Teacher Innovation #6: Using Zines to Promote Black History & Identity Work in the ELA Classroom

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Post #6 is close to my heart and comes from friend and colleague, Glenn Chance. Glenn is a second year ELA teacher at my school. And while technically Glenn is new to teaching, he came to the classroom with plenty of life experience. Glenn has guest posted before. On his first post, I explained his background as a high school dropout, longtime retail worker, and eventual scholar. The reason this post is close to my heart, as the title suggests, is Glenn writes about his use of zines and purposeful identity work in his classroom. Glenn is a relatively fearless, early-years teacher. We talked almost every day this past school year, and I enjoyed watching his tremendous growth. As you will see from his post, Glenn understands how important genuinely combining literature, writing, and identity work really is. I highly recommend reading this post all the way through–especially, if you are considering doing zine work in your own classroom.

Previous Series Entries: Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4 // Part 5

by Glenn Chance

Introduction – What is a Zine?

Check out these links to learn more – Zines in Action

A zine is a way of saying magazine, just shortened to the last four letters.  Zines are magazines, only miniaturized.  They aren’t new, and have actually been around for decades.  If you’ve ever belonged to a fandom, chances are, there is a zine about it somewhere, or at least there was at one time.  

Wikipedia has the following information:

A zine (/ˈziːn/ ZEEN; short for magazine or fanzine) is most commonly a small-circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via photocopier. Usually zines are the product of a single person, or a very small group. Zines first emerged in the United States, where the photocopier was invented, and have always been more numerous there.

The primary intent of publication is to advance the views of the editor rather than profit…Zines have served as a significant medium of communication in various subcultures, and frequently draw inspiration from a “do-it-yourself” philosophy.

Zines are special publications for a variety of reasons.  They offer the ability to curate and publish the views and opinions of their authors in a medium that naturally lends itself to the synthesis of those opinions with other sources and texts.  Built around a critical lens, they are structured with analysis in mind.  Zines offer agency to those who need to speak and often can’t, which is why I couldn’t think of a better group of authors than high school students.  It was February, and I wanted my students to do something authentic in their World Literature class that connected them to Black History Month through literature and their own experiences.

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This is the most common format, but there are many different ways to make a zine… this shows how easy it is to get 8 pages out of 1 sheet of paper.

Background on Students

One of the things that makes teaching at my high school so amazing is the diversity of students.  I teach students from all over the world.  Last year, I had a unique opportunity to have one of the most varied samples of students that were all from the same grade: I taught honors/gifted, on level, and co-taught classes of 10th Grade World Literature.

Teaching World Literature was frustrating, at times, from a curriculum stand-point.  The title of the class screams diversity, so why does it have so many old dead white men?  Spending half the year on the ancient Greeks and Romans would have been easy, with the second semester dominated by great classics like The Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but I wanted to bring some real world diversity into my classroom that was actually representative of my students.

In addition to feeling like my students weren’t being represented in the curriculum, I witnessed a wide range of experiences with Black History Month: both in my students’  individual experiences with the month, and how teachers interacted with Black History Month (and Blackness) in their classrooms. Some teachers fully support Black History Month by adding daily components or even whole lessons to their plans, while others included nothing for the month at all.

For a World Literature class, I wanted to create an environment and curriculum that would support and celebrate the backgrounds of my students, while creating a bridge to other cultures that would create meaningful experiences where students could truly learn from each other.

Why Zines? What was my objective?

  • Celebrate Black History Month in an authentic and meaningful way
  • Explore Black authors from around the world
  • Expand my students’ concept of Blackness (what it means to be Black or who is Black)
  • Bring relevance to their own experiences
  • Assist in creating agency through their writing
  • Build a community in the classroom through writing

Their objective was to answer the central question: what exists at the intersection of Black History, World Literature, and your own experiences?  I put this before my students, but not before we talked about their previous experiences with Black History, and did some pre-writing.

Zines are exceptional at synthesizing information, art, experiences, and our commentary on our society.  This is exactly what the “answer” to our essential question looks like.


Black History is a bit of a big topic.  Considering the mixture of students that I teach, and their varied backgrounds, it was clear that many of them had completely different experiences despite having gone to the same school at the same time.  I arrived at this conclusion by listening to them.  I asked them to discuss (in their groups of four) the following questions:

  1. What does Black History mean to you?
  2. Is it important?  Why?
  3. What are your previous experiences with Black History Month?

