Student Engagement

Using Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom

Reasons to use graphic novels and comics—popular media that hold enormous educational potential—in the classroom.

January 11, 2012

Many teachers use graphic novels and comics in the classroom. There are amazing books on the subject that include useful tools on how to effectively implement these resources for learning.

The main thing teachers need to consider is purpose. I know, we love books and tools, but as with technology, sometimes we get wrapped up in the tool instead of first thinking about the purpose. Here are some reasons why you might select a graphic novel or comic to read, or why you might have students create their own. Thinking about these reasons will help you focus on your purpose in your instruction.

Reasons to Work With Graphic Novels and Comics

Differentiating instruction: Graphic novels and comics can be a great way to differentiate instruction for learners in terms of reading and also in terms of assessment. Perhaps you want to offer your students a graphic novel to support their reading of a chapter in a rigorous text. There are many graphic novel adaptations of classics out there.

Maybe you’re doing a project-based learning (PBL) unit in which you want to provide voice and choice for the student assessment. Students might be choosing between a letter, a comic, or a podcast to answer a driving question such as: How can we debunk myths and stereotypes about world religions?

Building critical reading skills: Reading standards around higher order thinking skills can be met through complex analysis and evaluation of graphic novels and comics. Have students look at how the authors and illustrators use colors, textures, words, text boxes, frames, and camera angles, and then make connections between these elements and evaluate their effectiveness.

Assessing student learning: PBL calls for the creation of authentic products that are useful and credible to the group. You can have students create comics or graphic novels, or components of them, as a useful formative assessment to check for understanding of important content.

A comic made to combat bullying can be used as a summative assessment, as Suzie Boss has suggested. Make the graphic novel or comic a product that students create to meet a need. Don’t just make it a regurgitation of knowledge—give it an authentic purpose.

Studying the genre itself: In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud asserts the legitimacy and complexity of comics and graphic novels as a genre. Pairing selections from his work with a graphic novel or comic can generate interesting discussion and inquiry into the elements of the genre itself. Genre study is an easy way to utilize literature circle groups and instructional lessons, where students get to pick from a variety of options.

Examining literary elements: Graphic novels take traditional literary elements like symbol, character, and plot, and modify them—characters may become heroes and villains, and visual symbols that would be described in a novel are actually drawn and created.

There are many other purposes for graphic novels in the classroom, from looking at different cultures and backgrounds to utilizing technology in authentic ways. Just make sure you select the graphic novel or comic with a clear purpose in mind.

I’ll leave you with some favorite graphic novels and comics that I’ve used in my classroom.

  • Persepolis, a memoir of a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, was recently made into a motion picture.
  • Maus, a top favorite for many, explores themes of the Holocaust through a memoir populated by mice and cats.
  • American Born Chinese is the tale of three characters: Jin Wang, the only Chinese-American in the neighborhood; Chin-Kee, the ultimate Chinese stereotype; and the Monkey King, a character from ancient fables.
  • Uncanny X-Men Volume 3 In this issue, the X-Men travel into Dante’s Inferno.

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