May Community Game Changer

MSU Denver’s Christina Angel co-created Pop Culture Classroom, which uses pop culture media like comic books to improve youth literacy. Photo by Mark Woolcott

English professor Christina Angel helps kids learn literacy through pop culture

By Doug McPherson

Christina Angel gets it. She understands teachers are in a knock-down, drag-out fight for kids’ attention these days. Twitter, Facebook, cool cell phones, life-like video games—no big newsflash here: Kids like to have fun. So why not make learning more fun?

That’s what Angel was thinking when she helped create Pop Culture Classroom.

Pop Culture Classroom is an educational nonprofit that uses comic books and other pop-culture media to improve—and add some sizzle to—literacy and arts education for fifth through eighth graders in metro Denver schools.

“We are absolutely battling for student’s attention,” says Angel, a Metropolitan State University of Denver alumna (B.A. English ’98) who went on to earn a Ph.D and now is an English professor at the University. “Learning should be fun. It should engage the learner.”

After just a few short years, the program is reaching massive numbers of kids and adults—transforming their lives and revolutionizing education at the same time. Angel reports the program has reached more than 2,500 students in classrooms and 8,700 more via special events for kids and their families that include design, crafting and drawing lessons.

One of those special events is Denver Comic Con, an annual convention that shares education-specific programing and raises operating funds for Pop Culture Classroom. It has become Denver’s largest convention and the fourth largest in the entire country. In 2013 it drew more than 61,000 people. In 2014, more than 86,000 attended.

“We’re reaching people from all walks of life—from teachers, to students, to families, to writers and pop-culture creators—to celebrate pop culture, promote diversity and be a positive force in our community,” Angel says.

One reason it’s caught on so well, she adds, is that pop culture motivates all types of learners.

“Students are drawn to the types of media through which we are teaching them. Their lives have developed in such a visually dense, iconographic world. So we’re using this shift in culture as an education opportunity. Combining text and imagery helps kids—especially the kids who struggle with engaging in education.”

Angel says visuals offer clear advantages in helping students learn. “Visuals are inviting, they spur creativity, they pique interest. You want to interact with them, pick them up and find out what they’re all about,” she says. “Students also comprehend them faster.”

Becky Franks-Cassidy, a teacher who works with Pop Culture Classroom, agrees and says it’s a “transcending moment” when she sees students smiling and having a good time while learning.

“We’ve had so many parents and guardians thanking us for making the program possible for them to bring their whole family,” Franks-Cassidy says. “Parents are so excited their children are learning and having fun. Teachers are excited about the extra resources and about using comics in the classroom. Give these kids something to get them interested and they bloom. It is an amazing experience.”

Angel says she wants to maintain a connection to the Denver-area hometown roots for Pop Culture Classroom, but she also holds bigger dreams.

“I think we have a mission that empowers people and learning, and I hope to see it spread across the globe.”

Content Provided By Metropolitan State University of Denver

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