Illya Kowalchuk Gets Graphic With Pop Culture Classroom

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In 2012, the year of the first Denver Comic Con, Pop Culture Classroom released its Storytelling Through Comics curriculum to Denver Public Schools. And for the past three years, proceeds from Denver Comic Con have funded both staffing and supplies for the Classroom, a local nonprofit founded in 2010 (as Comic Book Classroom) whose goal is to promote literacy through the medium of sequential art and storytelling.

The Classroom’s director of education, Illya Kowalchuk, a former middle-school teacher at Horizons K-8 School, was well situated to develop educational curriculum based on comics: He’d been doing just that in the Boulder Valley School District since 2005. “As a generalist, I got to teach electives, and I got to teach whatever I wanted as long as it had educational value,” recalls Kowalchuk. Even so, comic books weren’t used in classrooms when he started out. “They weren’t really celebrated, and I felt like I was taking a risk bringing my Xbox and comic-book collection into the classroom,” he admits. But he found the Boulder Valley administrators to be very open-minded.
As were the students. Almost immediately, Kowalchuk noticed that kids who weren’t performing well in other classes were standout students in his comic-books course. “I found out early on that kids are really interested in pop culture, and it’s a great tool for engaging students,” he says. He also discovered that students who enjoyed his elective were coming to other classes, like algebra, “more prepared to learn.”

Students appreciated that their teacher valued things they cared about. “They knew I played Halo and I wasn’t going to look down on them for liking it,” remembers Kowalchuk. But comic books didn’t merely help him relate to his students; they turned out to be a valuable tool for explaining advanced concepts like metaphor, too. “The metaphors are there,” he points out. “It’s just a matter of finding them.”

Kowalchuk didn’t just draw from his teaching experience; he pulled from his early encounters with comics. Back in high school, he remembers, he’d read “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Bloom County” before bed. “That, for me, was a way to understand the world,” he says. “I didn’t really enjoy novels much; it was just who I was.”

Like the early creators of comic books, as a teacher, Kowalchuk says, he “kept trying new things and pushing the boundaries.” And that led him to Pop Culture Classroom, where he’s able to experiment with cutting-edge curriculum and reach students in exciting, unconventional ways.

Kowalchuk and his Pop Culture colleagues designed the Storytelling Through Comics curriculum so that anybody could use it, regardless of whether they’re familiar with comics. “We wanted to remove all barriers to entry, so we created a flexible unit that’s appropriate for five, ten or fifteen days of instruction,” Kowalchuk explains. The curriculum gives students an educational experience that includes instruction in reading and vocabulary, writing and the creation of original comics, and it includes everything a teacher needs to teach comics, even video and art lessons.

The organization charges $50 for its curriculum, but the reading list is free on its website. “It was necessary for us to get this into the hands of teachers, because we know pop culture is on the fringes in education,” says Kowalchuk. Even so, over the past few years the curriculum has popped up “in districts all up and down the Front Range, and in Pueblo and Cheyenne,” Kowalchuk says. “We’ve done direct services in at least thirty locations in the last two years.”

And Kowalchuk reports that when he recently asked a fifth-grade teacher in the Adams County School District if she was going to use his curriculum again next year, she replied: “Absolutely! The word is out about the comics unit.”

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