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 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.
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?
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.
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.