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May 29, 2024

Teaching Channel Talks Episode 93: Making Science Fun with Educational Comics (w/ Laura Balliett, Cool School Comics)

In this episode of Teaching Channel Talks, Laura Balliett, creator of Cool School Comics, joins our host Dr. Wendy Amato to share her journey in making science learning accessible and captivating for every learner. Together, they delve into how these one-page science cartoons engage students and enhance their understanding of scientific concepts. This conversation highlights how Cool School Comics aligns with educational standards, supports flexible learning environments, and meets the diverse needs of educators and learners.

Our Guest


Laura Balliett is the creator of Cool School Comics, a powerful learning tool designed to make scientific concepts accessible to all students. As an educator with over 15 years of experience, Laura noticed that despite her efforts to create engaging, hands-on science activities, many of her students struggled due to literacy barriers. Driven by her desire to help her students succeed, Laura created Cool School Comics and watched as students who would previously shut down when they saw a wall of text, begin to understand and engage with complex scientific concepts for the first time.

Connect with Laura on LinkedIn | Instagram

Our Host

Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Resources for Continued Learning

Cool School Comics is more than just a comic; it’s a powerful learning tool designed to make scientific concepts accessible to all students. These one-page infographics, accompanied by worksheets, guided notes, and interactive activities, are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and presented in a format that students find engaging. Laura has provided a Free Earth Day Comic for our K12 Hub audience, or you can shop all available Cool School Comics.

In this episode, Laura mentions that Cool School Comics started out as Cool School Rap. Now you can check out Laura’s original Order of Operations Rap that started it all!


Episode Transcript

Dr. Wendy Amato: Welcome to Teaching Channel Talks. I’m your host, Wendy Amato, and as often as I can, I jump into conversations about topics that matter in education. In this episode, Laura Valliette joins me to share about Cool School Comics. And wow, this is what matters in education. You make information available and accessible to students.

Laura, welcome. Thank you. Tell me a little bit about this name, Cool School Comics, because you do create cool school comics.

Laura Balliett: Yeah, so it’s they’re one page science cartoons that deliver information in a highly visual format. So it harnesses the power of visual learning through cartoons and word bubbles and characters doing their actions, lots of diagrams, and it ropes in all different levels and ranges of learners and readers because they’re engaging.

Not comics are naturally engaging. So

Dr. Wendy Amato: You’re an experienced classroom teacher. How did you, how did this come to be?

Laura Balliett: Okay. So I started my career at a charter school for at risk youth and the students that were in my classroom were students that who were struggling in the main school system. And they’d been placed in my classroom for a number of reasons.

And I was always struggling to get them to engage in learning science. I would stay up, I’d stand with them. Almost every night trying to find the best lesson plan. And I would bring it to their, I’d come to class the next day, all excited, and they would still shut down and not want to learn. So out of desperation, I just started doodling the content into one page lessons.

And. They morphed into comics and my students absolutely loved them. Even my most reluctant readers were engaged in reading these comics.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I’m so happy to hear that because staying up all night, trying to find accessible content is not sustainable. And if there’s one thing you and I both want, it’s to make sure that teachers have what they need in order for the students to learn.

Laura, tell me how cool school comics. earned its name.

Laura Balliett: So initially, and this is a funny story about how it originated. Initially, it started out as Cool School Rap. And it’s because I wrote a rap called the Order of Operations Rap, which is still floating around out there on YouTube. And it’s it was really successful in my classroom.

And my sister as a Christmas present one year bought me a domain from GoDaddy, CoolSchoolRap. com. And she said that we can turn it, we can, I can just start writing raps. And I happened to, as in that same era, start doing the cartoons as well. And so I just was like I’ll just, I have this domain already.

So I’ll just call it my comics, the cool school rap, but it wasn’t melding. And so I just, I switched the brand name probably about two years into it. I switched it from rap to comics and it’s been cool school comics ever since.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I like knowing that there’s a rap floating around out there. That could be good to find.

Tell me more. You said science specifically. Is that a particularly challenging content area? We know it is, but tell me more.

