Spreading the Nerd Word at GMercyU

I completed my MS Reading Specialist degree requirements at Gwynedd Mercy University in 2008.  I had a unique perspective in being the only male and almost only secondary student in the program.  One of the repeating topics of concern was the idea that boys don’t read, don’t like to read, and were falling behind.  I began to ask what were boys being given to read and remarking on how I didn’t like to read those titles either (I always relate how Anna Karenina almost destroyed my love of reading in high school).  I was lucky enough to have dynamic and open-minded professors who encouraged me to research and write about using comics as one tool to engage these students. ( Here is a link to the paper I eventually wrote – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0q0hv_n2-9xajBkejd5aVd2N3c )

This is the paper and initial research that began to fundamentally change me as an educator – the idea of bringing in my passion to ignite my students.  To bring in a tool that was, at the time, not looked upon with much praise or value.  After writing the paper, however, I still did not implement the use of comics in my classroom- not for several years.  Two people eventually gave me the final push to integrate comics – my own son, designated a “reluctant reader” – and a student with whom I was having difficulty reaching (more of that story here – (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/how-i-use-comic-books-as-a-learning-tool-in-my-social-studies-classroom/) .  I began finding much success and decided to bring my passion to the greater world, beginning in June of 2016 (https://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/06/08/best-worst-year-ever/) .  In 2016, I went from seriously considering leaving teaching, to reinventing myself and loving every minute of it.

Long-story short – I was published in a local newspaper after Dutch Godshalk (@dutchgodshalk)  – an amazing writer – check him out – published an interview with me on the front page of the local paper – http://www.montgomerynews.com/amblergazette/news/comics-in-the-classroom-how-one-wissahickon-teacher-uses-comic/article_aceed392-c658-5dfb-bec2-e339fecacd56.html – when my picture made the front cover, my kids went crazy!  After this was published, Gwynedd Mercy reached out to me to also conduct an interview.  My wife and children were asked to come to the interview and we were met with a catered lunch, bags of goodies for my children, and a most welcoming hostess – Kirsten.  It was such an amazing experience – to be welcomed back by my Alma Mater in such a rewarding manner.  When the interview was published – I was placed on the front cover of the university’s magazine – I am still laughing at the picture.  I received some phone calls and emails from alumni and friends – but the hoopla died down after a few weeks.  However, this was not to be the end of my new relationship with the university. (https://www.gmercyu.edu/career-outcomes/griffin-success-stories/tim-smyth)

Another person from GMercyU, Nick, reached out to me and kept in contact – telling me that he really enjoyed the article and could relate to it in a number of ways.  He then reached out to the dean of education and business and set up a conversation that led to me being invited to be a guest lecturer at the university.  I presented on Jan. 31st, 2017 – almost a decade after I had begun my initial journey at the university.  Needless to say, I was nervous and did not know what to expect – this was the ivory tower, the hallowed halls of post-secondary education.  However, my experience could not have been further from this expectation.  I was able to meet Nick in person (we talked a lot of nerd shop) and then had lunch with the dean and an immensely dedicated education professor – Mary Jo Pierantozzi.  They treated me to lunch in the cafeteria as many students came and went.  They knew many students and interacted with them in a family-friendly manner.  We did not eat in an executive dining room, set apart from the masses.  I was thoroughly impressed with the sense of community I was experiencing at Gwynedd Mercy.  We talked shop about education and, by the end of lunch, had so many ideas on how to change the world and education!  These were not the stand-offish academics that I had unfairly stereotyped in my mind.  These were real people with real passions – fired up about education and making a difference.

When lunch was over, we walked to the room where I was to present.  Nick was awesome as he helped me transport my boxes and graphic novels to and from my car.  Not knowing what to expect, as any educator, I over-prepared and wasn’t able to just pick a few good examples.  The students were standing outside of the room, waiting to go in.  I did not know what to expect from them either – but, as a teacher of juniors and sometimes seniors in high school, these college students didn’t look all that different.  Again – I noticed the warm interactions between the adults and students, even as we waited for the classroom to be cleared.  As we shuffled in, the tech department rep made sure I was set up and comfortable (after we talked some nerd shop! – seriously, I have found in my travels, that everyone is a fan of comics – to one degree or another).  I was introduced and then began my presentation.

