Curriculum Planning

Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Black History

The multilayered creativity in works featuring art and text provides an effective way for students to connect to impactful content.

February 16, 2024
Covers courtesy of publishers; shuoshu / iStock

While many teachers commit to teaching Black history throughout the school year, February is a time when educators look for fresh and creative ways to teach and celebrate Black history. Finding ways to make the past feel exciting and relevant can be tricky. As a White teacher in a predominantly White school, it’s especially important for me to not only teach Black history but also teach a curriculum that fosters inclusive mindsets for students. However, it can be challenging to find ways to do so that are effective and impactful.

One approach I’ve found that brings Black history to life for my students is using comics and graphic novels. Through exploring these works, my students learn about Black history, develop empathy across lines of difference, and improve their literacy skills.

Why Graphic Novels? 

Long-form comic books, also known as graphic novels, are a valuable tool for teachers across subjects. They’re often able to overcome literacy barriers in ways other books cannot. For instance, comics are read by children in similar amounts regardless of income level. Studies have also shown them to be useful for English language learners since they communicate with images as well as texts

Most important, comics are fun and engaging. Taking a break from textbooks or novels to read a comic is celebratory for students, even if the content of the book can be weighty. The use of artwork alongside text makes for a compelling reading experience that makes a story come alive. This is true for history and nonfiction, where words and images work together to invite students to participate in the narrative. 

4 Ways I Incorporate Graphic Novels Into My Classroom

1. Set norms and expectations. Some of the comics we read involve hard history and violence. Therefore, it is essential to prepare students by having norm-setting conversations before reading. Build norms collaboratively, but make sure your list includes respect for classmates. Let students know what to expect from the text, and discuss how you want to approach class conversations about tough topics.

It’s also a good idea to send out a newsletter to families beforehand explaining what is being read and its importance for their child’s learning. And it’s helpful to provide opportunities for students to share out but also to give them space to reflect on their own and in lower-risk scenarios. I like to do this through working up to whole class discussions by having students journal and then engage in partner discussions. 

2. Teach students how to read comics. While comics are often seen as easy to read, some students won’t have prior experience with them. It’s important to prepare them for the process of reading and critiquing comics by introducing terminology like speech balloon, panel, and gutter, as well as demonstrating how to read comics through shorter comic strips and pages. Encourage students to go beyond just the narrative text to discuss style choices made by the artist like color and line work.

3. Incorporate primary sources. When using comics to teach history, it is important to incorporate primary sources and other media. For example, when I teach about John Lewis’s work during the Civil Rights Movement, we watch footage of his speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and read writings by other civil rights leaders. Encourage students to make connections and comparisons between the different sources. 

4. Challenge students to create their own Black history comic strips. My favorite way to incorporate comics is having students create their own. After reading one of the works below, I have students research a topic and present it in a one-page comic strip. I then display this work throughout my classroom. You can even incorporate a gallery walk so that students can be inspired by people and moments from history that they might be unfamiliar with.

Effective and Engaging Comics for Your Class

Here are five of my favorite comics and graphic novels from my class library that can help you to liven up your Black history curriculum. 

The March Trilogy, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

To celebrate Black History Month, my class reads this series of books. In it, Congressman John Lewis recounts his early life and work in the Civil Rights Movement. While Lewis is a towering figure in American history, he is one who is little discussed in American history textbooks. Reading about the Civil Rights Movement from his perspective, alongside the powerful black-and-white artwork, allows students a unique closeness to the text and the history. 

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (1956), by Alfred Hassler, Benton Resnik, and Sy Barry

This shorter comic, easily accessible for free online, was used throughout the Civil Rights Movement to promote the nonviolent approach to societal change. Lewis describes the impact of the comic in March. I use it to provide historical context before we read the writings of Dr. King and also while we read March to make comparisons about form and style in comics. 

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History, by David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson

Combating whitewashed perspectives on the Black Power movement, Walker and Anderson’s book reports the history of the Black Panther Party in a way that is digestible for young people and a good primer for anyone who doesn’t know where to start. I provide this as a supplemental reading for students who want to dive deeper into how the Black freedom movement evolved over time while we are reading March

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez

This text is particularly useful for the social science classroom because alongside telling the stories of the women revolutionaries described in the title, the book also chronicles the authors’ efforts in researching history. This can lead to powerful classroom discussions on historiography and what is left out of the history textbook. 

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, by Damian Duffy and John Jennings 

For those who are more inclined to fiction, this adaptation of Butler’s science-fiction classic not only is an homage to one of the greatest Black American writers, but also presents complex themes like race, ancestry, and the violence of slavery in a way that is visually engaging for students but not dumbed down. It can easily be integrated into a science-fiction unit to expand student conceptions of what the genre can do.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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