Laura Balliett: Yeah I science is my passion. I’ve always wanted to teach it. And I feel like a lot of teachers and students struggle to grasp the concepts and teachers struggle to teach it.

And so it’s just really, it called to me to just keep modifying it in a way that made success accessible to both educators and students because it’s amazing. I’m a science nerd. I absolutely, I, I totally love learning about plate tectonics and earth science. I get really nerded out when I start talking about it.

So I just want to share that. That’s why I became a teacher because I’d love to share science is awesome.

Dr. Wendy Amato: What do you know about elementary school teachers and their courage with science?

Laura Balliett: I’ve heard I know a few elementary school teachers and they, Actually admit that they don’t really teach science, that they maybe give them a scholastic article or something, but as a whole, they just brush it under the rug because it’s challenging for them to teach.

And it’s hard for them to fit it into their curriculum of all their other subject matter that they just avoid it and maybe do it only once a week or so.

So

Dr. Wendy Amato: that’s heartbreaking. We’re talking about teachers who have students at these critical developmental. phases, ages, and they’re not getting the inputs that they need for scientific thinking.

Laura Balliett: I feel like the students that are elementary students, they’re naturally curious about the world around them. So science to them is something that they’re naturally gravitating towards. So we should really be harnessing that because that’s when they can start getting excited about learning about the world around them and really learning those skills.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I love that. And you really are fearless in the topics that you create comments around. I know that you’ve done some work in physics. buoyancy, thermal mass.

Laura Balliett: Yeah, I’m still working on the thermal mass one. I have to keep breaking it down because I feel as I’m creating the comic, it’s almost like I can sense when I’m going to lose.

If I push too much into one page, I feel like I’ll lose the reader. So I have to craft them in a way that I know I’m going to maintain attention and that students are going to grasp the concept and then Grasp it and be able to move on to the next level of the concept. So it’s really a foundation I’m building for understanding.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Why have you made a commitment to a one pager?

Laura Balliett: The one pagers are a lot easier for teachers to use. There are plenty of science comics out there. They’re the ones that I’ve seen. They’re all 30 pages or more. They’re actual comic books. And that’s a little challenging for teachers to work into a curriculum.

They either have to buy a class set of comic books. And a lot of them don’t come with. Supplementals. A lot of them don’t come with worksheets or projects that can be tied to the content. And so it’s just a lot more planning and prep time on a teacher’s side to make a comic work in their classroom. So what I provide is a one page printable science cartoon, like an infographic where a teacher can just print it up or project it on the front board or print it as a poster anchor chart kind of poster.

And then they have this giant vivid resource that portrays all the information. And it’s, in a, in an instant, basically, it’s not a long process to plan.

Dr. Wendy Amato: That sounds really flexible. If it can be printed out for the class, if it can be projected, if it can be made into a poster, you really are providing a tool that offers flexibility that teachers need so much of today.

Laura Balliett: They all come with supplementals as well. There’s the guided notes ones where the words are removed, so as a teacher is teaching, the students can follow along, like a guided reading and fill in the vocabulary that is with the comic, and they all come with a project. So a lot of them come with a blank comic template.

So what the kids learn, then they create their own comics. So it’s all, it’s a whole package where you just, you can get it and the teacher can just easily use it with their students.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I’m sure that you are purposefully aligned with specific, learning objectives. I’m hearing a lot that’s interdisciplinary.

Laura Balliett: Oh yeah. So it’s definitely, I align them with the next generation science standards because that’s across the nation. At the same time, they align with the common core standards as well, because in English language arts, students have to understand how to read informational text and how to, and different formats of informational texts.

Like I know it’s even in there. I think it’s in the fourth grade when I just read that. They have to understand, they can read visual text and be able to interpret it.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I like thinking that English language learners can use the comics and grow their vocabulary. I also thinking about struggling readers who have a different way of getting into reading about science and thinking that you’re supporting the teachers as well is really thoughtful.

Every, every population gets. a benefit from working with cool school comics.

Laura Balliett: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. They the visuals, the illustrations help readers decode what the tricky words may be. So if they get hung up on a word, they can see the image and they can translate it just by looking at the illustrations.

