Accidental Academic #2 - Making the Grade
The one where I write an educational comic book.
Over the past few weeks, you might have noticed me sharing images and links related to Making the Grade, a comic I wrote detailing Ozzy and Daisy’s cheating escapades in the classroom over the course of a semester at Berkowitz High School. I wrote Making the Grade as part of an update to the Integrating Ethics: From Thought to Action modules Creative Studios produced for the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. I’ve posted links here and there on social media, but in light of this cool article published by UTEP’s University Communications about the comic, I thought it be great to do my own write up about the project’s production history and what I hope comes of it in the long run.
The idea that eventually became Making the Grade originally started off as a 10-15 minute short film concept. As mentioned, the THGC asked Creative Studios to create an update to the Ethics Modules, one that focused on academic integrity for the K-12 and early college crowd of students. Basically, I had to write a short cautionary tale about cheating that could be used as a teaching tool, but one that was also fun and not preachy. How’s that for a challenge?
Along with the short film, we were also tasked with creating a short series of what we all so affectionately call “talking head videos”, which are basically interviews with someone talking at the cameras about a particular topic (we produce A LOT of talking head videos, and I’ll probably do a write up on that later on). With that being said, you can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of producing a short film for work. I was approaching it as a creative break from the endless sea of talking heads (even though we were still producing some, but that’s not the point), and as a way to flex my writing and story muscles. As expected, the talking heads were simple enough for the team to do. We cranked those bad boys out just fine (you can check them out below), but the short film was a little more problematic to say the least.
I started writing a script for the short film in early 2018, occasionally taking time to have discussions with my boss Steve on how to incorporate certain teaching aspects into the narrative. In coming up with the story, I pretty much just thought back to some of my own experiences in high school (kind of bad to admit when the whole story is about cheating), and tried my best to write something relatable and short, but with enough of an active plot to keep things interesting.
We realized early on, however, that trying to get the people and resources together to film a 10 minute short was easier said than done. We reached out to some faculty friends in hopes of securing shooting locations at nearby schools, and even managed to cast early iterations of Ozzy and Daisy (called them Waffles and Pancake for the longest time as part of an inside joke), but things didn’t move beyond that. Making a film is hard (a good one anyway), even if when it’s short! On top of all that, we were also struggling with cracking a story that somehow accomplished what the THGC wanted AND didn’t immediately come off as a terrible after school special.
At some point in the summer, after some long brainstorming sessions on how to fix this problem, I recommended that we produce a motion comic instead. My logic? Motion comics are simple enough to animate, and we’d be able to easily reformat it as a traditional comic to boot. Same story, two individual end results! Plus who doesn’t love comics, right? In the end we agreed to move forward with the traditional comic, with the idea to animate a motion comic at a later time.
With a clear plan now in place, I rushed to finish the scripts. I broke up the story into 4 individual issues, each ending at crucial moments in the story, and passed them on to Mitsu, the art director in our team, to illustrate. Over the following months, we had several storyboard sessions to get a vibe for how things should look and feel, examined other comics for inspiration, and did A LOT of copy editing. By the way, thanks to everyone who helped us out during this phase of the project, even though I think a part of Mitsu died in the process.
Apart from writing all the content for the website’s update, Steve also created a set of curriculum adapted from certain plot points. These “Consider the Ethics” pages separate the 4 individual issues with the educational context of the story, tying everything together nicely into a final product (there was this whole other thing with us trying to come up with a title for it, but I’m choosing to skip all that…for reasons. All that matters is that our friend and colleague Elena pitched Making the Grade as a title, and we went with it).
We officially published Making the Grade on the Ethics page in January, along with the talking head videos and updated web content. It’s still a bit too early to really see how effective the comic is, but early response has been great! All the kids we’ve shown it to seem to really enjoy it, and several educators have come forward with praise, going as far as to incorporate the comic into their own class curriculum, but you can read more about that in the UTEP article I linked up above.
Moving forward, I’m hoping the comic makes some educators open their eyes to nontraditional forms of content delivery in the classroom. There are plenty of fun and engaging ways to teach any subject matter, many of which go beyond talking head videos or lectures. Like podcasts for example (foreshadowing a future blog here peeps). I’d absolutely love to write and produce more educational comics and stories for anyone willing to rock the boat a bit, be it another story for the THGC, other academic groups, or for individual faculty members.
On a personal level, I’d like for Making the Grade to lead to other comic projects outside of academia. There are slight whispers in the air about something like that happening, but let’s revisit that later…