Why Students Are More Willing to Read Graphic Novels

There are a number of reasons why students that scoff at black and white text while fully engaging with comics, even if the actual word counts are comparable.  

This is part of and ongoing series on Comics in the Classroom.  When teachers looks to introduce Key Literacy Skills to their students, they often overlook the most powerful tool in reaching their students – Comic Books.  This multi-part series explores why comics should be used in your classroom, as well as what books are best suited for your classroom.  All articles in this series can be Read Here.

 

The Stories aren’t Three Times as Old as the Students

Comics are more relatable for the simple reason that they’re modern.  While there’s nothing wrong with the classics (UDON Entertainment actually publishes Classic comics in a Manga Format) a number of our students may have a hard time relating to the characters, time periods, diction, or any number of other things that act as roadblocks.

As the Modern Age of comics began less than forty years ago, most in-print collections that students are introduced to deal with contemporary issues, language, and style.

 

But I Want My Students to Love My Favourite Book…

You have a favourite book.  You probably have a top ten list of favourite books.  Now, if we’re being honest with each other, you probably have at least two top ten lists of favourite books.  One that is your academic list and one that is your honest list.  

When asked what my favourite books are, I’m probably not going to lead with Jurassic Park, and I might not even be willing to admit to Starship Troopers unless I really know the the person asking.  But they’re number two and one – respectively – on my honest list.

At parent’s night, when asked what my favourite novels are, I’m far more likely to tilt my chin up ever so slightly – as if preparing to take the perfect selfie – stroke my beard one, two, three times, and then respond with Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, followed by the experimental epic House of Leaves (either the original Red or Blue edition – never the full colour), rounding things out with My Antonia.  

The only overlap between the two lists might be Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, or Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs in I’m speaking to Canadians.

 

The Thing about favourites…

Think about your lists – which of those books did you actually enjoy reading, and which of them do you only talk about having liked after the fact?  Did you only read them because you forced yourself to read them?

Starship Troopers was the type of book I couldn’t put down.  It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times.  It’s the one book that I read to my son when he was an infant, refusing to go to bed even though the clock clearly said it was 3:00am.  

On the other hand, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller was the type of book I forced myself to read, sloughing through each half chapter of disconnected narrative, trying to create meaning with the next half chapter told in second person where You is not you, but rather the protagonist You who often refers to You the reader You, rather than to the You that is they, the protagonist.

Both books are great.  I really do love them equally.  But I can tell you which one of the two I’d be more willing to put in front of a student.  We know that there are some books that are like dessert: a tasty treat sliding down as easy as ice cream on a summer’s day, no matter how full you are.  

And we know there are books like escargot and caviar – or even ginger beer and black liquorice – acquired tastes that you love once you’ve forced them down your throat for the first, second, or seventeenth time.

 

Force Feeding

As educators we are probably the type of person willing to slurp back that sixteeth snail, hoping that this will be the bite that finally makes us think, “hmm, that really is wonderful.  I finally understand why people enjoy these chewy mucusy mollusks!” but our students are far more honest, with far less to prove. They’d split that slug out as fast as they could, and yell all sorts of names at you for trying to force it upon them.  Or worse still, they’d just chew on it silently, unable to swallow, but also without a napkin in which to spit out the disastrous meal.

One type of student will proclaim loudly that they are not reading the book, because they don’t understand it.  The other will flip page after page, literally reading each an every word, but understanding nothing. And you’ll never know.  Because they’re just there silently chewing their snail, forever hoping for the napkin which will never come.

Students need to be offered books that they – not you – can relate to.  Even if you love the book you’ve assigned, how many of your friends feel the same way about it?  How many of your co-workers? What abour your mechanic, or your IT support worker, or the cashier at the grocery store you frequent?  They might have read it, they might not have hated it, but it probably didn’t change their word the same way it changed yours.

Now consider your students, at least ten years your junior.  Will they be able to connect in the same way you did? Sure The Catcher in the Rye is a great tale.  But, will your students really understand and relate to a rich white kid complaining about how hard life is, even though he has been given everything?

Comic books on the other hand offer students a glimpse of the present.  They show modern values for what they are. They offer real world examples of politics, biases, and contemporary concerns.  

Which of the two types of texts do you think will offer a more rewarding experience?  Which of those do you think will lead to a more engaged and engrossing class discussion that demonstrates the full range of your students’ literacy skills?

 

About Snails

Now, back to the snail metaphor.  Because it’s slimy and wonderful. You may be saying to yourself, if students have a difficult time reading (swallowing the snail) how will comics help when it’s the simple act of decoding that is the greatest barrier?  Well, with any terrible tasting meal, sometimes all you need is a little seasoning. Comic books are the salt of the fine dining French cuisine.

 

What’s Next?

You know, maybe it’s best we just drop that metaphor altogether.  It has run away from itself a little too far – even though snails don’t run, they glide on their mucus-covered muscular foot.  All you really need to know is that…  Comic Books Help with Decoding.  That’s what we’ll be discussing next.

