Lessons from Stan Lee

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This post is different than most, pausing to honor the late, great, Stan “The Man” Lee.

I won’t even attempt to write a tribute to Stan Lee’s marvelous life and legacy, as several others have done a much better job.

For example, take a look Marvel’s website HERE, which includes this inspirational quote:

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Also, many celebrities have written kind comments about Stan’s impact on their personal and professional lives. You can read several of them at https://www.rte.ie/entertainment/2018/1112/1010478-stan-lee-tributes/.

Even Netflix is honoring Stan Lee by encouraging viewers to use his catchphrase “Excelsior!” when searching for a show. Try it and see what happens.

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My way of thanking Stan “The Man” Lee is to consider all the lessons teachers can learn from his example. How can we bring these same traits to our schools and classrooms?

Enthusiasm

When I think of Stan Lee, the first thing that comes to mind is not the heroes and villains he helped create. Instead, it’s his overwhelming enthusiasm. Just take a look at this cover to his comic book-style autobiography:

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Or this real comic book featuring a real photo of Stan Lee:

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Although many people learned about Stan Lee through his various movie cameos, he actually had plenty of exposure first through comic book stories. Here is a neat article summarizing Stan’s various cameos through years of comic books. You’ll note a recurring theme of self-deprecating humor, fun, and energy.

Here’s an early depiction of behind-the-scenes with Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko:

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Much later, Stan made an appearance to narrate an entire issue of Generation X:

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This stint prompted a company-wide event the next year, in which Stan appeared to introduce every Marvel comic book’s “flashback” story:

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Advocacy

Stan Lee was an advocate for superheroes and their fans. Like the comic book example with Steve Ditko above, Stan introduced comic book readers to the creators and the creative process.

This was long before blogs and social media. Instead, Stan provided monthly updates in the comic books – Stan’s Soapbox, Bullpen Bulletins, and more. Moreover, he made it fun to be a fan.

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Brandon Zachary from Comic Book Resources wrote an essay, “How Stan Lee Created Comic Book Celebrity and Modern Geek Chic,” explaining “He became every reader’s ‘Uncle Stan,’ a sarcastic but kind figurehead of comics. Stan Lee helped mold the modern idea of Geek Chic into what it is today, and turned Marvel Comics from an entertainment company into its very own culture.”

Stan advocated for more than just superheroes and comics. As a writer and editor, he shared stories dealing with issues like alcohol and drug abuse, racism, hate, and more. Here are five of his “Soapbox” writings addressing such issues, including the one below from 1968:

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One noteworthy issue of Amazing Spider-Man is #96 in May, 1971. This was the first comic book published by Marvel or DC to NOT have the seal of approval by the Comics Code Authority.  The “code” was used to ensure comic books were safe for young readers. But in Spider-Man #96, Stan Lee wanted to tackle the issue of drug abuse.

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Forgoing the CCA’s seal of approval, Stan wrote and published the story. Soon after, the CCA updated its guidelines to consider depictions of controversial subject matter in individual stories.

 

Collaboration

Stan Lee is famous for pioneering the “Marvel Method” of making comics. Before this, writers scripted comic book stories with detailed descriptions and dialogue. To save time, Stan reduced the direction in his scripts and allowed the artists to decide things like page layout, number of panels, perspectives, etc. This created more trust with the artist, to the point where both writer and artist were credited as “co-plotters” in many comic book issues.

You can read more about this collaborative approach here, and hear Stan Lee describe the process himself in the following video:

 

Although Stan Lee frequently receives credit as creator of multiple Marvel heroes, he himself acknowledges the powerful role of co-creators and artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber (Stan’s brother), and more.

Here is another example of Stan’s collaborative spirit, shared by recent Spider-Man writer Dan Slott:

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Stan’s spirit of collaboration (and marketability) is perhaps what led to the “shared” universe approach in Marvel Comics. Readers could relish guest appearances, cameos, and team-ups among various superheroes and villains. Such crossovers are much celebrated (and copied) in the series of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Ageless Wonder

This is one of my favorite panels from Stan Lee’s memoir:

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Stan Lee had worked in the comic book business for many years before he began his Marvelous run. This is a recent tweet from writer and reporter Brett White, reminding all of us it’s not too late to start something new:

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During my own lifetime, Stan Lee’s work was less in comic books and more in other media. He moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1981 to oversee television and film versions of Marvel characters.

Soon after came video games, including Spider-Man for Atari in 1983. How many 60-year-olds do you know would gleefully help like Stan in this Blip magazine feature?

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The first time I heard Stan Lee’s voice may have been in the PlayStation/N64 Spider-Man game, published in 2000. Even in his late 70s, Stan enthusiastically introduced “True Believers and Newcomers alike” into a “true superhero action thriller,” which you can enjoy here:

 

Stan Lee continued to try new things throughout his 80s and 90s. Some projects were more successful than others. Nevertheless, his work displays an energy envied by creators of all ages.