Walking the room I heard discussion about how they just “read the same MLK speech every year”, or “we talk about it for a day.”  Most students said that they didn’t realize their school did much of anything in observance of the month, with many commenting on the usual morning announcements that just got talked through. Some students felt like there shouldn’t even be a Black History Month, while others felt like it shouldn’t be up to the same black kids and teachers to pull all the weight every year (or that is how it felt to them).  Some of my Latino students didn’t know that there was a Black History Month, while others who were new to the country were hearing about it for the first time (and were embarrassed that they didn’t know…next year I won’t make that assumption…).  To put it simply, even though feedback was mixed, the students who were aware of it agreed that, for the most part, that it should be covered better/differently.

I started off with the poem “Rise Up” by Royce Mann, a 15 year old student student reading his poem at Ebenezer Baptist Church on MLK Day in Atlanta.  My students were given a transcript of the poem and we watched Mann on Youtube.  The discussion that came from this poem was tremendous.  Almost everyone connected to it, or had positive things to say about it.  My white students identified with his commentary on stereotypes, and my black students found strength in his poignant and timely call to action.

The layers of relevance and timeliness allowed us to talk about Black History objectively.  I asked them again what they thought was wrong about how we observe the month in our schools.  Many of them stated that it meant more than the few chapters they briefly touched on in their history books, that it was something that was living and ongoing. They were experiencing Black History every day.   

One of my students brought up stereotypes – how because she was black, people assumed she came from Africa.  Another student commented how a man had once told her to “go back to Africa”, which she laughed at because she was from the Caribbean.  

It was then that I decided that we should make a list.  I started brainstorming with my students and together we wrote the names of countries that had black people outside of Africa.  We looked online, they shared stories, and they wrote countries on the board themselves. I had white students asking if their grandmothers counted (of course they did), and by the end of it we had 30 countries written on the board – many of them were very surprising to my students.  Black people from South America?  Black people in Central America? Hispanic Black people? We had a lot of new ideas flowing.  It was a great opportunity to talk about the slave trade.

Many of my students didn’t realize that this was how so many black people got to so many different places.  They had read about faithfully, every year almost, throughout their education, but most had never actually seen it.  This interactive map is what I used, watching the small dots move back and forth, with larger dots being larger amounts of slaves.  When the popcorn of dots started en masse you could hear the silence in the room followed by gasps, moans, and other noises of distress.  They were getting it, many of them for the first time.

So what if there were stories from all these places?  Good news: there are.  And we could explore them together.  We spent the next three weeks reading stories from all over the globe: all black narratives, poems, short stories, and nonfiction texts.  One of my students, a young man that you might call “hard to reach”, approached me after one class.  His words made every raised eyebrow, every groan at a new author, every sigh towards Black History Month, worth it.  He said, “Mr. Chance, this is the first time I’ve ever seen myself in anything we’ve read at school.  Thank you.”  I watched him.  He read every word like it was made of something more than paper.  If it had been water, he would have drank it down.  School had made him dry like desert earth and this was his oasis.

The Assignment

So how do you teach zine writing to students who have never heard of, much less seen a zine?  This is actually a question I am still working on answering.  The first step was just introducing them to zines.  Thankfully I had come armed this year with zines from last year, my first experience with this medium.  My students this year were able to critique the previous year’s copies, even though the assignment was totally different – they could tell the difference between a good quality zine that had a message and a purpose, and that student who clearly “put it together” in the last few minutes of the previous evening.  

In addition to passing around these early zines, I got some aid from our Media Specialist.  She was able to locate and loan a copy of Whatcha Mean, What’s A Zine? by Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson.  

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We read excerpts from this book, I made copies for everyone, and we talked about what would make a “good” zine.  For the most part, they were excited.  Then I told them about what would make this PBL even more authentic: a real world audience.  We would showcase their zines at a festival involving the entire community, showcasing their hard work, and allow them to distribute their work to real world.  Our classroom would have a table at the Makers Fest!  I am fortunate to teach at a school that has different academies.  As part of the Multi-Media and Fine Arts Academy, we put on a Makers Fest every year.  This is a festival that takes place at the high school but involves the entire cluster as well as our community.  Art departments, local artists, independent performances, band and orchestra performances, face painting, and other activities for children are just some of the individual productions that make this festival so incredible.  It literally takes up the entire commons area and also utilizes the auditorium.

