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.
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.
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.
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.