 

 

 


Part One: Comics in the Classroom

Part Two: Students Will Read Comics

Part Three: Comics Help with Decoding

Part Four: Publishers to Be Aware Of

SPOTLIGHT: Udon Entertainment

SPOTLIGHT: Boom! Studios

Comics in the Classroom

When teachers looks to introduce Key Literacy Skills to their students, they often overlook the most powerful tool in reaching their students – Comic Books.  This multi-part series explores why comics should be used in your classroom, as well as what books are best suited for your classroom.  All articles in this series can be Read Here.

 

An Introduction

Comic books?  In a classroom?  For decades the very idea was absurd.  In the now classic, Back 2 School episode of Boy Meets World English teacher, Jonathan Turner, fights the system by teaching issue 316 of The Uncanny X-Men in an attempt to introduce his students to complex themes in a way they could easily understand.  Fighting the power structure, Turner put his career on the line to demonstrate the value of comics in the classroom.

Over two decades later the show Girl Meets World reintroduced the same concept, this time with English teacher Harper Lee Burgess choosing to introduce her students to The Dark Knight Returns.  Once again the teacher (mirroring Batman, fighting for what’s right despite lacking power) had to pit herself against her principal (mirroring the Superman, possessing power but little knowledge about how to properly use it) to justify the value of comics in the classroom.  During the many years between the two episodes things have changed both in reality, and the fictional New York school board of the show.

Jonathan Turner had since become superintendent, having no problem taking the biased principal to task for threatening the new teacher.  Similarity many school boards are now looking to bring comics into the classroom, understanding their value.

 

Shifting Fears

Comic books have a home in most English book rooms, while also finding a home in a variety of other departments as well.  No longer is it the administrators that fight against these texts – they want to be seen on the cutting edge, able to relate to students, and increase literacy scores through the inclusion of relatable materials.  The fight isn’t getting comics into book rooms…  it’s getting them out of book rooms and into teachers’ classrooms.

Where there was once a top-down bias against the format, there is now fear of the unknown from teachers who are well entrenched in the way they were taught, and the way they have been teaching for years.  

Introducing something new requires retooling old lesson plans, reading new texts, considering new ways to approach ideas, and most horrifically of all – recreating their subject binders. Which is, of course, why I work digitally.  Adding a new digital file into a folder takes no time at all. There are no plastic sleeves to fight with, dividers to move, or 2.5 inch rings filled to bursting.

Binders tie people to old ways of teaching due to the difficulty in updating them, which is why when someone asks to see my course binders, my reply is always, “What binder?”

 

Don’t You Mean Graphic Novels?

There are teachers who will profess that they don’t teach comic books, while still handing out texts full of sequential art telling a narrative tale.  When questioned they will reply, “These are Graphic Novels.” as if there is a distinction between the two.

Some teachers will talk about the value to Maus, express the importance of Persepolis, justify their use of Louis Riel, all while diminishing the value of comic books.  There are still others who are willing to defend their use of Aya, V for Vendetta, and even skirt the concept of super heroes by using The Watchmen.  These teachers, too, are often quick to express that they are teaching Graphic Novels and not comic books.

Comic Books and Graphic Novels are the same thing.  There is no difference. As Scott McCloud said in his book Understanding Comics, “Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”1.  Graphic Novel was nothing more than a term used to describe a collection of floppies (single issues).  These are also called Trade Paper Backs.

I’m not willing to fight this point too much.  If someone feels better about using the term Graphic Novel, and makes them more willing to bring them into their classroom, that’s fantastic.  It’s only when they start disparaging those who see the value of introducing their students to Spider-Man, The X-Men, Superman, or even Street Fighter because they’re just comics that I become upset.

 

Why Should We Use Them in Our Classrooms?

We know that students read at a higher level when they read familiar material2.  When exploring the concept of prejudice the student who is unwilling to dive into a 400 page novel written at the turn of the century may be far more willing to open up the Grant Morrison run of New X-Men.  While some teachers may place value on a student being able to read a long, dry, novel simply for the sake of reading it, hopefully there are more teachers who understand the real value of their lessons is teaching, reinforcing, and exploring cross-curricular literacy skills.

 

What’s Next?

The next parts in the What Binder series on using Comics in the classroom will look at Why Students are More Willing to Read Comics, as well as the specific ways in which Comic Books Help Our Students.  We will also explore What Comics Books are Suitable for Your Classroom while also looking at some of The Best Comic Publishers to Know.  

A follow up series will explore How to Use Comic Books in Your Classroom.


Footnotes

  1. Comics in Education – Gene Yang
  2. Three Myths About “Reading Levels” (Psychology Today)

 

 

 


Part One: Comics in the Classroom

Part Two: Students Will Read Comics

Part Three: Comics Help with Decoding

Part Four: Publishers to Be Aware Of

SPOTLIGHT: Udon Entertainment

SPOTLIGHT: Boom! Studios

Gender Representation Lessons: Downloadable Resources

This page contains all the downloadable resources for the Teaching Gender Representation in the Media lessons.  While each lesson is a classroom-ready three part lesson, the various resources have all been collected in this location for teaching convenience.