And it really helps that wide range of readers. learning and reading abilities because if you’re a struggling reader or an English language learner or even I’ve heard people say that students with dyslexia also are benefiting from the comics because they’re able to decode all the information with the help of the illustrations.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Tell me a little bit about how Cool School Comics will help with following directions.

Laura Balliett: Oh gosh yeah, so I spent something I always encountered with my students was It didn’t matter if how I presented a hands on project, they still wouldn’t read through the steps. So we’d have some, a really cool activity they’re supposed to squish graham crackers together and watch how they do like subduction and all that stuff, but they weren’t reading the directions and the steps to follow to actually do the hands on activities.

I just started drawing the instructions in comic form so that students would understand what to do. It’s all around us anyways, outside of school. So when kids get Legos, The whole, the instructions to build a Lego model is all in visual individual format. And with us, if we get something from Ikea, or if we get a piece of furniture, it shows us in a visual manner on how to put it together.

Cause that bridges that it bridges that language gap. It bridges the reading skills gap. And so why aren’t we presenting hands on activities that we do in our science labs in a visual manner? So that’s part of the package as well, is that there’s these visual instructions to guide the reader.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Those visual instructions guide the reader in that specific activity, but also reinforces for students that following the appropriate procedure steps actually helps you get through the lesson with the outcomes that you wish.

Exactly. They’re actually learning what they’re, through the process. Can’t just eat the graham crackers in that plate technique lesson. Even if you’re tempted. Talk to me a little bit about the creation process for

your work.

Laura Balliett: So it’s a lot of the time I start with a request from another teacher.

I’m always open. I’m here to help teachers. Be it via my website or on Teachers Pay Teachers, people will make requests all the time. And so then I just start trying to figure out how I build that foundation. And sometimes I just put the camera over my head and just start sketching little like little blippets of what.

I know is part of the content and then I start trying to piece together how do I build this into a comic and again, like I said before, I try and format it in a way that I know is not going to lose attention. I just, it’s just, it’s definitely an art form to craft this in a way that teaches that delivers the content and also maintains the attention of the reader.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Laura, tell me about the hardest topic that you’ve developed into a comic.

Laura Balliett: I’d say the hardest one recently was solutions, colloids and suspensions. That was, and that was a request. And. It was really tough for me to again, build that foundational understanding of what mixtures are, what homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures are.

And I’ll just building it up until I can get to the point of talking about what a suspension is and what a true solution is and what a colloid is. Like it was something I never taught as a middle school teacher. And it definitely, that was a long process, but did come to fruition. So all in one page.

No. It’s I would have lost the reader if I put it all on one page. So it’s definitely, it’s probably four comics, maybe five. I’ll have to go back and count them, but yeah it builds sequentially to build that foundation till we get to the final pinnacle of the understanding of what a colloid is.

Dr. Wendy Amato: So this is a nice reminder hearing you describe how to break a concept down into pieces so that each piece can be where there’s 11 reasonable concept on a page is a great reminder to us as educators that we can’t jump in too deep too fast. We have to ensure that the foundations. are strong so we can build upon them.

And to operationalize that in your visual way is significant that really can help an educator think about the appropriate entry point for learning for the students in class.

Laura Balliett: And when I designed my lesson plans, some of them are five page lesson, like as far as the actual comic itself, some of them have five.

Content comics, and some of them only have three but they’re all in my lesson plan when I write out the lesson plan for the teacher. It tells them sequentially start with this, and then start building building, and it helps the teacher also break down the curriculum into a format that, Can help sequentially reach the goal of understanding

Dr. Wendy Amato: Laura, you’re able to produce quick lessons, which are one page specific comics.

You also can produce lesson plans with supplements and compilations of lessons, it could be a little bit more complex. That’s a really significant range. Can you share what the most popular or frequently requested frequently purchased downloaded items are.

Laura Balliett: Yeah, the lesson plans are the ones in the middle that tend to sell the most.

