Bang, Bop, Bam!

Using comics in the classroom (and at home) can get kids hooked on reading.

Many kids do not choose to sit and read for 90 minutes at a time, yet that is exactly what a group of elementary-aged children did almost a year ago when I brought them some books. Were these gifted students or highly motivated students, perhaps? No. They were a group of low-income, ethnically diverse, struggling, at-risk students attending an after-school tutoring program in downtown Springfield. Just typical kids from troubled homes who were struggling with school and needed additional help with reading and homework.

This group of second through fifth graders sat in a warm basement—each at his or her own table with an adult mentor sitting beside—and they devoured books for an hour and a half. They had the option of playing in the game room after 45 minutes, but they chose to read. It is almost unheard-of for elementary students to choose reading over games, and it is equally rare that they read for 90 minutes, but they did it with an excitement that stunned the adult mentors, but it brought a silent smile to my face.

Want to Read?

Are You Curious About Comic Literature? Consider these three books for a sampling of what comic literature has to offer.

The 9/11 Report, A Graphic Adaptation illustrated
The findings of the 9/11 Commission are put to page in a new and engaging way. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the tragedy of September 11. This graphic novel was commissioned by the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission. It’s recommended for ages 12 and older because of reading level, but some elementary students will be very interested even if it is above their reading level.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
A Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about ramifications of the holocaust. Beautiful, poignant and powerful, this story is amazing in its complexity of text and illustrations. It’s recommended for ages 15 to adult.

The Wind in the Willows
This comic is a delicate adaptation of the original novel for all ages.

Graphic Classics: Mark Twain
This is a compilation of short stories and other writings by one of America’s greatest writers.

Clan Apis
Read this for an amazing, science-based, anthropomorphic story of the life of the honey bee.

Comprehensive reviews of all the titles above can be found at Chris Wilson’s site, The Graphic Classroom, graphicclassroom.blogspot.com.
 

So what was different that night? I brought two white boxes full of comics and graphic novels and told the students that comics were real reading. They nearly trampled me getting to the table, flipping through individual issues and piling their arms full of comic literature. They simply could not get enough. For once, these young students were reading for their own enjoyment, for fun, for themselves.

Paving the Bridge with Comics

I am a graduate student in the Missouri State University College of Education, and I am writing my master’s thesis on the use of comic literature to promote literacy in the classroom. So far my anecdotal evidence is pointing clearly in the direction that comic literature is the bridge to help all students, especially those students who are reluctant and struggling readers, move from reading picture books to traditional chapter books.

I brought the kids a wide variety of titles, both fiction and nonfiction. Sure, I took plenty of superhero titles, but I also included biography, history, sports and science. While superhero titles were probably the most popular, the history and biography were widely read and enjoyed. One second-grader was so excited about the graphic novel he read about President John F. Kennedy that he brought it to the dinner table, so he could share it with everyone.

A Success

These are not the only children who are interested in reading comic literature. In addition to my schooling, I work as a substitute teacher. I frequently substitute in the fifth grade technology-based classes at my daughter’s elementary school. I have shared with those students my love of comics and graphic novels. I usually bring some comic titles with me when I teach.

I was not working one day but just picking up my daughter from school. It was cold and raining, and we were hurrying along to the car. As we dashed down the sidewalk, a van door slid open, and I heard the cries of “Mr. Wilson, Mr. Wilson” coming from inside. My daughter and I stopped, in the rain, and a fifth grade boy popped out to show me the graphic novel that he checked out from the Greene County library. It was the graphic novel adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report. He was so proud to make a connection with me, to show me that he enjoys reading comic literature. Even more interesting is the fact that the book is likely to be over this boy’s reading level, but that he choose it anyway because he found it interesting and engaging.

There is something magical that happens when children discover comic literature. For many students, they finally get it. At long last they discover the beauty of books and understand what the teachers, librarians and parents have been telling them. Literature, traditional and comic, unlocks the world.

More Than Superheroes

Many children and teens hate reading because they are taught early on to read only the literature that adults deem important, not necessarily what the child might deem interesting. Comic literature, as it turns out, is a very important bridge to helping children read traditional literature because of the duality of text and illustrations. Because the medium is met with skepticism from adults, children are left hiding their interest in reading, stuffing their comics inside other pieces of traditional literature, or hiding them under their beds. Worse yet, they abandon reading altogether, believing their interests are childish. To educate the love of reading out of children and teens is to repudiate our own educational goals.

The goal of using comic literature in the elementary, middle school and high school classroom is the same as using any piece of fiction or nonfiction: 1) To help students learn to read, especially for enjoyment, and 2) to introduce necessary information to the students in ways the students find interesting and informative, increasing their ability to recall the information long term.

Like any literature, there are comics and graphic novels that directly and indirectly address important subjects and genres such as: the hero’s journey (monomyth), history, communication arts, civics, mathematics, biography, science, art, economics, sports, love, birth, death, divorce, kidnapping, war, discrimination and much more. The same literary devices and themes present in traditional literature are also represented in comic literature. The genre, despite current stereotypes to the contrary, consists of much more than superheroes, although some superhero stories, such as Spider-Man, can be very complex and profound. Most importantly, children, teens and adults are interested in reading comics.

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