Not so many years ago, comic books in school were considered the enemy. Kids caught sneaking comics between the pages of bulky—and less engaging—textbooks were likely sent to the principal. But now comics, including classics such as Superman but also their generally more complex, nuanced cousins graphic novels, are not only regarded as educational tools by savvy teachers, they are also taken seriously as literature and an art form in their own right. Comic books can be a great way to pique reluctant readers’ interest and challenge those students who are fluent in more traditional literature.
When fourth-grade teacher Kathy Campbell asked her class at Fruchthendler Elementary in Tucson, Arizona, what they wanted to study, the response was unanimous: comic books. At the time, Campbell, who works as a volunteer art teacher, didn’t know a thing about comics. But after studying Columbia University’s Comic Book Project, she formulated a plan.
Using the theme “If I were a superhero,” her students wrote and analyzed essays that they eventually used to create their own comic books. “They took the written word and pulled it apart sentence by sentence,” Campbell says. “They had to investigate how they would transform their writing into character and dialogue.” At first, says Campbell, the kids had trouble visualizing their stories, but in the end they produced creative work. “If we show kids how the written word actually has a visual component to it,” she says, “and teach kids how to think that way, I think they’ll become much better writers. Their word choice is much richer, and their creativity is boundless.”
Comics and the New Media Literacy
There’s been a stigma against comic books in America, says Wiley Miller, comic artist and author of the Ordinary Basil series, whether because we don’t recognize comics as appropriate or serious reading, or because we think other books are more valid. Either way, he says, “trying to dissuade kids from reading comics is silly and juvenile—it hurts kids.”
But today, comics are gaining respect in the educational community. “The idea of using comic books as an educational tool isn’t new,” says Michael Bitz, founder of the Comic Book Project at the Columbia University School of Education. “What is new is the larger embrace of comics as literature.”
There’s more desire to bring the medium into the classroom than ever, agrees James Bucky Carter, Ph.D., author of Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel. “The institution of traditional education and print-based education is still dominating, but I see more and more teachers asking how they can introduce comics.”
As literature, comics are “a layering of text, visual and pictoral,” says Carter. And don’t think you can just skim a comic book. The words and illustrations are meant to be “read” together. “As long as you’re reading comics, you’re using visual literacy skills,” says Carter, whether that’s interpreting Batman’s facial expressions or imagining what’s happening in a description of a science experiment.
Kids are at ease with combining visual and text information, and as new media becomes mainstream, comic books offer a way to reinforce traditional grammar and spelling within a layout that’s familiar to kids. “Every year there are new literacies,” says Bitz, and “when you look at a comic book, you can see how it’s a storyboard for a film, or a Web-based media project. There are connections to media literacy all along the way.” Comics help 21st-century kids relate to big themes and topics by tapping into the way students are already learning naturally.
The Story of My Life
Creating comics brings the writing process full circle. “You’re a writer first,” explains Miller. “You have something to say. Then, you’re an editor—you want to edit as many words as possible—and then you’re an artist.” That visual orientation doesn’t take away from traditional reading and writing skills. “Comics are focused on sequence: First leads to second. You have to imagine the story playing out in your mind, and between the first and second panels there are inferences about the characters.”
Bitz was surprised that Comic Book Project students created stories and characters that reflected their own lives, rather than superhero plotlines. Instead of an excuse to draw Spider-Man, the project “became an opportunity to self-reflect,” says Bitz, “and explore self-identity.”
Moreover, students known for behavior problems during typical reading and writing activities were the most engaged during comic book lessons. “Suddenly these kids became leaders,” says Bitz. “They collaborated and started to work together to become part of education, whereas before they were shut out.” Creating comic books is an opportunity for kids who struggle with reading to excel because, says Bitz, “it’s not about speed. It’s about the story and about how creative you can be.”
Comics for Every Curriculum
Comics are a way to supplement what you’re already studying in class. Use books from the Graphic Classics series, which include graphic novels and stories from H.G. Wells to Jack London, to expand on a unit about literature. Working on character development? Try Spider-Man. “The whole mythos of Spider-Man is ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’” says Carter. “That’s a great message for kids.” Carter uses Spider-Man as a springboard into discussions about identity with students who are entering adolescence. You may have to challenge some assumptions before you use comics in the classroom, and make sure that you read every book before you use it in class. Just because a book is a comic doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for young students. If you think it will be at all controversial with your class, consider using an excerpt, selecting a different book, or sending a note home to parents ahead of time.
Ready to launch your own comic book study? Here are some memorable projects to end the year, as well as book suggestions that will engage reluctant readers or challenge high achievers over the summer break.
End-of-Year Comic Book Activities
Make your last unit of the school year a comic book unit. Have students write an essay about what they did in school this year, and then transform it into a short comic book. Or, if your students are younger or time is short, have kids choose their favorite moment from that school year and make it into a comic strip. Then, compile all their comics into an end-of-year keepsake book, make a copy for each student, and host an author signing before you head out the door for summer. This activity can be made class-specific—make a comic to tell the story of a math lesson or science experiment, for example. l Download student-made comic books at the Comic Book Project and use these books in class. This is good for afternoons when time is running short but you can still get in a quick, satisfying project.
Encourage students to make their own comics over the summer. Give them a template that works for them—a few boxes for younger kids to a small book for older students—and directions to follow over the summer (a theme, instructions for parents, and so on). Remind them that comics can even be about “ordinary” events. When they return, they can share their book with the class. How about a dramatic reading?
Use comic books to teach onomatopoeia. Have students flip through comics and identify words that imitate natural sounds, such as whiz. Have students experiment with replacing these words with more mundane, descriptive text, such as “flies past.” How does this change the story? Have students draw their own panels using onomatopoeia.
Be sure to have students share their work with one another. One of the greatest thrills of comics, after all, is passing on a cherished volume to a friend.