photo courtesy of Kelly McElroy
by Lindsay Gibb
I discovered zines in high school. In Grade 10, I was hanging out in my basement and a friend
handed me a zine made by a girl he knew. She wrote about her friends and her favourite bands
and I was enthralled.
When I realized that I could do this too — write about my own life and interests and share it with friends and complete strangers — I made a zine that similarly covered my friends’ bands and the life of a high school kid. I then brought it to school to share and sell to classmates and teachers. A couple
of days later, an announcement came over the PA during my art class. I was wanted in the principal’s office.
I was banned from bringing my zine to school. The people in charge thought that my zine would lead to the creation of other zines, and since they couldn’t control the content, they banned it outright.
These days, instead of banning zines, schools are encouraging them.
Craig Morrison founded the Oasis Skateboard Factory (OSF) as a way to engage kids struggling in the conventional classroom in real world projects, allowing them to see the results of their work and to participate in social change in their communities. Students at OSF in downtown Toronto earn high school credits by building skateboards. So, art class involves designing and painting skateboards for clients, while business class involves writing artist statements and creating marketing materials. And as part of this mandate, the school’s entire English curriculum revolves around zines and professional publishing.
“The idea of doing something for a grade is not a motivating factor for these kids at all,” says Lauren Hortie, who also teaches at OSF.
“They all talk about how they don’t like this idea that a teacher gets an essay, marks it, and then it goes in a file and it goes nowhere,” says Morrison. “They don’t see the connection.”
Morrisson and Hortie believe that when their students can see the results of their work in the community, the lessons they learn while making and doing are more effective than the typical grade-oriented essay writing and projects.
“They really respond to that because school is real to them all of a sudden, and they value it,” says Morrison, who has put in a proposal to move the school out of a room in a rec centre and into a
storefront where they can have a gallery and share their work more widely. Unlike most high school students, the kids at OSF are not practicing for life outside of school; they’re living it.
Above: An OSF student poses with custom deck.
“One of the main focuses of the school is to tear the veil off of how do people do things, anything, especially things that are creative,” says Hortie.
“I think especially with arts, and publishing and writing, there’s this idea that either you’re supremely talented or not, and there’s not a lot of information about the actual basic skills you need.”
Zines fit into this equation because they give students the opportunity to go into the community and research subjects that interest them. They interview artists and small business owners for their zines and meet people who are doing the things they hope to be doing in their future. “We’re attracting those kids who found English painful in a regular school because they had to write a poem,” says Morrison. “But you tell them to describe the experience of bombing a hill on a skateboard and it becomes like poetry.
English class is often the natural location where zines pop up in high schools and universities. On top of encouraging creative writing and expression in a medium that might feel more natural than an essay, educators can teach concepts such as media literacy and critical thinking, comparing zines with other forms of media and asking questions about the reliability of various media.
“Students are more likely to already be suspicious of zines and it’s interesting to look at why that is and how they should apply that same suspicion to other information resources,” says Jenna Freedman, librarian at Barnard College in New York.
High school English and English as a Second Language teacher Toni Presti says she discovered zines as a teaching tool when she was teaching ESL and wanted something visual to help kids relate to their work, rather than simply assigning a 2,000-word essay. She was surprised by the intensely visceral reaction the zines received.
“The bottom line is that it’s real life. The situations and thoughts are so from the gut of the author, that the kids feel it. The zines are an example of writing and storytelling that they can match, live up to and maybe excel at.”
After seeing how engaged new English learners became with zines, she began using them in mainstream literature classes as well. “When the students write their own zines, they are finally and magically “masters” of a subject,” explains Presti, who currently teaches at a college-preparatory school in Connecticut. “Many high school students whether or not their first language is English, have never felt mastery. Zines allow that on many levels.”
Above: OSF students reveal designs to Cardinal Skate Shop.
And while zines are a significant resource for instructors who want to teach language comprehension and help students gain agency over their own thoughts, they can also be effective in subjects that are less connected to media production.
In a 2010 article in the academic journal American Biology Teacher, Andrew Yang wrote about the greater possibilities for engagement that zines can bring to the science classroom.
“Having to consider how to share scientific knowledge with others through the platform of booklet zines can deepen students’ knowledge of a topic, while also giving them a greater sense of personal agency in engaging with science as nonspecialists,” he writes.
Yang states that one of the key advantages of giving students the option to create zines in-class is the freedom it gives them to choose the format and topic that they most want to engage with. While this would be true in any subject, Yang says zines are advantageous specifically when it comes to science because they allow students who may have felt alienated from scientific discovery (either because of a lack of opportunity to study or bad experiences in science class) to gain a sense of ownership over their own research interests.
