Life Outside the Box Learning Institute is launched!

"Loopy" 3-hole reinforcing stickers are easy starters for comics.

Simple stick figures can help you read, write and remember!

A Justice Institute of British Columbia initiative.

From Grade 1 to graduate school, traditional tutoring to innovative learning support, online and face-to-face, Life Outside the Box can help you love learning.

Dr. Jessica Motherwell McFarlane, Ph.D.

Teaching Excellence Award Winner, JIBC

Strong beginning. Newly expanded. Life Outside the Box began at the Justice Institute of British Columbia. For two years we served at-risk youth in various schools around B.C. We observed consistently positive learning outcomes — especially for struggling students    and received high praise from the teachers whose classes we visited. Life Outside the Box now has an expanded 60-lesson curriculum* and new one-to-one and small group learning support services. 

Who can benefit from Life Outside the Box tutoring and mentoring services Children, youth, and young adults who:

  • Need some help with lesson assignments (written in English)
  • Are discouraged or disempowered around school work
  • Need customized lesson support to accommodate neural diversity or accessibility needs
  • Have anxiety around learning and find it hard to make it to school or campus

Where are the sessions? At a nearby library, North Shore learning studio, or via Skype or other web conference app.

More about Jessica Motherwell McFarlane, Ph.D. Please click on these links to read more about my award winning professional work in education. My credentials. My previous professional workshops for educators. My conference presentations

Evidence-based learning strategies. Read my recent published article that presents the research evidence for the “drawing effect” and other benefits of multimodal, arts-based learning. 

Motherwell McFarlane, J.A. (2019). Using visual narratives (comics) to increase literacy and highlight stories of social justice: Awakening to Truth and Reconciliation. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 12, 46–59.

Coming soon.

  • NEW – After school “how to make comics” club.
  • NEW – Harry Potter weekly reading group (all ages). We transfigure Harry’s adventures into stick figure scenes and co-create our own Harry Potter comic books.
  • NEW – Adult reading group analyzes their chosen book using Life Outside the Box visual narrative (making-comics) techniques

Life Outside the Box is dedicated to safe classroom practices. (criminal records check available upon request)

Office phone (leave message): 604-980-0160 



*Life Outside the Box Educators’ Manual: Sixty visual narrative lesson plans to help at-risk children, youth, and adults promote self care, inclusivity, and social justice. A Justice Institute of British Columbia initiative.


The Art of Social Justice: 4 panels to a liberatory consciousness





Four comic panels that show the correspondence between my four steps to upstanding against social injustices (developed for the Life Outside the Box project) and Love’s (2013) four steps to a liberatory consciousness.

Reference: Love, B.J. (2013). Developing a liberatory consciousness. In M.Adams, W.J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañada, H.W. Hackman, M.L. & Zuñiga (Eds.), Readings for Diversity and Social justice (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge. pp 601-605


Doodles can coax us into the “raw data” pool.

Doodles and stick figures representing the raw data can coax us down the "ladder of inference."

Doodles and stick figures representing the raw data can coax us down the “ladder of inference.”

Stereotypes and false beliefs keep us from seeing reality or coming into contact with the raw data. Doodles or stick figures representing the raw data can coax us down the “ladder of inference.”







“Doodle people” demands

Doodles demand we work on them to figure them out. Luckily, we are hard-wired to "lean in" to doodles.

Doodles demand we work on them to figure them out. Luckily, we are hard-wired to “lean in” to doodles.

“Doodle people” demand that we participate to make sense out of the comic. We are hard-wired to “lean in” to images and look for humanity. The fewer doodle details the more of us — and our personal story — we have to insert into the image to make meaning.

Fewer doodle details = More personal engagement.



“Glue” stick figures

When we express our notes accompanied by stick figures, our audience is more “stuck” to our message. Our hard-wiring to search for and see humanity — especially faces — compels us to “stick” with a stick figure diagram until we have found the meaning within. Stick figures come with a “super glue” superpower for educators who mix text with stick figures to get their message across to students who might drift away with text alone.

glue stick figures

Superpower: Stick figures “glue” our attention to the message and can help us bypass our own confirmation bias when we analyze the data.


Chance to win for sketching your quirky superhero …

Life Outside the Box will be offering a prize at the Sketching-in-Practice conference this Friday, June 24.

Stan Lee’s “How to write comics” has everything you want to know about creating fully realized, interesting heroes and villains. The book is well-written and gorgeously presented. Good luck to the conference goers who sketch a quirky superhero scene! You will be able to put in one entry form for every 5 X 8 index card scene you post on the “sharing wall” at the conference. (Note: Be sure your name is on your work so you are sure to be entered in the prize draw.)

“Comics icon Stan Lee, creator of the Mighty Marvel Universe, has set about to teach everything he knows about writing and creating comic book characters. In these pages, aspiring comics writers will learn everything they need to know about how to write their own comic book stories, complete with easy to understand instruction, tips of the trade, and invaluable advice even for more advance writers. From the secrets to creating concepts, plots, to writing the script, the man with no peer — Stan Lee—is your guide to the world of writing and creating comics.”


Taking Life-Outside-the-Box to Sketching-in-Practice

I am taking Life Outside the Box to the Sketching-in-Practice conference hosted by Simon Fraser University. Participants there will get a chance to create their own “quirky superheroes.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 2.50.05 PM

There will be a random prize draw for all those who sketch a superhero scene. Draw as many scenes as you like. You get one entry form for each scene posted on the “SHARE” board.


Urgent optimism is one superpower that builds grit.

“Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.” Jane McGonigal

screen-shot-2012-07-09-at-8-55-16-am-2Video games with many opportunities to risk, fail and ultimately succeed foster an environment of “urgent optimism” IF we have a “reasonable hope of success as well as the “possibility of a truly epic win” (Kelly, 2013. p. 48.) Life Outside the Box can be a story-telling practice where children and youth draw and write scenes of their heroes practicing urgent optimism and build up perseverance. As their heroes fail, try and succeed, comic book writers see a mirror of how it might be done in real life. Just as video games are a play ground where players devote intense energy to practicing resilience and grit, so comic book creating can be a play ground for the same practice.

“We feel that we are not as good in reality as we are in games … And I don’t mean just good as in successful, although that’s part of it. We do achieve more in gainteview-jane-mcgonigal-520me worlds. But I also mean good as in motivated to do something that matters, inspired to collaborate and to cooperate. And when we’re in game worlds I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to help at a moment’s notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long at it takes, to get up after failure and try again. And in real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don’t feel that way. We feel overcome, we feel overwhelmed, we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we’re playing games, they just don’t exist in games.” Jane McGonigal.

Kelley and Kelley (2013) suggest that “by adapting the best attributes of gaming culture we can shift people’s view of failure and ratchet up their willingness and determination to persevere. Jane McGonigal is looking for a way to make four “amazing superpowers: blissful productivity, the ability to weave a tight social fabric, this feeling of urgent optimism and the desire for epic meaning” relevant to real life problems. These superpowers are also character strengths that can also be practiced in comic book epic stories.


  1. Kelley, T. and Kelley, D (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York: Crown business. p. 48.
  2. Transcript of Jane McGonigal’s TED talk can be found here: https://janemcgonigal.com/2014/01/06/transcript-games-can-make-a-better-world/
  3. Video of Jane McGonigal’s TED talk can be found here: https://youtu.be/dE1DuBesGYM