 

Gender Lesson Resources

All resources and lessons can be used for non-commercial classroom use.

 

THE TOY BOX

Regardless of age, everyone has a memory of a toy that they loved when they were a child, or a toy they wanted but they were never given.  The things we play with help determine the people we grow into.  This lesson focuses on separating boy toys from girl toys while pausing to take a look at why we sorted the objects the way we did.

DOWNLOADS

Toy Box – Brother Sister Handout.pdf

 

THE GENDER BOX

Building off of the foundation from The Toy Box we look further into the gender normative roles students feel they need to fulfill.  By confronting prejudices and allowing students to speak openly about their experiences, the foundation is strengthened with shared experiences and concepts.

DOWNLOADS

Gender Box – Minds On.pdf

Gender Box – Handout 1.pdf

Gender Box – Handout 2.pdf

Gender Box – Exit Slip.pdf

 

THE PAST IS PRESENT [PART 1 / PART 2]

By examining a number of historical and contemporary advertisements, students will begin to see how ludicrous modern messaging is when primed through the problematic advertisements of decades past.  Students will then have an opportunity to examine advertisements that they experience through the same lens.

DOWNLOADS

Flipside – Bar Handout.PDF

Representation in Media Handout.pdf

Goldieblox vs. Lego – Comparison Assignment.pdf

 

USING THE MEDIA TRIANGLE TO ANNOTATE ADVERTISEMENTS

Building on the concepts from the last lesson, students will choose specific advertisements, analyzing them through all three sides of the Media Triangle.  Students will then present their findings to the class, allowing all students to take an in-depth look at a variety of contemporary texts and the problematic nature of their messaging.

DOWNLOADS

Fixing Contemporary Advertising.PDF

 

THE GENDER R.A.F.T.

Students will consider the reasons behind Gender Normative behaviours, and create a R.A.F.T. (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) letter that will help them formalize their thoughts.

DOWNLOADS

RAFT Assignment – Minds On.pdf
Lego vs. Goldieblox Comparison RAFT Assignment.pdf
Effects of Gender Messaging in Advertising RAFT Assignment.pdf

 

RESHAPING GENDER NORMATIVE ROLES

Students will be challenged to explore their personal space, school, community, and beyond.  During their explorations, they will identify both positive and negative messaging, while seeking to understand how to create lasting impact and change

DOWNLOADS

Venn Diagram – Communication.pdf
Letter Writing to Enact Change.pdf

 


PART 1: Gender Representation in the Media

PART 2: Lesson – The Toy Box

PART 3: Lesson – The Gender Box

PART 4: Lesson – The Past is Present – Part 1

PART 5: Lesson – The Past is Present – Part 2

PART 6: Lesson – Annotating Texts

PART 7: Lesson – Gender R.A.F.T.

PART 8: Lesson – Reshaping Roles

PART 9: Final Thoughts

PART 10: Gender Representation – Resources

Gender Representation in the Classroom: Final Thoughts

Gender representation is a serious issue that is constantly changing.  Each month brings new issues to the forefront; strong teachers will use current events to help shape their dynamic lessons.

This lesson is part of a large mini-unit on Teaching Gender Representation in the Media.  It can be used as a stand-alone piece or part of a larger conversation.

 

Resources

There are a wealth of resources available to help you continue exploring the issue of gender representation.  While some specifically target classroom teachers, many are essayists who write passionately about feminism and contemporary concerns.

You will find a currated list that will help focus your ongoing exploration here.

 

Classroom Specific

The British Council: How to approach teaching gender equality to boys and girls

Australian Aid – Tool Kit on Gender Equality Results and Indicators

Teaching Tolerance – ‘Good Morning Boys and Girls’: When a simple greeting engenders stereotypes.

Pacific Standard – The Importance of Teaching Gender in International Relations Classrooms

Vanderbilt University – Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom

 

Important Blogs

Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

The Mary Sue

Ms. Magazine

The Guardian | Feminism

Feministing

 

Research

Toronto District School Board – 2012 Gender Report

 

Next Steps…

As mentioned, Gender issues are constantly changing.  Be sure to add updated sites that you follow in the comments below.  I’ll work to add them to this living document.

If you haven’t seen the full Teaching Gender Representation in the Media unit, be sure to look at through all the different classroom-ready lessons.  Or, you can just head straight to the Gender Lessons: Resource Download Page.

 


PART 1: Gender Representation in the Media

PART 2: Lesson – The Toy Box

PART 3: Lesson – The Gender Box

PART 4: Lesson – The Past is Present – Part 1

PART 5: Lesson – The Past is Present – Part 2

PART 6: Lesson – Annotating Texts

PART 7: Lesson – Gender R.A.F.T.

PART 8: Lesson – Reshaping Roles

PART 9: Final Thoughts

PART 10: Gender Representation – Resources