Comic books and the fixes that shape our lives 

Hi. My name is Jim, and I’m a comic book nerd.

My childhood was an odd blend of library books, Matchbox cars, and comic books. It was the colorful battles of good versus evil in the pages of comic books that most captured my attention and imagination. 

Every nerd had a dealer, a place with colorful circular racks of comics that revealed new adventures with every squeaky turn.

My dealer of choice was aptly named County Drugs, an old-time corner pharmacy in Gateway Plaza in Jeffersonville that specialized in convenience and service. They knew me. I knew them. They had my titles. I could always get my monthly fix. 

It helped that County Drugs was in the same shopping center as another Lang family fix, Mario’s Pizza. My sister and I knew that a trip to Mario’s meant more than just pizza and sandwiches.  

For Suzanne, Mario’s provided the magical gift of jukebox music, a chance to dance freely around the restaurant to the tunes of Billy Joel and, I kid you not, Anne Murray, while awaiting our food. 

For me, though, Mario’s provided the perfect opportunity to sneak down to County Drugs to snatch up the latest Batman or Uncanny X-Men.

These are the moments that provide hints of who we will be. My sister’s future as an actress, theatre arts teacher, and arts lover began with her childhood dance recitals at Mario’s.

And my lifelong fascination with great storytelling began with Batman’s battles with the Joker, and the X-Men’s struggles with humanity. My monthly comic book fix shaped my love for reading and writing and led me to a high school journalism classroom, where my students’ reporting and storytelling about real people and events shape lives, too.

And now, while I still devour the heroic adventures of Batman and the X-Men like the true comic book nerd that I am, I’m just as hooked by the stories my student journalists report, write, and publish. In a world where truth often seems as incredible as a comic book story, the stories of teen journalists are as essential — as heroic — as the wildest superhero exploits. 

Too often we view our childhood “fixes” merely as distant memories, glimpses of our past selves long forgotten. In truth, though, these fixes – our habits, routines, and simple moments – impact who we are in unthinkable, unpredictable ways. They shape our lives.

They shape our stories. 

They help us shape others’ stories, too. 

Teens who create, produce, and perform often learn the most

by Jim Lang

Two lessons I have learned as a journalism teacher and media adviser over the years:

  • Some of the most valuable student learning often occurs after the school day ends.
  • Some of the most valuable learning occurs when students produce a product or perform.

I considered these thoughts again this week as I dodged various groups of marching band students after school in the hallways. Preparing for their state competition that occurred yesterday in Indianapolis, these students avoided  the gathering storm clouds outside and moved their practice inside.

Passersby who observed these talented musicians would observe every attribute needed to excel in the “real world”:

  • Creative problem solving
  • Complete mastery of skills
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership (every group was student led)
  • Pride in their work
  • Pride in each other

I see this same kind of dedication and learning in our school’s theatre, orchestra, and choral programs. I see it in our radio/TV, NJROTC, and business management classes. And I see it in my own classroom with our newspaper, yearbook, and web media students.

Classes that provide students the chance to learn skills and practice them in a high-stakes environment provide some of the most essential learning and leadership opportunities. And in a time when our educational system overemphasizes the need for standardized testing, these courses provide the necessary creative outlet for real learning.

Just as significantly, they also provide teenagers a “home” within the school, a place where they will create memories and take a special kind of ownership for their learning.

It’s no coincidence that social media is filled with Floyd Central marching band students proud of their sixth-place finish at state this weekend. These students have spend countless hours dedicating themselves to something larger than themselves, all while learning at the highest level possible.

This is the same special kind of learning that occurs when our theatre students work tirelessly to perform Les Miserables. This learning occurs during every orchestra or choral concert, or radio/TV broadcast. It occurs when my own journalism students write a story, design a spread, or publish a newspaper. And for that matter, it occurs anytime students accept the fact that their learning is primarily their responsibility.

When teens in any class or extracurricular activity gather to practice, create, manage, or perform, they do more than just learn at the highest possible level.

They also create an experience that they and others value and appreciate.

And that experience is much more essential, meaningful, and special than any standardized test they’ll ever take.

