What do superheroes like to read?

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By Katherine Coulibaly

If any high school in New Jersey sounds like a superhero lair, it’s Phillipsburg High School. Perched on a hill above the Delaware River, it offers views of the surrounding New Jersey and Pennsylvania countryside for miles. And it’s here that Faith Roncoroni, Warren County’s 2021-22 Teacher of the Year, uses what was once considered an unconventional way to challenge perspectives, engage her students, and expand on the stories told in a classroom. typical English.

Faith Roncoroni in costume with a young Captain Marvel.

The origin story of Roncoroni’s teacher begins with her mother. Watching her, Roncoroni felt the excitement of the bulletin boards and lesson plans and setting up her class every August. Roncoroni also understood from an early age that teaching was not just about educating students; she saw her mother working with families and outside agencies. His mother had started her career as a Title I/Basic Skills teacher, then had her own classroom and eventually worked in administration, giving Roncoroni a holistic view of education.

Another childhood influence plays a crucial role in Roncoroni’s transformation into an educator. Growing up, Roncoroni’s family shared a love of reading comics. In fact, that’s how his brother learned to read. They visited comic book stores as a family and reading them was a communal experience. With a huge family library to enjoy, she had access to some classics.

Challenge the cannon

Comics weren’t considered a respected art form at that time and certainly weren’t part of his high school curriculum. That changed when she came to Lehigh University.

“My first English teacher, Seth Moglan, was a big inspiration,” Roncoroni recalls. “He was interested in analyzing texts and questioning the accepted canon. He was my first teacher who had us read comics in our regular classroom, and I had never experienced this before.

Other teachers picked up what Moglan started – Professor Edward Whitley, who introduced Roncoroni to Aboriginal literature, is someone she still shares comics with. “Professor Elizabeth Dolan let me read comics that are about comics. I even had the chance to do independent study with her and create my own comic about the disease.

This project helped Roncoroni process his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and Roncoroni’s experiences as a caregiver through creative writing.

Even his anti-racism graduate work with Dr. Jiménez explored comics like Gene Yang’s “American Born Chinese” and Saladin Ahmed’s “Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn.”

“All of these experiences led me to defy canon and what we had been led to believe was literature,” Roncoroni said. “I want my students to see how they can use literature to affirm themselves and others. Too often these terms have been used to alienate people and limit the voices that were valued. »

Roncoroni’s study continues, and she strives to identify her own biases and biases so she can correct them before they affect her students.

“It’s important for me to be aware of how I phrase things, the types of assignments I give students, the texts I teach, and the assumptions I can make,” Roncoroni said.

Roncoroni teaches several levels of English as well as two different options on comics.

“I love coming to class and talking about visual storytelling and being able to bring in elements of stereotypical literature like word choice analysis, but the structures are really different,” Roncoroni said. “And what makes it really cool is that comics aren’t cool anymore. Geek culture is cool now, and Marvel and DC have made it possible with movies and TV shows.

Roncoroni is happy to introduce her students to other scenarios that they may not be familiar with. She loves teaching comics with stories that challenge the status quo, incorporate diverse characters, and focus on more relevant storylines.

“The comics touched on story issues that many educators were uncomfortable teaching or felt unfamiliar with,” Roncoroni said. “But the comics brought to light different events and injustices. I think that’s powerful and a big part of why people have turned to this medium.

Phillipsburg student Tierra works on a jam comic in Roncoroni’s class.

A room full of stories and enthusiasm

Roncoroni’s classroom is full of bookshelves overflowing with comics, graphic novels, and manga, a form of comics that originated in Japan. Vibrant works of art cover the walls. Students are encouraged to borrow and discuss books that interest them with Roncoroni who has apparently read them all. Her enthusiasm for the subject couldn’t be more evident, right down to the comic book painted boots she’s wearing, a gift from a former student.

One project that students particularly enjoy is a collaborative comic strip. A pupil begins a sequence with a drawing and a text. When time is called, it is passed to another student who adds their input, advancing the story. As it makes its way through the classroom, the story takes twists and turns that the story writer had no way of predicting. After the time is spent on the story, Roncoroni and the students gather to view the finished product and the amazing results, a combination of incredible artwork and innovative storytelling. It’s easy to see how engaged students are when they pick up books from shelves, read during downtime, and participate in projects.