In 2001, Stan even wrote special “Just Imagine . . . ” comic book stories featuring characters from long-time rival DC Comics.

 

 

 

 

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More recently, Stan Lee worked on several global projects. His last superhero creation was based on Chinese pop star G.E.M. He also helped create multiple heroes for Japanese anime and manga (making a few personal appearances, of course).

 

 

 

 

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There will never be another Stan “The Man” Lee. But we can take inspiration from his enthusiasm, advocacy, collaboration, and lifelong learning. And we can remember Stan Lee’s example every time he pops up in a cameo.

 

‘Nuff said. Excelsior!

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What’s in a Name?

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Keen-eyed readers will notice that this blog has recently changed its official name from Teaching is for Superheroes! to Teach Like a Superhero!  (The exclamation point remains!)

Not that big of a change, really, except that the new name rolls off the tongue a little more easily.  Another change is the primary web address:  http://www.teachlikeasuperheroblog.com.  This new URL is not very short, but it gets to the point.

(I tried a shorter address, but “www.tlash.com” sounds like an eyeliner product.  And a good of an excuse as any to share this meme inspired by Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

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If all of this http://www.mumbo.jumbo stresses you out, don’t worry.  The old web address, http://www.teachingsupeherheroes.wordpress.com, still works and will lead you right back here.

This post is not just an announcement about blog name changes.

Let’s talk about names of superheroes and names of teachers.

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I remember two things from my very first teacher back-to-school in-service meeting.  The first memory is a litany of details regarding health insurance and employee benefits.  The second memory is our assistant principal reminding us all that we are “Mr. Smith,” not “Smith” or “Mr. S.”

His point was to start the school year establishing a professional identify and requiring our students to address us as such.  It may seem like no big deal for a student to abbreviate your name (“Mr. B.”) or leave off your honorific (“Bergman”).  Some teachers may even welcome such nicknames to foster a more relaxed classroom environment.

But we must always be careful to not get too comfortable with our students.  Stop and consider the range of impacts this lackadaisical habit could impart.

I’m sure I’ve allowed my students to call me all sorts of things and get away with it.  But it does help to maintain a level of respect among everyone – teacher to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, student to student, and more.

Proper names matter among superheroes, too, and not just with maintaining secret identities.  Personally, I cringe whenever I read superheroes calling each other playful nicknames.

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They’re heroes, not BFFs!

Superhero nicknames have long been a staple in comics.  Witty banter and clever monikers keep the “funny” in funny books, after all.  And it helps convey some characters’ personalities.

Wolverine, for example, with Colossus:

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And here (off-panel) with Professor Xavier:

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The best name-caller, of course, was Stan “The Man” Lee, who was so proficient he even came up with nicknames for his real-life co-workers (e.g. Jack “The King” Kirby, “Jazzy” Johnny Romita, “Merry” Gerry Conway, and many MANY more right here).

Like any good joke, though, overuse of superhero sobriquets can get tiresome.  Especially among champions who should focus their attention on more important things – like fighting bad guys and saving the world!

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What’s worse, many of these affectionate nicknames can actually undermine the job of life-risking heroics.

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“Spidey” for Spider-Man works fine for his hip quippy character;  but take a look at other heroes and their less-dignified labels:

Batman = “Bats”

Superman = “Supes”

Green Lantern = “GL”

Ugh.  Apparently, characters in the DC Universe have a thing for abridging names.  Marvel nicknames, though more colorful, can still cheapen a heroic legacy.

The Mighty Thor = “Goldilocks”

The Hulk = “Ol’ Greenskin”

Iron Man = “Shellhead”

Captain America = “Cap,” “Winghead,” “Star-Spangled Avenger”

We come back to Captain America because it’s maybe the clearest example of a noble hero who’s legendary status is downgraded by casual familiarity.  And it’s not just by fellow heroes, but even by us regular citizens.

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Call me a Stick-in-the-Mud (“Bromidic Bergman”), but superheroes deserve a little more formality.  The same goes for teachers.  Although it may seem cool for kids to use teacher nicknames, be careful with letting things get too capricious or contemptuous.

So whenever you hear a student or colleague refer to you as  “Mrs. T” or “Thompson” or “Yo, Teach,” gently remind them how they can address you more properly.

Just remember, it’s not “Mr. F.” It’s Mr. Fantastic.

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And it’s not “Incredible;” it’s Mr. Incredible.

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And it’s not “Marvel;” it’s Ms. Marvel.

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Actually, the original Ms. Marvel goes by Captain Marvel now.

But never “Cap.”

