East Grand Rapids — Wealthy Elementary’s first comic-con had all the classic elements: “Star Wars” music playing over the speakers, panel discussions in the corners of the gym, students dressed in characters and others sharing their graphic novels.
“It is cool,” said third-grader Stella Reinhardt, who was dressed up as the fictional TV character Heather from “Liv and Maddie.” “I like being able to walk around and see everyone’s work and writing.”
Fifth-grader teacher Tim Saunders said he had talked with Principal Carlye Allen to begin planning for the comic-con in 2020, meeting the Monday before the COVID lockdown. The idea was then put on hold as the district maneuvered the pandemic.
Last fall, after connecting with fourth-grade teacher Delaney Klein and third-grade teacher Emiliya Heerema, the team decided to host the event this spring, with plans to make it an annual activity.
The comic-con was focused on upper elementary students, since writing lessons in third, fourth and fifth grade are departmentalized. Heerema teaches writing for all of third grade. In fourth grade, students focus on graphic novels only. In fifth grade, Saunders teaches a fantasy unit in pre-publication written by Carl Anderson; his students had the option to write a text or prose story, or they could create a graphic novel.
One challenge in upper elementary writing is balancing exciting plot events with character-driven stories, Saunders said. Another is creating immersive worlds and developing epic tales, while trying to focus on a complete four- to six-scene story from within that world.
To help with those challenges, students read about seven to nine book series and utilize a handful of professionally published mentor texts that help students see how to meet those goals, he said. Now, after this year, they also have fifth-grade texts that can be used as mentor texts for future projects.
Character Development and Creating a World
At the comic-con, fifth-graders led panel discussions on such topics as character building, map making, drawing and building a world within the story. They also visited different stations to read students’ graphic novels and leave notes with positive comments.
“The students came up with a lot of the ideas,” Saunders said. “With the panel topics, I didn’t say ‘I need someone to talk about building a character or drawing.’ The students were the ones who decided what they wanted to present.”
In one of the gym’s corners, fifth-grade Blair Haddad led a panel discussion on drawing.
“I enjoyed that I got to share my artwork,” Blair said. “It was like being in a play, but you got the opportunity to draw it and do your own thing.”
Fourth-grader Quinn Freudigmann said he enjoyed the panel discussions, especially one about building your character’s world, which he plans to use as he develops his graphic novel series, “Cris & Cam.”
“I learned about building the world around the character and just not at school,” Quinn said. His graphic novel, “Cris & Cam: The Spelling Bee Smackdown” is about two friends and how they deal with the stress of a spelling bee competition. Quinn hasn’t completed the book yet, but does have an outline.
“My inspiration for the story was our school’s spelling bee because it was actually really fun,” he said.
Fifth-grader Stella Chung found inspiration for her graphic novel, “The Trailblazers,” in her friends and some of the situations they have faced in their lives.
“My thoughts were to show how people have faults but they can come back stronger and can use these faults to make the world more beautiful,” Stella said.
Saunders said the school’s first comic-con was a great start and he hopes that next year’s will be bigger.
“What was really impressive to me was the depth of their writing,” he said. “They kept the stories focused on characters and their motivations, challenges, wants and how they change. It was so gratifying to read what they created as young writers.”
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