“Comics are a Gateway Drug to Literacy.” —Art Spiegelman
Reading. It’s what you’re doing right now. In the United States, reading is something we often take for granted. Even if you attend one of the worst schools in the country, the likelihood is that you will still learn to read, if even at a rudimentary level. But this is not the case for much of the world. In many nations across the globe, young people, and adults as well, are functionally illiterate, especially if they belong to a lower economic class. The access to education and literacy are luxuries that many people are not afforded. Often there are no schools to attend, or they are too far a way to travel to. Many times your school has been destroyed by bombing, by terrorists, evil dictators, or accidental collateral damage. Sometimes you have to pay to attend school which makes it inaccessible for the poor. Sometimes you are so frightened by groups like Boko Haram, Isis, Al Qaeda, Drug Cartels, and oppressive regimes that you simply cannot leave your home.
Imagine not being able to read and write in your own language.
Now imagine you are a refugee or immigrant, quickly departing and then arriving in the United States, with limited ability to read and write in your first language, and unable to read and write English, and the inability to even understand most spoken English. Young people in that situation are my students. I’m an ESOL and ELL teacher.
“Literacy could be the ladder out of poverty.” —Danny Glover
I don’t teach students how to speak English, though most of the time that is what I actually do. I’m teaching them a standard high school English class, but it’s uniquely formatted to be more of a Humanities class. I incorporate Science and Social Studies in the classroom so that the students get a more interdisciplinary approach in terms of grammar, language acquisition, reading comprehension, nonfiction, and creative writing. My students don’t typically represent the expected age range for high school students. I teach 9th-12th grade, and more than 50% of my students fall between the ages of 17-21, and those students are usually in 9th or 10th grade.
“For me, literacy means freedom. For the individual and for society.” —LeVar Burton
As any parent or teacher knows, it can be a challenge to get kids to read, whether it’s for school or personal enjoyment. It can be equally difficult to get them to express themselves creatively. For established readers there has certainly been some success on this front with books like the Harry Potter series and young adult books like the Twilight series, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and the Divergent series. You can understand that, when you are teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and English Language Learners (ELL) with a rudimentary skill set, these books would not be appropriate tools to advance English Language Arts comprehension.
So it falls to the teacher (me) to assess the students and decide how best to reach them, engage them, and find relevant texts that will be on their level. As an avid comic book reader for over 35 years, I found inspiration in my leisure activity. Comic books have art, they’re fun, they have superheroes, and they have visual action and short sentences. I made a decision to create my own classroom unit to see if I could use the enjoyment of superheroes, and the comic book format as literature to inspire and engage the students. I called the unit “Do You Even Comic Book in the Classroom?”
“Literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy.” —Barack Obama
For nearly two years I’ve been following in the #DoYouEvenComicBook family on Twitter. I found Task and Toast through their SuperSuitShow podcast and then went and followed them on Twitter. I found a family there. I met people from all walks of life, all ages, all professions, all religions, all races and nationalities, and a range of sexual identities. The one thing uniting everybody was the love of comics. This type of diversity was integral and invaluable when I was looking for inspiration in what kinds of comics I was going to use. My students are not white—not a single one. And more than half of them are not Christian. This presents a difficulty when selecting comics, because let’s face it: we still live in a world where most popular heroes are white males. But there are many comic book superheroes who are not white males, and those were the ones I needed to find to select comics to use in the unit. Luckily, I have conversed with so many people from diverse backgrounds in the #DoYouEvenComicBook family that I monitored heroes who represented my students. They needed to see themselves in heroes, to make a connection. Another invaluable tool I used are the ‘representation’ posts that #DoYouEvenComicBook Council member Task has been doing each month. Every month with a theme, and every day a different hero ranging from Women’s History Month to Hispanic Heritage Month. Black History Month to Jewish Culture Month and everything in between.
I started the unit by discussing real life heroes with the students. We discussed what makes a hero and what qualities they have. We talked about people like firemen, police officers, parents and relatives, lifeguards, soldiers, and, yes, even teachers. After the discussion we moved on to the vocabulary for the unit, for which they would be tested at the end. I selected words that I felt would be useful to know in their everyday lives, and words that would increase the understanding of real life heroes and superheroes. These were the words:
Justice, Protect, Defend, Victory, Defeat, Invisible, Villain, Courage, Responsibility, Truth, and Rescue.
After working on the vocabulary we moved on to a Reading Comprehension phase. Luckily I found worksheets that worked perfectly for my unit. The first was a short biography of Stan Lee as well as a description of how he created Spider-Man. It’s called “Why Spider-Man Isn’t Mosquito Man.” The second worksheet is a story about a young boy who explains to his grandmother why he likes comic books and especially Spider-Man. It’s called “With Great Power.” They read the texts and then answered some reading comprehension questions as well as some short-answer writing.
