Comics in New Zealand Education – Interview with Steve Saville of Alfriston College

Alfriston College is a Decile 3 school in South Auckland, serving a mixed population of Maori, Pacific Islanders, pakeha and other immigrants.

Working with Jeremy Bishop of DMC Comics – interviewed here on Books and Adventures – Alfriston has produced some striking comic book work thanks to a pioneering project that empowers students and gives them a platform for their creative expression.

Today we’re joined by Deputy Head Steve Saville to discuss Alfriston’s work as part of our ongoing feature on comics in New Zealand education.

Set out in the South Auckland suburbs, Alfriston College is determinedly non-traditional – it’s referred to, by critics and fans alike, as “that place where they play music instead of ringing a bell Comics from Alfriston Colllegebetween lessons”. The school’s philosophy is to use the latest research to deliver education for the 21st century. Innovations include a timetable of three 100-minute lessons a day, and termly ‘Three Day Episodes’, when students are given time to work on a self-selected project.

As Deputy Head Steve Saville puts it, ‘We’re trying to cultivate things a little bit outside the box. Authenticity and imagination are our watchwords. Traditional schooling was failing disadvantaged communities, and particularly the Maori, so why use it in a brand-new school?’

A British-born teacher with experience in both schools and universities, Steve arrived at Alfriston four years ago as Deputy Principal with responsibility for curriculum, bringing with him a lifelong comic-book obsession.

We met on a wet Tuesday morning in his office, decorated with examples of students’ artwork and a couple of cherished autographs from actors who have played Doctor Who.

‘The first comic book project was one of our Three Day Episodes,’ Steve explained. ‘I showed some pupils an excerpt from The Tempest – one of those flat old BBC adaptations. I wanted them to use their own creativity to bring the scene to life in a comic-book extract.

‘I already knew they could draw, but I was looking for storytelling, too: using the options to lay out the panels, draw the reader through the page.’

By collaborating with local publishers DMC, Steve was able to raise students’ game, making them think about quality outcomes and deadlines.

‘Both Jeremy of DMC and I were tired of seeing kids who could draw well, but didn’t develop their talent further. We wanted them to show some self-discipline: as Marvel Comics put it, we don’t employ the best artists…we employ the most productive ones.

‘A couple of times I had to play the tough editor and call students up to my office to ask why they didn’t make DMC’s deadline. I let them know: “You’ve got to measure up – this is a professional task.”’

Ultimately, Alfriston students met the challenge and DMC were proud to take their work to Armageddon, New Zealand’s major comic-book convention. The effect, says Steve, was dramatic: ‘The Comic book learning in action at Alfriston Collegehalf-dozen students who attended saw what could be achieved in the world of comics. Their work appeared in the local paper, and they began to feel professional pride as comics creators.’

Among the Alfriston success stories is student Michelle Bai, who now has branched into creating posters and selling her own designs via stalls at conventions.

‘Some of our most talented graduates are now pursuing tertiary studies in art and design,’ says Steve. ‘The comic book programme certainly helped them to demonstrate their potential.’

As the first wave of Alfriston comics creators graduate, Steve is looking to recruit a new cohort who will take the programme to a new level.

‘I want to explore presentation of comics online, collaborate with the drama department to tell a story in combined graphic/dramatic form, and develop our informal partnerships with outside agencies.

‘Publishing comics and finding an audience is always tricky in a small country like ours. It requires a great deal of time, money and energy, but I’m hopeful we can find away to bring comics creation into the very heart of the school’s philosophy…and spread the message across Aotearoa and beyond!’

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