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Innovative Teaching – Chris Wilson Discusses the Comic Book Movement

Yesterday we took a brief look at an educational instructional innovation that is gaining acceptance nationally, the idea of using comic books to teach reading and writing. Our post focused on the notion that it is essential to get investment from students if we want to them to learn. Therefore, if comics bring about greater student investment, then in our view they should definitely be given careful consideration.

However, today we turn to Chris Wilson, author and editor of the site “The Graphic Classroom” and teacher who is currently attending graduate school full time. Mr. Wilson sees the concept in a far more in depth manner. He feels that comics do a great deal more than help keep students invested in learning. In fact, Wilson’s number one goal is to develop of a love for reading in all his students – for him, the comic genre is one method to develop that love.

Wilson also offers an exceptionally different view than most who see the use of comics as potentially lowering classroom standards and reinforcing lazy reading habits. As with all texts, Wilson notes there are a variety of levels. Therefore the idea of using comics is much more than the traditional notion of introducing students to the group of superheroes that we adults associate with the concept. In other words there are more sophisticated comics than Spider-Man, the Hulk and Wonder Woman.

Below we present our interview with Chris, a passionate educator who believes unequivocally that comic literature should be a part of every classroom teacher’s tool kit. We present it in question and answer format so that readers can see the depth of thought Wilson has put into the use of this form of literature.

We think when you are done you will completely understand why many educators are now actively utilizing this concept.

Chris, can you give us a brief idea of what is meant by the term comic book?

When we think of comics, most people think of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wonder Woman. Yet, comic literature consists of so much more than the caped superheroes of yore. Those characters and titles still exist, and some of them are quite good, but they do not make up the whole of comic literature. There is so much more.

This is a much larger subject than one may realize. For my part, when I use the term “comic,” I am referring to the generalized genre of comic literature. That is literature that uses both text and art in a sequential manner. For more on this, I suggest you read

by Scott McCloud. It is required reading for anyone who cares at all about comics, especially teachers who want to use comics. It will help people understand the history of comics and why it is indeed an art. To understand what happens between the panels of a comic page is to understand why comics is indeed literature.

When did you first begin to think about the use of comics in the classroom and what made you think this could actually be a good idea?

The idea of using comics to promote literacy occurred to me years before I ever decided to become a teacher. I have a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing. When I was a kid I loved to write, but hated to read. Well, that is not quite right. I hated the effort it took to read, but I enjoyed the stories. (By the way, all good writers must read.) Reading was very difficult for me. I was in high school before I ever read a novel cover to cover and I never read novels for enjoyment, only for school. I loved fantasy and superheroes but never read them; I just watched the movies. I had grown up believing that comics were junk, although I do not recall where I got that idea.

Years later when I had my daughter, I wanted desperately to pass on my love of fantasy and superheroes, so I had the idea of introducing those to her through comics. I did not want her to struggle with reading the way I did and I wanted to make sure she got read to all the time. I had many friends who were very intelligent and read comics, so my view of comics was changing. Besides, she was a kid so I thought comics would be all right. I went to the comic store to find some high quality comics with female protagonists and I soon discovered that I loved reading. I really enjoyed reading for fun! I started buying all kinds of comics, most of them for me and not so much for her. She was an infant at the time anyway.

This was the epiphany. When I had to read novels (and I read plenty for my degree), I ended up re-reading many pages, which just took the fun out of it and I did not always comprehend what I was reading. ADHD can make reading hard. Comics restored my enjoyment of reading because the stories I was reading were shorter and I took in details through the art, rather than skimming over the words as I had done with novels. Once I rediscovered reading for enjoyment through comics, I picked up some traditional novels (Lord of the Rings, George RR Martin’s epic series A Story of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia) and I discovered that the enjoyment of reading transferred to those as well. I was devouring everything I could. Reading was still hard, but not as hard and it was more enjoyable. At this time in my life was I running an agency for persons with developmental disabilities, and I realized that comics could be one bridge used to help students with disabilities (and reluctant and struggling readers) find a place where reading for enjoyment could be possible.

I piloted a program in a Special Education class in a local school. At that time CrossGen Comics (a now defunct comics publisher) had a comic reading program for schools called Bridges. I secured money from our agency, bought the books, and placed them in a school with a fantastic and highly motivated Special Education teacher. The students loved them and for once they were reading books that were also appropriate for their peers. In fact, many of the typical students were jealous that the students in Special Education got to read comics.