Non-Mutant Teachers

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My favorite superhero team has always been the X-Men.  I’ll admit, these mutant heroes first caught my eye with their nifty matching uniforms.  Plus, “X” is the absolute coolest letter in the alphabet by far.  (Uncanny Y-Men . . . just doesn’t cut it.)

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The main reason I like the X-Men, however, is because this superhero team’s origin starts at a school.  “Gifted youngsters” have gathered together not because they’re family or friends or famous heroes, but instead to learn and understand their powers and identities.  And ultimately, these students strive to “protect a world that hates and fears them.”

A new generation of students has taken up the cause of Professor X, as featured in the series Wolverine and the X-Men.  Unfortunately, headmaster Wolverine has recently died in the Marvel Comics world, leaving a void in the faculty at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.

I bet Wolverine’s health will improve soon, but in the meantime another hero has joined the staff of mutant educators:  your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

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That’s Mr. Spider-Man to You

One potential problem, though:  Spider-Man is NOT a mutant.  In other words, he was not born with his extra-human abilities.  Peter Parker needed a radioactive spider bite to get his superpowers.  Remember this iconic scene?

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Pre-Spider Bite Peter Parker = Lame-o

Differences in genetic background and superhero lifestyle could become a source of conflict not only between Mr. Spider-Man and his students, but also with the mutant teachers and staff at the school.

Such educational discrepancies do not occur in comic books only.  They can also arise in real life.

Real World Research

Research studies have found a “racial/ethnic gap between students of color and their teachers,” something that has increased over the years (Villegas, Strom, & Lucas, 2012).  With a growing population of minority students, teachers from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds are in high demand (Bireda & Chait, 2011).

Why is it important to match teacher and student demographics?

One may assume that students react more positively to teachers who share common characteristics.  Likewise, minority teachers can serve as positive role models to minority students.  However, clear empirical evidence of these assumptions is hard to find, understandable given the complexities of schooling and learning.

Some research studies have found learning gains when teachers and students share similar ethnicity (Dee, 2004; Klein, Le, & Hamilton, 2001).  Nevertheless, these reports note an underlying factor that could have the greatest impact on student success:  the actual quality of the teacher.

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Mr. Parker

Spider-Man does have previous teaching experience.  While plainclothes Peter Parker during the day, he did a stint as science teacher for his alma mater, Midtown High School, in Queens, New York.

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Home of the Fightin’ Living Brains!

Mr. Parker’s public school teaching experience reflects real world trends.  Typically, teachers like to teach close to where they grew up as students (Reininger, 2011).  Or if not the same or nearby location, teachers may teach in a similar type of district or community.

That was me.  I grew up in a small Nebraska town of ~4,000 people.  I graduated from a public high school with a class of ~70 students.  My first teaching job was in a small Nebraska town of ~4,000 people (about 130 miles from my hometown).  Each graduating class at this public school had ~70 students.

What about you?  Where did you go to school?  Where do you teach?  

One of the biggest advantages about the teaching profession is that it can take you anywhere in the world.  Once I had a student encourage me to apply for a teaching job in Dubai.  (Maybe he had selfish motives for introducing me to this opportunity.)

But one of the biggest challenges about teaching is that it requires extraordinary effort to assimilate the context and culture of the school when you first start.  Even teachers who teach in their hometown must navigate through this transitional period.  Moreover, imagine the degree of difficulty for teachers new to a community, culture, and/or country.

It makes sense that teacher recruitment initiatives focus on fostering “pipelines” to increase quality teachers from high-need urban and rural settings (CTEP, 2014Darling-Hammond, 2011).

Mutant or Non-Mutant?

As much as I’d like, I can’t turn myself into a mutant, or even a super-powered human.  (I’ve been bitten by spiders before.  No wall-crawling abilities yet.)  Still, I can be the best teacher I can be, no matter where or whom I teach.

Regardless of our ethnic, cultural, genetic, or other demographic descriptors, we can all work to cultivate meaningful relationships, creating memorable learning experiences for our students.  Part of this work includes finding ways to connect with the kids and their community.

Don’t try to fake it, however.  Students have a special (mutant?) ability to see through disingenuous teachers, even those with good intentions.  Admit your differences, if need be, and authentically work to find common ground.  A universal purpose in all schools is to expand understanding and appreciate learning.

Who knows how long Spider-Man will stay on staff at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning?  You can read more about the creators’ plans for Spider-Man and the X-Men herehere, and here, if you’re interested.  I hope Mr. Spider-Man makes a positive difference during his tenure, long or short.

Spidey may not be a mutant, but he does know a little about struggling to make it in the world (of both heroes and humans).  Additionally, he has firsthand experience learning the importance of “great powers” and “great responsibility.”

And like the best teachers, Spider-Man should learn from his students as much as they learn from him.

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