In addition to this real world community audience, I designed the assignment to be peer driven as they would be writing for each other.  After they created zines, they had to trade three copies with other students from their class, explore them, and then write thank-you notes to their respective authors/creators.  As you can see from the assignment sheet below, the thank-you notes were weighted as a test grade.  They had a separate assignment sheet, but it really just involved writing three basic thank-you notes.  I’ll speak on it later, but this was literally everyone’s favorite part of the whole assignment..  

I purposely wanted to create a currency in my classroom with the quality of the zines.  Higher quality zines would be more sought after, and the aforementioned writer would be able to receive higher quality zines to read in return.  I believe that for writing to be authentic, there needs to be real world consequences that extend beyond a grade.

Weird looking assignment sheet, right?  That is because you can actually print this out, and fold it up into a zine (this was my s/o’s idea).  We did just that.  Instead of giving my students a boring assignment sheet, I modeled how to create an 8 panel zine out of a single sheet of paper.  We cut and folded, and made our first “zines” together.  I modeled the front and back pages based on the assignment sheet.  We also discussed some of the other zine options like mini-books, fold-outs, freebies including posters that go inside the zines, or zines that can become posters.  Most students felt comfortable with sticking to the 8 panel, but I felt confident in them knowing they had options.

I realize it will get easier every year, as I will have concrete examples and models for students to explore that approximate the “correct answer” more closely – however there is a joy in exploring something for the first time with your students.  It is one part sitting on the front of the train and putting the tracks down as you go, and another part that feels similar to that part in The Blair Witch Project where that one guy just throws the map away; he remarked something about it not working anyway.  Sometimes even that guy is right, however it doesn’t make that abject horror any easier to swallow when it rears its ugly head.  


I decided that I would combat this witch with lots of checkins, chunking, and student writing groups.  I reserved the tables in the media center for nearly two weeks, and let my students work in collaborative groups the whole time.  There were several times throughout the writing process where we did swap-and-shares that allowed students to talk each other through their early drafts and ask questions of each other.  I would circulate between the groups, mostly listening, and occasionally stepping in if they couldn’t help each other find the way forward.  It was a very difficult writing task.  What I was asking my students to do was brand new to many of them.  They were allowed almost complete freedom as long as they answered the essential question.  

The Zine Project Overview Board:

I used this board as a project step list for the students to keep track of what we were doing each day, and what their goals for that day would be.  As you can see, I broke up the process into four phases, and included time for each deliverable.  These were overwhelming days that needed high energy and involvement.  I needed to be involved every step of the way, bouncing from group to group, facilitating creation and design.  

Another approach that I took to help facilitate the writing process with my students was to write with them.  I can’t say this loud enough.  Write with your students.  Create with them.  Breathe their air, and struggle with them.  It isn’t about having a model or a finished product ahead of time.  I created a zine with them, from scratch.  I had no idea what I was doing, but I had the same tools they did.  I sat down with them, in their groups, and I wrote.  I sat down with them when they pitched their zines, and I pitched mine.  We figured it out together.

The “Zine Pitch” was probably the most useful activity we did outside of the pre-writing activities.  It allowed students to talk to each other as writers: they discussed their ideas, problems, misunderstandings etc.  The ones that had already had their “aha” moment were able to help others find theirs.  Many of them had already worked for ~two days on their zines by this point, and they were told that if they didn’t have anything to pitch, then they wouldn’t get much out of it.  This was the first moment that many of them realized that they really were writing for an audience other than the teacher.  Everyone was polite, and didn’t hesitate to offer suggestions if they thought that improvements could be made.  Zine writing became a collaborative assignment.


Most students used class time appropriately, met deadlines, and finished their zines on time.  Due to the desired audience and the trading component that I had built into this assignment, I ended up standing at the copy machine for about four hours split over two days.  I made 3 copies of each student’s “master copy”, which I allowed them to keep.  The three copies were then folded by the students and then traded with each other on Zine Swap Day.  They were given the homework assignment of writing thank-you notes.  On the next class, I collected them, graded them per my simple rubric which I included on the assignment sheet, and then passed them back.  Some students went as far as making special envelopes for their notes, some typed them, and one or two actually used professional thank-you cards they must have purchased or found around the house.  I was as impressed with some of the notes as I was with the zines.  Many students truly had something to say about the hard work their peers had completed.

