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Making the Case for Comics: Jabari Sellars, L&L'18

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Language and Literacy reflects on his time at HGSE and looks toward the future.

Jabari SellarsAfter teaching in Washington, D.C. public schools, Jabari Sellars arrived at HGSE seeking new strategies to increase literacy skills among underserved students, particularly adolescents. But as his year in the Language and Literacy (L&L) Program went on, his goals evolved.

“My goal is still to improve literacy in adolescent students, but I’m no longer searching for the perfect practice or strategy,” he says. “Instead, I’m focusing on the power of motivation and identity validation to improve student buy-in with lessons and overall engagement with texts.”

As an English teacher, Sellars has found himself in constant battle with “The Canon” — the literature that has been universally accepted as “important” and taught in schools for generations. These pieces, says Sellars, do not reflect the diversity of the student body, nor do they always inspire student engagement.

“Too many teachers, schools, and school systems rely on texts and practices that disregard the diverse identities, interests, and experiences of our students for the sake of unwritten rules that uphold Shakespeare and other old white male writers as the only literature worth reading. Schools tether themselves to tradition at the price of student buy-in. They disregard popular culture and refuse to acknowledge the literary power of any writing that deviate from the common novel, play, or poem medium,” says Sellars, noting his plans to embrace pop culture and bring comics, graphic novels, manga, anime, and video games into the K–12 classroom.

Sellars’ passion about increasing the academic regard of pop genres in education caught the attention of his cohort, and Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, faculty director of L&L.

“Jabari can explain the symbolism in [graphic novels] and connect it to what is known as ‘the canon,’ and he helped us all see the relevance of this genre to academic success,” Mason says. “During class discussions Jabari thoughtfully made insightful connections during discussions of the texts. He was also receptive to others challenging his positions and was open to considering multiple perspectives. Jabari is a skilled writer in academic, personal narrative, and fiction genres. He pushed the thinking and perspectives of faculty and the cohort alike when considering different ways of knowing and representing.”

Sellars will receive the Intellectual Contribution Award for L&L at Convocation on May 23. Here, he reflects on his time at HGSE.

What was your greatest fear before attending HGSE?
I was afraid I didn’t belong at Harvard. My fear was so strong that it wasn’t until the first day of classes that I stopped expecting an ominous email, phone call, or tap on the shoulder informing me my graduate program meant to give some other Jabari an offer of admission. The crimson H can be overwhelming. Despite hearing and reading “you belong,” it takes time to internalize such a supporting message. Growing up (and even as an adult) I viewed Harvard as a place reserved for the perfect. I am immensely grateful for having been disabused of such an assumption. The greatest learners and educators are far from infallible; rather, what makes them great is their ability to recognize and appreciate their uncertainties, vulnerabilities, and areas that need improvement. During my time here, I have come to realize HGSE, as with all great institutions, neither expects nor encourages students to pursue perfection. The power is in progress and the lessons learned through bold attempts and shortcomings.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education?
Stanovich, 1986. This is the parenthetical citation for an article I have referenced in nearly every writing assignment and academic conversation I have had at HGSE. The article lays out the positive cycle of literacy development that begins and ends with a motivation for and joy of reading. I will leave HGSE with the knowledge that educators must prioritize student motivation. Through texts and activities, students must have their identities, interests, and experiences acknowledged, validated, and celebrated if they are expected to earnestly engage with curricula.

How did you stay inspired throughout the year? 
During times of frustration, sadness, or laziness, I remember why I am at HGSE and for whom I am at HGSE. The son in me wants to make my parents and grandparents proud. The teacher in me knows that I am here to become a better educator for all my students, especially my students of color. I am here because of the students of Hillside High School, Maret School, and Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. Thinking about my students will always inspire me to read the extra article, attend the extra panel discussion, and write the extra page.

Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for …
Comics. Not a week goes by without a trip to Million Year Picnic or New England Comics. The panels and splash pages always provide a much-needed escape.

What is up next?
I came to HGSE from the classroom. For a while, I thought my time as K–12 teacher had come to an end, as I expected to work as an education specialist or curriculum developer. The classroom isn’t done with me yet! After graduating from the Language & Literacy Program, I will return to teaching English on the high school level, and I couldn’t be happier. I am fortunate that my calling, my dream, and my duty are the same thing. Teaching is in my blood, and I can’t wait to get back to it!