It was two years later that I decided to change careers, go back to school and get my Master’s degree in Elementary Education. I wanted to teach. My first semester at Missouri State University, I told the director of the graduate program that I wanted to write my thesis on the use of comics in the classroom and she thought it was a great idea. I was worried that she might resist, but she was very supportive. I think things are changing regarding comic literature.

Do you view the comic genre as being something that should be focused towards working with Special Education students or English Language Learners or do you see comics as being beneficial to all students?

I believe in the power of literature as the foundation of learning for all students. This includes reading and being read to. Comics are just one form of literature.

Comic literature is unique in that it combines text and art, which makes use of Multiple Intelligences. Students who struggle to read – students with disabilities, students with little exposure to reading at home, and English Language Learners – can all benefit from comic literature because of the duality of text and art. The two modes of input allow students to grasp meaning quicker and more efficiently. There are details in the art, which can slow the reader down and help them absorb the meaning without necessarily having to struggle to decode every word. Much of the meaning in comics is decoded through art interpretation. Students who cannot picture the words in their head, can now see the story as never before. It opens a whole new world for those students. They can now see what other students (and teachers) have been telling them about reading.

When struggling readers are forced to read daunting amounts of words on a page, the goal can become finishing the book, not decoding the words and understanding the literature. I can relate to that feeling of just wanting to get through the material, regardless if I actually understood it or not. I have read many a book where I read every word and understood very little. In college, I remember reading and missing some things. In literature class, we discussed the story in class and that helped me to understand the parts that I missed when reading.

Comics, on the other hand, allow the reader to gain meaning from the illustrations. Comics usually take less time to read, alleviating a student’s need to rush through it. They can take their time and explore the color, tone, character’s mood, hidden details in the background, see the setting, and gain insight into the comic. They can explore how a panel or page is put together and interpret, based on the design, if the scene is a flashback, a dream or real life. Once a student is used to rushing through literature, he or she must be taught how to slow down and enjoy the work. That is a much easier task with comic literature. Students who struggle to understand body language and social queues may be able to explore those social intricacies through comics and thus gain insight.

It is my contention, and I am not alone, that students with disabilities and English Language Learners will benefit particularly from reading comics because of the duality of text and art.

With any literature, there are reading levels. By that I mean, not all comics are “low level” reading. Sometimes comics require a re-read in order to understand them, but hopefully students are less likely to “harumpf” over that because the reading is interesting. If they do feel that way, hopefully a teacher can help the students overcome that feeling and learn to appreciate re-reading, either for understanding or just for fun.

So you would in fact argue that comic books should be used with all students?

Absolutely, we should all use comic literature in our classrooms, regardless of any group, or perceived group, of students who we are teaching. I’m not convinced that we should discern between “groups” or “labels” of students. Literature is good for all students, in all grade levels. Comic literature, from my perspective, is simply one form of good literature. We should use comic literature to promote literacy with all students.

I assume that different students will enjoy comic literature in different ways and for different reasons. Some may enjoy the visual component. Others may appreciate the fact that they are understanding the story better. Others may enjoy the fact that reading a comic or graphic novel seems less daunting. Regardless of the reason, I think it is one valuable tool at a teacher’s disposal to help instill a love of reading into his or her student, all of them.

When you first talk about this topic with others, especially say a school administrator, what is their reactions to the idea of using comics to teach reading? Do they see it as watering down expectations?

As with anything that is new or innovative, there is always resistance from someone. In fact, comic literature comes with its own set of seemingly contradictory misconceptions:

Comics are junk. They are not real reading or real literature.

Comics are for children.

Comics are for adults because they over-sexualize women and concentrate on adult themes with adult language.

Examples of each of these can be found, no doubt about it. But these are over-generalized stereotypes of comics. For that matter, examples of these misconceptions also exist for traditional literature. Certainly, some teachers and administrators are very weary of the use of comics in the classroom; however, this is a growing movement and there are legitimate texts and websites out there that support the use of comic literature in the classroom.

If a teacher applies the same criteria to comic literature as he or she does to traditional literature there should be no “watering down”. Comic literature can be held to the same standards. In fact, art criticism also comes into play, which you do not have with traditional literature. In essence, the quality of the lesson comes from picking high quality comic literature and from the teacher’s ability to facilitate high quality learning. As it is new, some teachers may need help in understanding the medium and learning how to help students understand it. I do not believe that any “watering down” comes from the medium itself, but from the facilitation and application of the medium.

When thinking about comics as real literature consider this: “Maus” by Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. This is a high quality, profound graphic novel about the Holocaust. If a piece of comic literature can win the Pulitzer, then surely the genre can be appropriate for the classroom.

