Classroom Review:

Mother Jones quote interpreted by Zen Pencils
Mother Jones quote interpreted by Zen Pencils


I’ve never reviewed a webcomic on here before, and that’s a shame because I thoroughly enjoy them. Webcomics are awesome because they update often, they’re free (but it’s always a good idea to support them when you can by buying books and donating), and they are often really easily digestible, short stories. I’ve started using many of them in my classroom. Emily Carroll has a great eye for horror and ghost stories, and her site,, is a great resource for short stories. Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal) has a great run of grammar related comics that take some of the stuffiness out of some of my favorite grammar rules. If you’re looking for ongoing, long-form story telling then there are literally hundreds to choose from. I would say PS238, a comic about a school for super-powered children,  is safe for grade school, Strong Female Protagonist, another superhero themed comic about a powerful teen superhero who goes public and quits superhero-ing, is good for high school, The Abominable Charles Christopher, about…a yeti, is just gorgeous, and Dr. McNinja, self-explanatory, is just plain fun. But today we talk about Gavin Aung Than‘s inspirational and educational web comic, Zen Pencils.

One of the things I’ve found with this whole #teachcomics movement is it would be great if more comics were more easily adapted to the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stories I teach, and I know the work we’re doing now will help comics find their way into the classroom canon (…eventually), but I wish there were a lot more GOOD comics aimed squarely at education. I don’t think that’s what Gav over at Zen Pencils set out to do, yet it’s evident that he recognizes the educational implications of his work. The posters he markets are a good indication that he’s heard from more than a few teachers about what he’s doing.


Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" by Zen Pencils
Panels from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” by Zen Pencils

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Gav takes poems, speeches and quotes and turns them into these graphic narratives that transform the original works into something even more dynamic and visual. More importantly, he interprets the pieces, taking a fresh look at the material that is valuable in the classroom. This marriage of visual and original text is a sophisticated form of synthesis that we strive to teach our students to do in the language arts. In fact, if given the opportunity, students will leap at the chance to take material they often see as “boring” and make it into something to which they would react more favorably.

Gav’s art style is also very inviting, which I think makes it that much more adaptable to education. His cartoon heavy style is clean, and not intimidating, so even the beginning comics reader can get into his stuff. He’s also a talented visual storyteller, often using his art to fill in the spaces of some of the more sparse quotes, allowing the message of the piece to land even more powerfully.

Good for ages: That depends. There is a wide range of material to pull from here. You’re just as likely to find Sylvia Plath as you are to find Dr. Seuss, so I would say maybe 9 years old and up. There’s even stuff here for the older set with the four part run Gav did on George Carlin, and other more mature pieces.

Carl Sagan "Pale, Blue Dot" by Zen Pencils
Carl Sagan “Pale, Blue Dot” by Zen Pencils

Classroom Rating: 10/10. I think those of us who are looking for something new to incorporate into our classrooms should really embrace what is going on over on ZenPencils. Your students will thank you, and your colleagues will see you for the innovator you are. If you’re still feeling squeamish, give your students the original texts, too (or better yet, give them a choice between the different versions). Give it a shot, you won’t regret it.

What Could You Teach with Given the wide range of artists, writers, philosophers and thinkers the site covers, any range of classes could take advantage of Gav’s stuff. Most subject areas applies here: art, science, philosophy, social studies, English, even a little math. you have to use it in your class!

Highlights: I like anytime Gav pushes the importance of the arts, but I’m partial to the recent take on Kevin Smith’s “Encourage an Artist.” I think this one gets to the crux of what makes this site so great.

KEVIN SMITH: It costs nothing to encourage an artist
KEVIN SMITH: It costs nothing to encourage an artist

What do you think? Leave a comment or continue the convo on Twitter:@misterwhitaker and follow my partner @comics_teacher too!

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