Battle Literacy with the Powerful Help of Super Heroes

Denver Pop Culture Con (DPCC), previously known as Denver Comic Con, brings in over 100,000 people every year. But the organization that created the event, and what they do for students all around the Denver metro area, might just be Denver’s best-kept secret.

The Colorado charitable organization, Pop Culture Classroom, originally known as Comic Book Classroom, first came together in 2010. Their goal was to improve students’ learning experiences through the use of comic book media.

“It was a group of friends who were interested in helping kids learn how to read through comics because that was how many of them learned how to read,” explained Sam Fuqua, the executive director of Pop Culture Classroom who oversees all of the organization’s operations. “They knew that pop culture, and comics, in particular, could be a gateway to literacy.”

The program’s first version of Storytelling Through Comics (STC), a literacy and arts curriculum using comic books, debuted in local schools in 2011. Soon after, the founders of Pop Culture Classroom decided that Denver needed its own Comic Con. With the help of dozens of volunteers and generous donations, the first DPCC was launched in 2012. It was a huge success.

How Pop Culture Classroom Works

In keeping with Pop Culture Classroom’s mission to increase literacy and inspire a love of learning through the tools pop culture, all proceeds from DPCC fund the staffing, supplies, and infrastructure of the Pop Culture Classroom program. At its on-site classroom, it hosts a variety of workshops once a week, with drop-in hours twice a week and week-long summer camps. Through comic books, cosplay, anime, video games, and role-playing board games, teachers find creative ways to teach literacy, math, and science. They also focus on skills such as teamwork, problem-solving and finding value in whatever hobby or activity individual students enjoy.

Classroom Program Director Matt Slayter keeps a team of teachers on staff that bring their individual expertise to the pop culture table.

“I try to have a really well-rounded team,” said Slayter. “A lot of our teachers are professional comic book creators. We’ve got some teachers who are experts in video games. We have some teachers who are experienced at role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and things like that. We also have teachers with expertise in cosplay.”

Slayter’s personal specialty is video games. He learned to read by playing games like Pokémon and Zelda.

“Those are text-heavy games that don’t have voice-overs, and so it gives children a reason to need to be able to read,” said Slayter. “If you just give them a book, some kids may be drawn to that, but others may be struggling readers. They look at a book and say, ‘I’m bad at this; why would I want to do this?’ But if you put a video game in their hands, in order to play the game, they have to read what’s going on. That gives them an incentive to be able to decode the words and interpret what the game is trying to tell them.”

The onsite workshops are for ages eight and older. Children, teens, and adults are welcome. Slayter says the program likes to promote cross-generational community building. Younger kids are even welcome if parents stay to help them with explanations and activities.

This year’s drop-in hours brought kids from the Heart and Hand Center. Pop Culture Classroom collaborates with the Heart and Hand Center to bring access to creative tools for students of all backgrounds to use. The children are quizzed about the history of the video games they play; they work on digital drawing, create pieces with a 3D printer and engage in various other activities for two hours.

Twelve-year-old Symone Saulnier is one of the students who attends the onsite location during drop-in hours. She started playing video games at the age of five. None of her siblings share her love for gaming, but at Pop Culture Classroom she gets a chance to show off her vast knowledge of video game history with others who share her passion for games like Pokémon and Mario Brothers.

Not everyone sees comic books as useful tools for learning. Slayter explains that for people who aren’t familiar with comic books, there’s a big misconception that they’re all about superheroes. But graphic novels and comic books today include topics such as puberty, history, LGTBQ, religion, death and many more. Different types of comic books are aimed at different age groups. Slayter stresses that it’s always best to read the material before your child does, to ensure that it’s appropriate.

Although Pop Culture Classroom encourages material such as comic books, graphic novels, and manga, Slayter says reading regular chapter books is just as important.

“We’re not here to say Hamlet isn’t important and Shakespeare isn’t important or classic literature isn’t important,” said Slayter. “This is another way to engage kids. What we like to say, especially to high school teachers, is that if you’re teaching a classic literature text, pair it with a comic book. Find a comic book that has similar themes and pair those things together and then you can have really rich conversations.”

Photo Credit to Esteban Fernandez

Benefits of Using Comic Media to Improve Literacy

Executive Director Sam Fuqua says the week-long summer camps they offer give kids more of an opportunity to explore pop culture and what it can teach them.

“If I’m a kid who’s into anime, I may think I want to come just learn about anime,” Fuqua said. “Well, they’re not only going to learn some simple ways to draw anime, but they’re also going to learn about narrative structure and the art of storytelling using hero versus villain through multiple perspectives.”

Students will have a similar experience with the cosplay workshop.

Fuqua explained, “In cosplay, they’re learning how to bring their vision of a costume from something they’re just thinking about in their head to the practical reality of sewing it and piecing it together. And how you can find materials and pieces of your concept when you don’t have a lot of money. It’s a real hands-on traditional skill, which I think is pretty cool.”

Day workshops are only $10 and sometimes are even free. The summer camps are a little more expensive, but there are scholarships available in order to support families and students who would otherwise be unable to participate in PCC programs. Fuqua wants to make sure lower-income kids have access to creative resources. The summer camps are a little more expensive, but there are scholarships available.

Pop Culture Classroom welcomes all kids and hopes to reach even more. Slayter says that parents can get frustrated when they see their child wasting time on a video game like Fortnite all the time. But there are ways to try and relate to what your child enjoys.

“You can really dig into that and say, I see that the world in Fortnite is really cartoony, but you’re going around shooting people,” Slayter said. “Let’s talk about why the creators decided to make that aesthetic. Let’s talk about the choices. So, there’s always a way, even if you don’t see any value on the surface of what your child might be interested in. We’re here to dig deeper into that and find the value.”