Most people do not realize that when the 9-11 Commission released its 3-inch thick report, that it also released a graphic novel adaptation. That’s right. Thomas H. Kean, Chair of the 9-11 Commission, and Lee. H. Hamilton, Vice-Chair of the 9-11 Commission, realized that many Americans would not bother to read the voluminous report. Understanding that the report needed to be accessible to the general public, they also published the report in a graphic novel format. Which, by the way, is so good, that it is a must-have for any classroom. In fact, I know a typical fifth grade boy in a low-income school that checked the 9-11 graphic novel out from the local library. He was very excited to tell me all about it that he stopped me outside school (in the rain) to tell me about his comic. Back to the Commission, these two men understood something very important about modern society. Americans do not want to read large government reports. Americans, as a whole, do not want to read at all, it seems, but they will read graphic novels. Teachers and administrators need to know and understand this information if they want to truly reach today’s students.

The other way to obtain buy-in from administrators is to demonstrate how they can be used in everyday lessons across the curriculum. There are graphic novels and comics that address almost every subject taught in schools and many of them are being published by well-known educational book publishers such as: Capstone, Lerner and Stone Arch. Comics are not just about Superman. Not anymore!

How do parents react when their kids are reading such materials? My guess is that if students are getting older then parents might also be reluctant to accept such reading material, seeing it as potentially inappropriate?

There is a strong history of parents and communities rejecting traditional literature, banning and even burning books. The hubbub surrounding the Harry Potter series has created an environment where those books are not read aloud to elementary students in many cases. For instance, it has been strongly suggested to me that I not read Harry Potter to my students because of the strong religious community in which I live. However, I have a friend who lives in Kansas City, MO and she reads Harry Potter to her students every year. When a parent does object, then that one student is given an alternative outside the classroom during read aloud, but she still reads Harry Potter to the rest of the class. I’m not suggesting this is or is not the right approach. I am simply stating that objections to literature are not unique to comics. It is something that all teachers have to deal with especially if they include good literature (including comics) in their classrooms.

When anyone objects to the use of comics, I do not argue with them. I simply pull out titles that make it hard to argue against comics. For example: I could use following The 9-11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, Mr. Big, Clan Apis, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Salem Witch Trials, Amelia Rules!, Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, orBeowulf (Storrie Version)

I get excited about what I am doing; I show them my passion for teaching children and getting them excited about reading. And I am passionate about it. Before long, they are convinced that it is okay. It’s not all silly superhero stuff, with crappy writing and watered down education. It is real education using an innovative format to engage students and help them meet my high expectations. I explain that I want kids to read and to love to read.

Typically, the response is something like, “Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t know that kind of stuff was out there.

“Yeah,” I say. “That’s what most people think, but these are pretty cool.

“I wish they had these when I was a kid,” they will say.

How does teaching reading with comics affect the teaching of the writing process? Do you still try to get kids to write traditionally or do you try to get them writing in the panes format that goes with the comic concept?

When you teach math you don’t just teach one method. At least I do not think we should. There are different ways to attack math word problems and we should respect a student’s ability to use different techniques to understand his or her world.

The same is true for comics. There is no reason to teach comics only. We should teach children poetry (and not just rhymed and metered poetry), persuasive writing, expository writing, comic writing, plays, newspaper articles, essays, and speeches. They each have their own construction, but the things that make good writing are the same. We should teach writing, not one aspect of writing. However, all good writing has some basic structures that are the same. Why not show how different types of writing are similar and different? Why not help students discover what types of writing they like best? It is all about exposure to different kinds of writing and working on the basics of good writing.

When a person writes a comic script they include all kinds of details not just the printed words. They include details of what the scene looks like, what the characters look like, the perspective, everything that is included in typical writing. The illustrator then takes that written information and turns it into art.

For many, the use of comics seems remarkably similar to the use of video games as a teaching tool. In other words, both are seen as fun by kids and as somehow less than intellectual by most adults. Yet engagement is everything in education. So is it the engagement that is most critical in your mind or something else?

I do not intend to teach comics in the classroom in order to keep children quiet. I have high expectations that my students read literature and discuss literature in an academic way. But, and this is big, I also expect to instill an enjoyment of reading in my students. I do not just want to be able to make them regurgitate literary criticism and then hate reading. I want them to love reading. I want them to appreciate reading. I want them to expand their minds through reading. I want them to realize that elementary students can read “Huck Finn” and enjoy it. But I do not want to instill into them some egotistical, academic, elitist notion that the only “real” literature is that which is part of the established canon created by academia.