San Francisco convention reminds us we must protect journalism, arts education in an era of failed leadership

by Jim Lang

On Sunday I returned from a five-day journey to San Francisco with four Floyd Central journalism students and a colleague. We attended the annual spring convention sponsored by the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association.

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Welcome to California: San Francisco provided a valuable learning experience for my students and for me.

As we attended classes and explored the incredibly beautiful city of San Francisco, I was reminded again of how essential strong elective programs like journalism, media, and the arts are to our schools.

Thousands of engaged, excited high school journalists from all over the nation descended on the Marriott Marquis to learn, compete, and improve their journalism skills. San Francisco provided the perfect backdrop to enhance the experience with historic sightseeing.

My fellow yearbook adviser and I simply turned the trip over to our four senior editors. For five days, we followed their itinerary as they chose their classes and escorted us around the city by navigating public transportation. The trip was the ultimate learning experience where we empowered our students to make all decisions. They did not disappoint us once.

Our San Francisco experience reminded me how much students learn when they get out of the classroom. Our journey reminded me of the value of so many similar school-sponsored trips taken by our school’s exceptional theater, orchestra, choral, and band programs. It also reminded me how much more valuable learning is when our students have the opportunity to decide more than simply which bubble to fill in on a standardized test.

Sadly, it seems our public schools are moving away from offering these kinds of real world experiences, especially here in Indiana. If the ISTEP testing debacle of the last week does not alarm you, then, frankly, you are either not paying attention or simply do not care about the quality of our public schools.

The nationwide education”reform” movement that emphasizes accountability through excessive corporate testing has seized control of Indiana schools. Students and teachers will be held “accountable” through their scores on these corporate tests that seem to gobble up more of our time for classroom instruction each year.

Of course, the complete mess that resulted from this week’s testing proves no one is holding the corporations creating and administering these tests “accountable,” despite the millions of dollars they are earning from legislators posing as fiscal conservatives.

Yes, this is the “business model” that so many education reformers and local chambers of commerce advocate for our schools. It’s a model that wastes time, money, and resources. It’s a model that actually increases federal control over our schools and limits local control. It’s a model based on the false premise that we must test, measure, and standardize every aspect of learning.

Most dangerously, though, it’s a model that will lead to the destruction and removal of journalism, media, and arts programs in our schools. Because the truth is that students in these classrooms think critically, solve problems, embrace challenges, develop good judgment, and master all of the skills necessary to recognize the kind of false logic, hypocrisy, and ineptitude of so many of our current political leaders.

It’s already happening. It’s been two years since we eliminated elementary art, music, and physical education in the New Albany-Floyd County Schools. While in San Francisco, I heard from several of my own colleagues from other states about the severe limits or complete elimination of their journalism programs due to severe budget cuts or because their curricular areas are no longer considered important because they’re not measured on their states’ standardized tests.

Our “leaders” continue to slash our most valuable educational programs, all in the name of fiscal responsibility, yet provide enormous sums of money to outsource our children’s educations to corporations and provide bailouts to failing charter schools.

And we just let them do it.

I thought about this a lot last week as I watched my own students get truly excited

Alcatraz was one of my favorite visits...such interesting history.

Alcatraz was one of my favorite visits…such interesting history.

about attending classes where they could improve their skills and learn from some of the best educators and journalists.I considered it as I watched them intently listen and photograph during a fascinating two-hour trek through Alcatraz. I reflected on it again as they embraced the culture of Chinatown and other areas of one of our most vibrant U.S. cities. And I realized just how much more relevant and important this experience was for them than anything they’ll experience as a result of Indiana’s many wasteful education “reforms.”

I also wondered just close we are to seeing a day where elective programs are history in our public schools.

One thing is certain. We need a change in direction in Indiana government. Now. As stewards of our own government and our children’s futures, we must do a far better job of understanding the complex issues of financing and managing our public schools.

Most importantly, however, we must be more vigilant and protective of our invaluable journalism, media, and arts elective programs. We must ensure that they prosper and remain an integral part of our schools in the face of a culture that values accountability over genuine learning and desires an education system that emphasizes test scores over experiences.

We must protect our nation’s student journalists, musicians, and artists, because we’ll so desperately need the kind of leadership and integrity that they can provide to clean up the mess left by our current “leaders” that we continue to elect in Indiana and nationwide.