“What makes an “A” zine, and who the hell are you to decide that?” – Kelly McElroy, librarian at the University of Iowa
While the approaches of Yang and Morrison sound empowering, it might be tempting for some teachers to monitor and overly-control their students’ output. Freedman warns that educators should be mindful of this, and she’s hesitant to encourage all teachers to use zinemaking as a classroom project.
“In some ways I think that any zine that’s made for a class or for a teacher is not in fact a zine, so they need to be cognizant of that,” she says. “I just want people to really respect it and take it seriously.”
By mediating the zine-making, teachers run the risk of losing the original point of zines — creating a piece that follows the creator’s own rules — and they may unwittingly blur the lines between a zine and an essay that is folded to look like a zine. “As soon as zines get known, they get co-opted. So, I feel like teachers can share what a zine is or do some exercises with zines, or support their students that make zines, but they shouldn’t get too involved.”
In a 2007 article for The English Journal entitled “The Zine Project: Innovation or Oxymoron,” (read it online at the link) professor Tobi Jacobi argues that since many zines were born as a direct opposition to the constraints on writing placed within schools and other formal institutions, teachers should consider alternative approaches to zine-related assignments so that they can experiment within the medium “without appropriating it into the conventions of school writing.”
By extension, grading zines can be difficult, problematic and, as University of Iowa librarian Kelly McElroy puts it, “creepy.”
“What makes an ‘A’ zine, and who the hell are you to decide that?” she asks.
In a post on the POC Zine Project tumblr page about the pros and cons of teaching zines, the project’s founder Daniela Capistrano argues that grading a perzine is akin to “following a stranger into the toilet and grading the quality of their piss and shit.”
In her post she shares a list of questions for educators to consider when assigning a zine project to be graded, such as: Why are they teaching zines? What they hope to gain from their teaching? Are they including a diversity of voices in their teaching of zine history? Is it possible to give students a pass or fail rather than grading these very personal creations?
Instructors need to acknowledge the power imbalance in the classroom in order to be honest about the zines that result from these projects, says McElroy. Similarly, zine workshop facilitators should make sure they’re not projecting a need to create on an audience who may feel uncomfortable, or forced to share their stories. As Capistrano points out, people won’t always feel comfortable writing a perzine and sharing it with their teacher, particularly if they are then being graded on what they share. “From a library perspective, I’ve always appreciated that Jenna Freedman at Barnard College catalogues zines done for classes as ‘School zines,’” says McElroy. “It’s a quiet way to distinguish them from zines made purely out of personal passion.”
“Kids first of all deserve [these opportunities] because they haven’t had a lot of experiences that a lot of people take for granted,” says Craig Morrison, founder of Oasis Skateboard Factory.
Yang suggests that one solution to the marking conundrum is to allow peers to grade each other, as they are collaborators in the zinemaking process and often can better relate to the complexities of their peers’ zine creation and content than their teachers. Whether peer grading is a workable solution or not, peers can be ideal motivators for student zine-makers. In her 1999 article for Radical Teacher about zines and
their uses in the classroom, Amy T Wan shares a story about a University of Massachusetts professor who introduced a zine assignment and found that, because the students knew they would be sharing their work with each other in the end, the quality of the work was better than in typical assignments. As Freedman says, students often feel they can bullshit their teachers but don’t believe they can bullshit each other.
The same is true at OSF. Because the instructors require all the students to contribute to collaborative zines, the students all pull through because they don’t want to let each other down. While class-mandated zine-making has its benefits and problems, the opportunities for creators to share their skills outside of educational environments like schools and libraries are growing. Zine-makers and other artists often
share the history of zines and practical zine-making skills with groups who require an outlet to democratize communication.
Sheila Sampath’s Toronto-based activist design studio, The Public, gives workshops in zine-making to various clients and partners in order to facilitate social justice and build capacity in communities that are looking for, or could benefit from, these skills. For instance, Sampath and The Public recently taught zine-making to a young client who then helped to layout and create a zine by sex workers featuring safety tips for that industry, such as how to screen prospective clients. The zine was the best format for this information since the act of sharing this kind of insider info online could have had the opposite effect, possibly endangering workers if clients were to find it and subvert it.
“Because of the precariousness of sex work, a zine is the only way to do it,” says Sampath. “To physically hand it out to people and create a discreet cover so folks who know what it is, know what it is and those who don’t, don’t.”
In cases like this, when a specific community is looking for assistance sharing their stories, zine facilitators can be of great help. Likewise, in the case of alternative schools like OSF, where students can write about anything that is important to them, zines give these kids opportunities they may not otherwise have.
“Kids first of all deserve [these opportunities] because they haven’t had a lot of experiences that a lot of people take for granted,” says Morrison.
“They’re the ones who have fallen through the cracks or are too unique for the mainstream structure of school.” And they have important stories to tell.