So it starts off with, like you said, the first tier of it would be just the content comic and it comes with the guided notes and what I call, what they’re called doodle notes. And so that would, it’s a follow up. Activity where kids are drawing aspects of what they’ve learned. And so they’re applying their art skills to, show, demonstrate what they’ve learned.

And then the next tier is the full lesson plan. And that includes what’s in the first tier, but then I’ve also included an animated Google slideshow more supplementals, a project. And then there’s always the hands on learning with the visual instructions as well. So that’s the most popular because it’s just a full lesson plan that can span an entire week for a teacher, if not more, and it’s Really embraces the whole topic in just that quick PDF download.

And then the final one are the units where I’ve lumped them all together into just one purchasable package. And you have like either like the whole forces in motion unit or the whole forms of energy unit or something like that, or the whole ecosystem unit cells, the ecosystem unit is a very popular one.

It has like decompose Producers, consumers, decomposers, food webs, all that stuff is all in one unit of comics, and that’s a very popular one.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Do you feel like each comic has a destination, age group, or grade level?

Laura Balliett: Absolutely, , since they’re crafted to align with the standards they are definitely grade specific, but they also can range, I have one that I just marked down, one of my energy ones can be for fourth grade, at the same time it can be for fifth or sixth grade.

Because even seventh grade, because it’s just comics are naturally differentiated and it can span grade levels, but they all align with a specific standard. And so it’s documented, it’s on there too. What standard you’re looking for and you can just click in that standard and find the comic for it.

Dr. Wendy Amato: This makes me smile because there’s no doubt that there are a lot of adults that could benefit from the comics and they’re helpful to

Laura Balliett: I’ve had a lot of moms reach out to me too. I had one mom actually asked if she could just buy all of them because she’s homeschooling her son and she said that she struggles with teaching science and she saw my comics and she just felt like she understood it and she’s like now I can teach him what I just read.

So they’re also spreading into the homeschool realm as well because it’s helping parents teach their kids.

Dr. Wendy Amato: That’s perfect. I don’t think the school world is destined to go back to fully remote instruction, but we do have a lot of learners who are in remote instruction environments for one reason or another, or we’ve got a lot of programs that try to have options available.

How does Cool School Comics support flexibility in the instructional environment?

Laura Balliett: Just across the board, I feel like it supports the flexibility because it’s. A parent could download it and be able to use it. A teacher can use it. They, with the fact that the lesson plans have the Google slide shows make it possible to share it into virtual classrooms very easily.

All of the documents are able to be shared into a virtual classroom with, super easy to share it. And it’s definitely very flexible and versatile.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I love that. And nobody wants to need that, but everybody should be prepared for it. And your resources give us the boosts that we need.

 Let’s make a, let’s make a call to action for educators. Knowing you’ve made a career pivot in order to produce cool school comics that improve learning outcomes for students. What are you asking of the education community? Knowing you’ve made a huge commitment.

Laura Balliett: I would love for the education community to embrace this as a, as an impactful way of teaching students.

It’s, it, right now it seems like a novice a new trendy thing, even though at libraries, if you go into a library, you can see that the graphic novel section is starting to dominate, any library I walk into, I feel like graphic novels are dominating. Like it’s something that is.

It is increasing. Students are, students love students love cartoons as a whole. Science, cartoons, comics, graphic novels. I would love for them to see this as an impactful learning tool and trust that it is good because it is good. It works. So

Dr. Wendy Amato: You have my endorsement. It’s amazing. It’s a game changer for learning.

Laura Balliett: Absolutely. I’ve seen it work in my own classroom. I’ve seen the faces light up when I handed, when I handed comics to my students, even my most challenging students and they just instantly engage and teachers are always telling me they’re impactful. I just love to get these in the hands of as many students as possible and watch kids love science and engage in reading science.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Thank you, Laura, for letting me help spread the word about cool school comics.

Laura Balliett: You’re welcome.

Dr. Wendy Amato: To our fellow educators, thank you. If you’d like to explore the topics that Laura and I discussed today, please check out the show notes at teachingchannel. com slash podcast. Be sure to subscribe on whatever listening app you use to help others to find us.

I’ll see you again soon for the next episode. Thanks for listening.

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