The NPR Ed team is discovering what teachers do when they’re not teaching. Artist? Carpenter? Quidditch player? Explore our Secret Lives of Teachers series.
It’s a typical day at Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio. For review, Chris Pearce asks his English class to name the parts of speech.
“Pronoun!’ one student responds.
“Proverb! That’s one, right?” says another.
For Pearce — teacher by day, comic artist by night — the material practically writes itself.
“I have a little tab open on my computer when I’m teaching classes,” he says. “So if something occurs to me or somebody says something especially smart or funny, I’ll run over and write it down. I usually have a running record of about 50, 60 things that are up for potential comics.”
After school, Pearce takes one of those ideas into a strip and posts it on his blog Teachable Moments — a daily “comic journal” that collects vignettes of classroom life.
“I’ve been drawing comics since the time that I could, you know, draw,” he says.
“My favorite memories are looking through the newspaper. I’m from New York City, so I always had three or four newspapers to look through every day.”
His father, a New York City firefighter, worked odd shifts that often had him out of the house for a day or more. When he came home, sometimes he would bring his son a collection of Calvin and Hobbes or Tintin, nurturing a growing love for comic art.
Pearce began drawing cartoons in earnest in high school and continued while attending State University of New York at Fredonia. He points to James Kochalka, a Vermont artist who wrote daily comics about his life, as a central inspiration.
“That was the thing that really kicked my butt in gear when I was in college, when somebody said, ‘You should be doing these!’ ” Pearce says.
At that time Pearce also started a side job as a substitute teacher that led him to a master’s program at Boston University.
“I found I had an aptitude for it,” he says. “And I decided after college to kinda go all-in.”
He’s now in his fifth year at Middletown High, about halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati.
But committing to teaching didn’t mean he’d abandon comics — in fact, he seems intent on meshing his two passions. He says his students enjoy participating in the project and aren’t shy about starring in his comics. (For the record, he always asks students’ permission before drawing a character in their likeness).
It’s also a great teaching tool. Pearce says comics can appeal to students of different backgrounds.
“I get the kids who are for sure on the college track, and I get the kids who are coming to ninth grade at a fourth-grade reading level,” he says. “Comics seem to be a great way to kind of bridge between both those people.”
Pearce admits that his students — and probably most Americans — don’t read comics much these days, but he still believes they offer valuable lessons. The work of another comic hero, Harvey Pekar, is a regular fixture in his teaching.
“So he takes these really mundane ideas and he turns them into really dramatic stories,” says Pearce. “And that’s something I think kids really do need to understand. To you, a young teenager, you probably think your life is boring, but everybody else would find it fascinating — you just got to put the pen to the page.”
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