and I feel that’s something a lot of students aren’t being taught.”
Alvarez is working with a team in New York City focused on building comics-based curriculum specifically for newly-arrived immigrant high school students. She says she wants to host her own after-school programming in Chicago to specifically engage immigrant children and children of immigrant parents.
Read more of Alvarez’s comics at her website: scholarcomics.com
by Robert Schroeder