I talked with my students after the thank-yous were read and internalized, and they told me that this was their favorite part.  It really mattered to them that they had an audience, and that they were able to receive authentic feedback from each other, instead of just a grade from a teacher.  Most of the thank-you notes were heartfelt and supportive.  One student, however, laid into the author of a zine they received through the swap.  They called out the author on their effort and purpose.  It was shocking at first, and I spent some time debating what to do with it.  I finally settled on passing it out like normal, but then going back to the student to see what they thought of their notes.  They laughed at the shaming note, and agreed with it.  They appreciated being called out on their work.  Honestly, I feel like this would have gone differently if it was a grade from me or a red pen denoting these same flaws.

What they produced was nothing short of incredible.  I had a moment grading where I literally broke down and cried while reading one student’s zine.  She was recounting what it felt like her entire life being mixed and how people treated her.  Her zine was all about hair: black hair, white hair, and her hair.  To summarize, she stated that she wished she could be white.  It was heartbreaking and real.  The way she synthesized her own art, poetry from Jamila Woods, and her experiences was exceptional.  Several students achieved this level of “real” in their zines.  Many others came close.

Another student wrote about their experiences working a food truck with his father.  He designed his zine to look like a menu that changed depending on the neighborhood the food truck was in.  It was all about race, and stereotypes.  He told me it was the most writing about himself he had ever done.

9/10 zines that were turned in on time were powerful and high quality.  Students that didn’t meet their deadlines couldn’t participate as fully as those that did.  They were behind on getting thank-you notes, long after they were relevant to the classroom conversation.  They weren’t eligible for the same participation in the environment that we created.

As far as the Makers Fest, I had 2 students show up to help me at the zine table.  It was amazing meeting the community, talking with stakeholders, and showing people the power of zines.  We had a “Zine Creation Station” where we helped people make their first zines or learn more about them first-hand.  My students were able to show off their zines and get feedback on their creations from an audience that extended far beyond the classroom.  It helped to validate them as writers as well as members of a larger community.  


Of the many things I would do differently, providing my students with clear pathways towards completing their zine would be paramount.  Many students got lost early on in the process by not understanding what to do.  For some, it was simply a matter of how to answer that essential question.  If it was a student’s first exposure to Black History Month, it was a difficult jump before the real jumping even began.  I think that allowing for more cultural participation will be important.  Providing more ways for students to connect to the project will allow more buy-in early on, and help everyone “find themselves” in our classroom. I want all learners to feel this way, even the “hard to reach” ones.

I would also have my students reflect more about the process before and after.  I would like them to stop and think about what it means to share at the level that many students were able to get to.  How did writing their zine change them?  How did reading zines from their peers affect them?  What did it matter?  What did they get out of it?  These are places I want to go next year with my students.  


7 thoughts on “Teacher Innovation #6: Using Zines to Promote Black History & Identity Work in the ELA Classroom

  1. Love all of this…the zine project…the topic…your approach. My question: why not Hispanic culture or give the students a choice since our school is not just black and white? By no means is this a criticism. I simply want you to consider the question. The answer might also cause you to pause to consider: given their limited exposure to their culture in school, some black students might resent a white teacher trying to teach them about from whence they came, some white students might not want to complete a unit on African Americans, and some non-white, non-black students may feel they are being left out. As teachers we make decisions about our curriculum units especially when given choice and autonomy, but we must always ask ourselves, “why am I teaching what I am teaching?” I face this just last year when I piloted multicultural literature. I am facing this right now as I revise the course not only because of my reflection on the 2016-2017 year but also because I am not getting the same “type” of student this year in the same course; in fact, I will be differentiating my program to offer both CP and the Honors/Gifted the course within the framework of the course. Again, Glenn, great job.

    • Such a great point. You know, I was hinting at this on the reflection section, but I don’t think I fully got to mentioning this in my thoughts. This is totally the goal for this year. I would also love to continue to find ways for everyone to be able to plug in. If done properly, even my white students could explore this intersection more authentically too – this is exactly this year’s direction. I fully appreciate the feedback. I’d love to collaborate with your multicultural literature class, if possible!

      • Of course, we can collaborate. My multicultural class is my baby. I really needed this for me, but the response I got back from some of the best of Lanier’s students this year, affirmed they too valued the experience. In fact, almost all said every student needs to take this course. My white students were not intimidated at all because our discussions included everybody. The least voice represented was the white privileged male but they have been included all along. My class included the conservative and the liberal, the staunch Republican and the staunch Democrat, the LGBTQ and the heterosexual, the athiest, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Baha’i, the wealthy and the poor (one homeless) …and everyone in between; in an environment that cultivated love and safety, there was always respect for differences in perspective, all were validated, and what happened in 210 stayed in 210. You are always welcome.

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