Roncoroni also uses video games to help students make connections and appreciate the timeless realm of human storytelling.

“We analyze the video games and look at how the shots are framed, and we compare them to the different references [i.e., the comic book story lines that inspired the video games], and we’re looking at how history played a part in why the shot was framed that way,” Roncoroni said. “I like to get my students to think outside the stereotypes of ‘great’ authors and go beyond what they have been told is ‘literature’ to really connect with the texts. Whether you like to read poetry, short stories, or novels, everyone loves some form of literature. You don’t need words for it to be literature, which is really awesome and opens the door for so many other people to connect with different forms.

Interact with comic creators

Roncoroni’s enthusiasm led her to connect her students with comic book creators such as Greg Anderson Elysee, author of the “Is’nana the Were-Spider” comic book series, based on the West African legend of ‘Anansi the spider.

“I love introducing this series to my students because it really challenges anti-darkness in society and is extremely empowering for my students,” Roncoroni said. “Like many comic book writers and artists, he has a strong connection to education. Many of these creators are teachers, have taught, or have educators in their family, so they’re very receptive when teachers They are contacting them. Comic creators have spoken to my students via Skype or Google Meets.”

When the COVID pandemic prevented in-person interaction with creators, Roncoroni was able to host virtual meetups, which meant a lot to his students.

“I had a few creators talking with my students during COVID, which was exciting for us,” Roncoroni said. “The pandemic has been really tough on students; it was amazing to have authors connect with my students like that.

The students had become accustomed to interacting with creators thanks to a huge project Roncoroni had been running since 2015. As a liaison with the school’s Anime Club staff, Roncoroni helped run a wildly popular local Comic Con.

“My students can’t afford tickets to Comic Con in New York, and neither can most people who live in this neighborhood,” Roncoroni said. “So they work for an entire school year, and all summer, to bring Comic Con to our community. They email creators, they send out monthly cards to encourage participation, they work with local comic shops to get books, and local restaurants to provide food. It’s inspiring to see how hard they work. In fact, they’re working so hard on the event that they’re not really enjoying it! But they bring positive change to the community and make sure people have access to something special that makes people feel represented.

Phillipsburg student Alyssa in front of one of the many shelves full of comics and graphic novels in Roncoroni’s classroom.

students as superheroes

This isn’t the only project Roncoroni students have undertaken to ensure underrepresented people have their voices heard.

“My students went to DASACC, which is the local domestic violence agency in Warren County. There they work with the county chief and state agencies to make sure the paperwork is translated so they’re accessible to Spanish-speaking communities,” Roncoroni said. “They’ve sat down with administration to make sure that tampon and pad dispensers are distributed throughout the school with free products. have met with school nurses to make sure the ordered product works for the students who will be using it. My students are absolutely phenomenal. If anyone knows the high school students who are coming in right now, you can’t help but comment. be blown away by their attention and awareness.

It seems clear that these students are writing their own superhero origin stories, and Faith Roncoroni’s influence plays a big role.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of NJEA journal and provides content and support for njea.org. She can be reached at [email protected]

Students express themselves on comics in class

“My dad collects comics and I got into it about 10 years ago. I like different styles of art. I really didn’t like reading before, but I’ve read about 50 comics now.

Tony, Grade 11

“Using comics makes me more engaged in English lessons. Ms. Roncoroni is my favorite teacher. More people should like comics, even if you don’t like to read.

Alyssa, Grade 11

“Comics are fun and I’m much more into fantasy than real life. I think comics and graphic novels are great ways to study literature and make it fun.

Blaze, 12th grade

“Manga and comics go hand in hand. Character types in Japanese manga are extremely varied. The characters are really interesting and you get a much more intense moral conflict.

Winston, Grade 11

You don’t need a bat signal to connect with Faith

Roncoroni looks forward to supporting other educators interested in incorporating comics into their classroom or starting their own Comic Cons in their district. It can be attached to [email protected].

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