The crowd was a mix of professors and students – approximately 40 in total.  I had to laugh internally when many of the students pulled out notebooks and began to write down some of the information I was sharing.  Me – college students were taking notes on me!  Ha!  I always start out shaky and nervous, but then the passionate nerd in me takes over and I just start talking.  Several professors and students asked me some excellent questions and we genuinely interested in the information.  One great question centered on how students relate to comics and each other in my classroom.  That there are cliques and students who would not respond well to comics.  My answer was that comics cut across all social status groups – that while I may not be able to reach every student, there is enough diversity to allow for many personal connections.  We also discussed how being a nerd today is a self-described compliment, that so much has changed since I was in school

I watched the audience as I showed a clip of John Lewis accepting the National Book Award for March.  It is an emotional but quick speech – relating how coloreds were not allowed to have library cards.  Yet, here he was, accepting this book award. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqmYNOPVyO4&t=45s) It was a universal message of hope and redemption and a reminder of why we are educators.  I noticed students nodding their heads and smiling when I discussed the diversity in comics and how we need to see ourselves in our heroes.  When I spoke about the impact of comics on my own children, the audience understood and internalized my feelings.  The presentation went better than I had hoped – I only wish I could have kept them for many more hours.

The first part of my message is always that I am a rigorous and challenging teacher.  My students write, write, and write more – we focus on textual evidence, analysis, annotations/close reading, persuasion – even culminating in writing two research papers a year.  Some people may initially view me, and my presentation idea, as a gimmick or way around rigor.  This could not be further from the truth.  It is after showing how I use comics and visual literacy to promote reading and writing that I begin to win converts.  I show Common Core standards and how comics are a perfect tool to use (one of many) to meet and surpass these standards.  But we also discussed the idea of breaking from the textbook, allowing for imagination, and giving student strengths to show through.  I give GMercyU a lot of credit for having me present – it is still an uphill battle convincing educational leaders of the value of this medium. I loved that I was able to have the audience laugh, be emotional, and to connect on a personal level to comics in education.  I was also able to invite them to an Edcamp which I am running on April 22nd (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/edcamphuman-tickets-30742174672) and to share in a collaborative google doc being shared with educators on how to teach March – (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dwm96U7CfvPtRgc6Azd3mO3bF8wy4z4_i9tGh-1D2Ao/edit?usp=sharing) – I always reinforce the idea that we need to collaborate – social media is such a wonderful vehicle for this idea.  I remember, as a beginning teacher, how confining the four walls of my classroom were – but now, I am co-planning the teaching of March with a teacher in Norway, engaging authors on Twitter, participating in Twitter chats, etc – such a wonderful time to be an educator.

When the presentation was over, I had many students waiting after to speak with me.  One student even asked for my autograph!  Me!  This was certainly a first for me and I was happy to do it.  Students came to shake my hand, tell me their names, and to let me know that they would be in contact with me.  I was humbled by the experience – to know that I might have an impact on a classroom in the future.  That I helped students see beyond standardized testing, observation frameworks, etc.  One student even asked if I would teach a course and if these resources could be included in ongoing college courses.  This is when I began to think that this could be taken to another level – perhaps, one day, I will look into teaching a higher education course on integrating comics on the classroom.

To bring this blog back to a beginning idea – my mental prejudices of higher education were shattered throughout my experiences with Gwynedd Mercy University.  I found passionate, warm, and caring adults who cared deeply for the success and engagement of the young people in front of them.  I was welcomed and made to feel as if I was an official part of the family.  I have already been welcomed back for happy hours and to be kept in the loop for future events.  Many issues in education come from the wide chasm between high schools and universities – there is little interaction between the two (at least in my experience).  I now see that we all need to reach out to one another – to open the lines of communication.  A few years back, I had sent out a survey to PA university professors about their expectations and experiences – the number one comment was that they would be happy to engage with primary and secondary teachers.  I know fully understand the value of this connection and look forward to many more experiences.  To close, I will share an email I received from Dean Pfleger – one which will help me to stay motivated as I spread the nerd word –

Thank you for a wonderful presentation yesterday!   The students and faculty in attendance were thrilled with the information you provided. I think you opened a lot of minds to a new way of presenting material to classrooms. It was a pleasure meeting you and having some time over lunch to chat. You are a remarkable teacher.


My parting words – put yourself out there.  Blog. Share your ideas and make connections. You never know where it will lead you – but you’ll never know unless you try.

One thought on “Spreading the Nerd Word at GMercyU

  1. Quite a journey Tim! Keep up the good work–students NEED all of the learning tools in comics! Imagery, narrative, heroic qualities, dramatic tension, wonder, mystery etc…i am NOT surprised your message has been well received. It is a great one!
    P.s. Nothing wrong with “nerd” in my books…another word we have to redefine in pop culture!!

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