It is a silly notion. Not all students will come to reading in the same way. Just like all students do not approach education in the same way. Some are meant for academia, but others are not. That is okay. But the factory worker can enjoy reading just like the academic. In fact they can enjoy the same books. I do not want my students to believe that if they do not read traditional literature then I think they are “stupid.” If students think that I think what they enjoy reading is “dumb,” then they may very well abandon reading altogether. They may have the impression that they are not real students or smart. Think Multiple Intelligences. We are not all smart in the same way. It is also okay for people to read different types and levels of “literature.”

It is critical to me to connect with every single student. I want to expose them to many different types of reading: chapter books, poetry, newspapers, magazines and comics. It is all part of having a diverse classroom and allowing students to explore their world in their own way. I will push my students to explore all of these mediums although I may use some more than others.

The truth is there will surely be students who find it cumbersome to read comics. They may not like it. That’s okay; they do not have to. It is not about the comics themselves, as much as it is an eclectic approach to teaching. I just happen to think that comics are an especially good approach to use considering today’s students.

In your mind should we abandon or replace traditional novels with graphic novels at any specific time or with a specific group?

As any good teacher will tell you, it takes a large bag of tricks to make a classroom great. Comic literature can be, and in my opinion it should be, a part of the modern classroom; however, it is not meant to replace traditional literature. Teachers should read traditional novels to the students and should expect students to read novels too. In the cases of there being a graphic adaptation of a novel, students could read both and then compare and contrast both books.

In an elementary class, a teacher could read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” aloud to the students, then the students could read the graphic novel adaptation of the work on their own. Of course, the students could be expected to read both the novel and the graphic adaptation on their own as well, then compare and contrast.

The important aspect to remember about comics is that they are intended to help engage students who have grown up in an MTV-Playstation culture. Using the visual comic literature to help students discover reading for fun can lead to a life-long desire to read all kinds of literature.

The use of comics in a classroom can be both an “end” and a “means to an end.” That is to say comics can be studied in their own right and comics can also used to help transition students to traditional novel-length literature. Both are valid and appropriate. I encourage teachers to do both.

I believe in reading traditional literature to my students every single day for 20-30 minutes per day. I believe that my students should read traditional literature. I agree with Rafe Esquith author of “There Are No Shortcuts” when he says that he expects his students to read good literature. So do I. I think that using comics is one tool to achieve my goal of all students becoming great readers.

Next we offer up the suggestions of Chris and others as to the best comics to use if you as an educator want to give the concept a whirl.

10 comments

1 Pat { 01.25.08 at 7:43 am }

What a great interview! I really enjoyed this because I agreed with it so much. I hope other teachers read this and use this in their classroom.

2 Thomas { 01.25.08 at 7:35 pm }

Pat,
Thank you – Chris is very passionate about the subject and also clearly has researched this topic thoroughly. Hopefully other teachers will be inspired and give the idea a try.
Tom Hanson

3 WeindyActinee { 01.27.08 at 11:26 pm }

Hello!
Nice site ;)
Bye

4 Marek Bennett { 01.28.08 at 10:37 pm }

Yay, Chris! Thanks for putting all these great comics together for us! I had no idea the 9-11 Commission released the graphic novel ALONG WITH its report… That’s a great sign of the enormous cultural shift that’s taking place in North American cultural attitudes towards comics.

5 Thomas { 01.29.08 at 2:08 pm }

Marek,
I must admit I was not aware of that either until my chat with Chris.
Tom Hanson

6 Education In the News - What’s Worth Checking Out — Open Education { 01.29.08 at 8:16 pm }

[...] the use comics in the classroom have gone to analyze the concept. Anyone who takes the time to read our interview with Chris Wilson of the Graphic Classroom surely would realize the depth of thought he has put [...]

7 Janneke { 03.08.08 at 1:50 pm }

I just came across this site, searching for more info about reading comics and automatically learn reading. I’m having a presentation this wednesday on this subject with a c0-student, we use our own experience seeing our sons becoming good readers by reading Donald Duck day in day out. We didn’t do anything (the boys go to a democratic school) they’ve learned themselves in half a year. It’s great… Thank you for your interesting story! Janneke

8 jackson mak { 03.10.08 at 11:00 pm }

Thank you very much for your effort to put the good materials on the Internet shared world-wide.
thanks a lot.

Jackson Mak

9 In the News - Free Comic Book Day — Open Education { 04.30.08 at 10:35 am }

[...] this year we interviewed Chris regarding the growing interest in using comic books as an educational [...]

10 Kelly Bauer { 06.05.08 at 11:56 pm }

Hi.

Enjoyed your article. I can also recommend the Scott McCloud book, it was excellent….he also has a new one out at the moment called Making Comics, which is also good.

Kelly Bauer

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