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Eek! Comics in the Classroom!

"Readers in the 21st century need to be able to analyze what they read and understand the motive of the author and the accuracy of the reading. They need to see themselves as active users, not merely vessels to be filled. Graphic novels offer a forum for these essential discussions."
-- Nancy Frey, Using Graphic Novels, Anime, and the Internet in an Urban High School

Included: Resources for finding and teaching classroom-appropriate comics and graphic novels. Are you looking for a way to motivate reluctant readers, engage urban youth, develop the comprehension skills of second-language learners, or teach visual literacy to elementary level students? Have you considered comics? That's right, comics! More and more teachers are finding that once-maligned comics, and their big brothers graphic novels, can be effective tools for teaching a multitude of literacy skills to students with a variety of learning needs.

According to Stephen Cary, a second language learner specialist and author of Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, "Comics provide authentic language learning opportunities for all students.The dramatically reduced text of many comics make them manageable and language profitable for even beginning level readers."

Finding Appropriate Resources
According to educator Nancy Frey, one of the drawbacks to using graphic novels in the classrooms is that "the availability of a broad array of graphic novels suitable for classroom use is still limited. We spend lots of time crawling bookstores looking for graphic novels for the classroom," Frey said. "Some feature violent images or adult topics. Like any book, you should read the entire thing before placing it in your classroom. And don't just thumb through it -- even graphic novels that contain pages you wouldn't use in its entirety can yield wonderful pearls."

"A second drawback," says Frey, "is that graphic novels have not yet achieved a broad audience across ages and genders, as they have in Japan. We marveled several years ago when traveling in Japan at the range of genres represented in manga (Japanese graphic novels). Manga is read by children, teenagers, corporate types, and the elderly because there is such a wide array of titles. As the graphic novel genres grow, so will its audience. That will be good news for teachers, who recognize good literature when they see it."

The following sites can help you locate appropriate comics and graphic novels for classroom use.
* Comic Books for Young Adults: A Guide for Librarians
*Comic and Graphic Novel Resources
* Graphic Novel Reviews
* A Parent's Guide to Graphic Novels for Teens
*Recommended Graphic Novels for Public Libraries
* Kid Safe Graphic Novels

Comics, Cary notes, with their emphasis on engaging content and an expanded use of visual material, are an especially effective medium in the context of brain-based teaching, which emphasizes hands-on, manipulative-based activities. "The brain has little time for nonsense. It's a meaning-maker, constantly searching for patterns, connecting bits of new information to old, fashioning wholes from parts and parts from wholes. It's also shamelessly self-centered. The brain makes sense of the world in terms of personal learner needs. Relevant curriculum attracts and engages it.For a number of reasons -- the humor, heroes, movement, pop culture themes, real-world language, novelty, and perhaps, above all, artwork -- comics consistently engage students."

When teachers use comics, Cary says, students attend to the activities and learning accelerates.

Clearly, comics are an effective tool for engaging students. Having gotten their attention, however, what do you do with it? What can students possibly learn from comics? A lot, according to Read Write Think, a partnership among the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the MarcoPolo Education Foundation, which offers 18 lessons that use comics to teach such skills and concepts as narrative structure, genre, popular culture, homophones, characterization, even math and poetry, to students in kindergarten through high school.

The New York City Comic Book Museum offers a complete English curriculum built around comics. Created by Dan Tandarich, a 5th grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York, "C.O.M.I.C.S. Challenging Objective Minds: An Instructional Comicbook Series" focuses on using comics to teach reading and writing to students in grades 5-10.

Additional lessons, on sequencing, storytelling, cultural comparison, cartooning, poetry, literature, and writing can be found at the National Association of Comics Art.


Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, California high school teachers and the authors of Using Graphic Novels, Anime, and the Internet in an Urban High School, say graphic novels -- short novels done in the medium of comics -- also can be an effective means of teaching struggling adolescent readers.

"We like to use graphic novels to teach comprehension skills, especially inferencing," Frey told Education World. "Struggling readers have often been told for years that inferencing is about "reading between the lines" -- an explanation that often creates more confusion for the reader. After all, if you're having trouble reading what's on the line, when do you ever get to "read between?"

"So, we use panels from graphic novels in shared reading (usually projected on an overhead) to engage them in a discussion of the nuances of visual language to represent ideas. We invite them to tell the story and ask them lots of questions about how they know. You'd be surprised at the answers -- they can immediately identify the devices used by the artist to represent these concepts. It's a short journey to replacing visual images with words. In our minds, it makes sense to initially move them as far away from text as possible so they can concentrate on what they already know. Their recognition of the similarity between how artists and writers use language to communicate the ideas becomes a bridge for teaching new information about reading comprehension. As you can imagine, this translates to writing as well.

"We also use graphic novel excerpts that contain no text boxes to teach dialogue writing. These wordless representations provide a foundation of a story. It gives us the opportunity to instruct about the mechanics of dialogue, while utilizing a compelling story."

Frey added, "We'd also like to acknowledge the importance of critical literacy -- the ability of a reader to understand his or her role in the transaction that occurs between the reader and the text. Readers in the 21st century need to be able to analyze what they read and understand the motive of the author and the accuracy of the reading. They need to see themselves as active users, not merely vessels to be filled. Struggling readers may get little of these experiences. Graphic novels offer a forum for these essential discussions."


One advantage of using graphic novels with adolescents, according to Frey and Fisher, is the books' ability to present complex material in readable text.

"A challenge for teachers of struggling adolescent readers is that their level of sophistication in understanding complex issues exceeds their ability to access traditional texts," Frey points out. "Therefore, teachers are faced with two poor choices: give them watered down text that doesn't meet a standard of conceptual complexity, or give them text that is far beyond their reading level. Either choice is unsatisfactory for both the student and the teacher. Graphic novels offer a means for representing complex material in ways that reduce the cognitive demand of reading dense text while portraying sophisticated concepts. We don't believe that graphic novels should replace traditional texts, but rather that they can provide the teacher with a way of building conceptual understanding and academic vocabulary, thereby making subsequent traditional text more comprehensible.

"Another advantage to graphic novels is that they give the teacher an opportunity to bring youth culture into the classroom. We're not talking about co-opting superficial trappings of youth -- we can recall when one of our high school teachers embarrassed himself by trying to use some slang! What we are talking about is acknowledging to our students that we care about their interests and recognize the value of their contributions to the classroom community. When we use graphic novels, we do so respectfully, and make sure our students see us as fellow learners. Invariably, their ability to read these texts far exceeds our own.


Be sure to check out today's Sneak Peek Book Preview, Going Graphic by Stephen Cary.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World

Updated 01/11/2008