Using Comic Books for Serious Learning

Comic books and graphic novels can engage middle school readers, and creating them is a way to incorporate language arts standards.

August 27, 2019

Why comic books? I have revisited this question more than once since I began my career as an educator. The answer is somewhat autobiographical: I was the kind of kid who didn’t always embrace required readings at school but did read voraciously at home. Often, this reading was based in comic books and adventure stories. I would push aside “schoolish” reading when given the chance, in favor of the fiction I really wanted to explore.

There’s a powerful and fascinating grammar that takes place within the frames, pages, and panels of comic books, and the illustrations working alongside the text have been an engaging element of my instruction for a wide range of students, including English language learners, middle school students, and even some students at the college level.

A Brimming Bookshelf

One of the first permissions I gave myself as a teacher was to move beyond the 10 or so books I inherited and to expand my choice reading bookshelf to include a range of materials. Comic books rivaled the popular novels of the moment as the most frequently accessed genres in my classroom.

I included comic books from my personal collection, soft-cover titles that quickly wore out as well as longer works that earned the name “graphic novel.” These longer pieces included an adaptation of the novel Coraline by Neil Gaiman that was illustrated by P. Craig Russell; Ghostopolis, written and illustrated by Doug TenNapel, and an adaptation of Ted Dekker’s Circle Trilogy. I watched as both accomplished and emerging readers would select these and other comics and graphic novels.

Because students were free to choose what to read, moments of pushback over content were limited. I taught in a conservative area where Christian dialogue was part of the local vernacular, so Dekker’s Circle Trilogy, a religious allegory, was not a cause for concern. And I was careful not to make religious readings a course requirement.

Graphic novels were the biggest group of unreturned items in my room, and this was a minor larceny that I took as a compliment—if a student liked a book enough to keep it and read it multiple times, I reasoned, it was hardly worth losing sleep over.

Reader to Maker

Since I knew my students liked reading comics, I tried having them make their own. The move from reader or viewer to maker was a reflection of the importance of both reading and writing. When we read a great book, it can shape us as creators.

I started this process at the end of my second year of teaching. At first, it was an entertaining activity for that strange time after the state-mandated standardized test. But I quickly learned that I could have students incorporate a wide range of learning standards into comics, including grammar, text features, and narrative elements, so that they could actually review for the summative test through the comic book medium.

Students could work independently or in small groups of two to four people. When they worked in groups, I required that each person participate actively in the process in some way.

We would start by brainstorming a list of possible character names and then move on to other elements of the narrative—things like sidekicks, villains, vehicles, and powers. Students were also free to come up with their own elements when they started writing—the menu we created was meant as an inspiration, not a restriction.

Brainstorming was an excuse to be both funny and creative. Students invented characters with names like Ninja Rosebush, Raging Caterpillar, and Really Old Guy. Part of the payoff was laughing with students as we brainstormed ridiculous names and highly fantastical ideas. But there was a serious side to this as well. When students began drawing panels and writing stories, they could incorporate parts of our language arts standards—plot, character, setting, grammatical terms, syntax—a list of 80-something possibilities.

There were also times when we created comic books to represent favorite parts of stories. When breaking up complex readings like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, I gave my students permission to share their thinking in visual ways. I’m not the only one to have this idea: Both of these literary works, and many others, exist now in graphic novel format.

Notes and Accommodations

What I learned in using comic books and graphic novels was that many of my students shared my affinity for visual reading. The major concern that students had was with their own artistic ability, so we agreed to allow stick figures and other ways to keep the visual elements simple.

Occasionally, I would have a group who would want to collaborate on a story that was solely written, with no visual elements. Being flexible and student-centered, I allowed the groups to compose in the way that they preferred.

Content can sometimes become an issue with graphic novels and comic books—some of them are written for an adult audience, for example. And Ted Dekker’s spiritualized work was never questioned in my district, but other teachers may not have the same experience. I would caution educators to become familiar with any books they intend to bring into the classroom and to know their student audience—steps they would take with any choice reading options.

Comic books have the potential to ignite the interest of young readers, as materials to be both consumed and constructed. I now use them at the university level, but some of my fondest memories from middle school teaching involve colorful panels and original heroes. Looking back, my only regret is that I didn’t draw on comic books more often in my classroom.

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  • Literacy
  • Creativity
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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