The vocabulary and the reading comprehension laid the scaffolding to begin the introduction of the comic books. My 5 classes spent two full days in the school’s Media Center (what we old folks call a library) reading comics and coming up with ideas to create their own superheroes. They were asked to choose a name, age, country of origin, powers, and short origin story for their original heroes. Luckily our school’s Media Center Specialist is also a comic book fan; she keeps the Media Center well stocked with trade paperbacks.
I also went out-of-pocket and purchased about a hundred dollars’ worth of single issues from my LCS, Challenges Games and Comics in Atlanta, Georgia. I purchased comics that had heroes who would reflect my students. Comics like Mosaic by Geoffrey Thorne, Ms. Marvel by G.Willow Wilson, characters Miles Morales and Riri Williams by Brian Michael Bendis, Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jessica Cruz Green Lantern by Sam Humphries, Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka, Superwoman by Kate Perkins, and Supergirl by Steve Orlando—as well as many more. Right from the start I could tell that the students were amazed that there were so many heroes that looked like them. That had nationalities, skin colors, genders and religions like them. They loved the artwork and action in the books, and then they were hooked. They wanted to know what was going on in the story. I told them that if they wanted to know, then they had to read them. I placed a variety of foreign language word-to-word dictionaries on the tables and told them to have at it. They started learning new vocabulary and reading skills without even realizing that they were actually learning. Almost immediately I could hear them murmuring to each what they would want to be if they were a superhero.
I made the rounds and spoke to each student about a superhero they’d like to create. Most of them began to create heroes that represented them, that were born where they were born, or heroes that moved to the United Sates as immigrants and refugees. There were heroes from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mexico, Guatemala, Tanzania, Burundi, Iraq, Iran, Togo, Congo, Syria, and more. There were heroes that used their hijab as a magical item, heroes whose origins lay in African myths and legends, heroes who fought against the Taliban and drug cartels, and heroes who protected refugees and undocumented citizens living in America.
Once the students wrote down all the elements of their original heroes, I told them that they needed to draw a picture of their hero. Some students were excited by this, but mostly there was moaning and groaning. You see, to many high school students any type of schoolwork is work, even if it may end up being fun. And on top of that, most students are not artists, and the thought of having to draw something that will be seen publicly terrifies them. I did some quick thinking and found some human body templates online with a simple outline of body already there for them to work with. This way they could concentrate on the costumes, the powers and the background. After we returned to the classroom I loaded them up with colored pencils, let them use their phones for reference pictures, and let them loose to create.
What they came up with was spectacular. They turned out really wonderful character creations. They attached their artwork to a page which had their character’s information, powers, and origin story and then handed in their work. As long as they met all the requirements of the final assignment, I gave each student a grade of 100. This unit was not meant to be hard. It was meant to challenge them in ways that allowed them to grow in terms of creativity, creative writing, and reading skills. I displayed their work in the hallway, and I could see a sense of pride and happiness each time a student passed their work. They even became mini-celebrities for a few days with other students in the school enjoying their work then telling my students how much they liked it. This may seem like a small thing, but most of my students don’t have many friends outside other students in the ESOL/ELL program who share their nationality, color, religion, or language. To have the ‘regular’ students complimenting them gave them a feeling of acceptance, respect, and community.
I am certainly not the first educator to use comic books in the classroom. Many educators across the country have implemented the use of graphic novels and comic books for their specific subject. If you are an educator, a parent or anyone else who is interested in learning more, I can start you off with a few folks to check out both on Twitter and elsewhere online.
- The first is Tim Smyth who specializes in using comics to teach Social Studies and History. He has been a guest and lecturer at many events and gives parents and educators the tools they can use to get started. He can be found at @historycomics and HistoryComics.net.
- Another excellent resource is The Pop Culture Classroom, and their sites can be found at popcultureclassroom.org and classroom.popcultureclassroom.org.
- Tracy Edmunds is an editor and curriculum developer who uses comics and she can be found at @TracyEdmunds and tracyedmunds.com.
- Ronell Whitaker @misterwhitaker, a high school English teacher, thecomicbookteacher.com.
- Eric Kallenborn @comics_teacher, a comics in the classroom specialist at theothercomicbookteacher.com.
- And finally, one that’s dear to my heart, #DoYouEvenComicBook’s own Cheryl Gustafson @CherylGustafson.
- For a more expansive list, check out the page that Tim Smyth put together, historycomics.net/comics-educators-on-twitter. And of course, you can reach out to me or any of the fine folks from DoYouEvenComicBook.com (@doyouevencomic).
Thank you so much for reading and here are just a few more of the wonderful characters created by my students!
Adam Paul. AKA ChecK The CircuiT. An avid comic reader for over 35 years, my ride-or-dies are The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man and have been since I was old enough to walk. Much like Garfield, I hate Mondays and I love Lasagna. My love of scifi and fantasy began at an extremely early age with The Land of Make-believe on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I’m a high school ESOL/ELL teacher and I hold a Master’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School for Public Communications at Syracuse University.