07 May 2018

Review: Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes by Linda Holmen and Mary Santella-Johnson

Hardcover, 188 pages
Published 1993
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes
by Linda Holmen and Mary Santella-Johnson
illustrations by Jan Roebken

When I read The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, I became intrigued/interested in those things relating to Calvin and Hobbes not contained in the omnibus strip collection. One such related book is Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes, a Holy Grail among Calvin and Hobbes collectors. The cheapest copy on eBay is $700, though looking through "Sold listings" I can't find any that anyone actually paid for, so maybe Internet sellers value this thing much more than people will actually pay for it. I got my copy through interlibrary loan; Worldcat indicates that only twelve libraries worldwide have a copy, and I wasn't allowed to take my copy out of the library. If you're considering dropping some big bucks on this book, hopefully my comments below will give you a taste of what it's like instead. I haven't found anyone on the Internet who really talks about it in detail; it's usually just alluded to as one of the very few items of authorized Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.

What it is is a textbook, or perhaps more accurately, a repository of worksheets and activities, for grades 4-8, using Calvin and Hobbes as source material. There are five story arcs from the strip (dubbed "The Binoculars," "The Find," "The Christmas Story," "The Bug Collection," and "The Report"), each of which is followed up by a set of activities for students, almost always on similar patterns: vocabulary exercises (synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and such for words used in the story), comprehension activities (question about the what and the why of the story's events, always including making some kind of "story map"), behavior worksheets (questions about things like imagination or being nice to people or whatever, vaguely inspired by the stories), humor worksheets (questions about, for example, sarcasm or stand-up), suggested activities (even more vaguely connected things, like learning what an entomologist is to go along with "The Bug Collection"), and finally creative writing worksheets (usually asking students to retell the story in a different genre, or from the perspective of a new character).

Do kids really know this much about stand-up comics?
If you don't read every word (and there's no need to), you can get through the whole book in an hour or so. I don't know if grade schools still do activities like these in language arts classes (e.g., write a very formulaic poem), but this is the kind of stuff I remember doing all the time in the 1990s. It's sort of funny to pair it all with Calvin and Hobbes because so much of it is the kind of formulaic, uncreative learning that Calvin and Hobbes rails against, something driven home by the two stories about Calvin failing to complete school assignments. Like, one of the activities is to come up with a list of things you can do to "con" your teacher, and suggested ones are things like "Don't slam your books shut when you're finished reading" and "Smile and greet your teacher each day." Are kids really dumb enough to be conned into thinking practicing required (i.e., Suzie-style) behaviors is "conning" your teacher? Calvin wouldn't be! I get why after students read about Calvin's poor behaviors the book would want to model good ones, but it reveals how Calvin and Hobbes's anarchic spirit is a poor match for 1990s worksheet-style education.

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