Teaching with Comics

Have you ever used a comic strip in class? Have you ever turned to a comic for your own education? (If you’ve ever read the flight safety pamphlet on a plane, the answer to that question is “yes.”)

Despite their historical reputation as “low brow” non-literature (they were even blamed for juvenile delinquency back in the ‘50s) comics have proven useful for everything from motivating kids to read to instructional manuals for the military. Comics combine visual language with written language (although there are some wordless comic) in ways no other medium can.

Comics have come a long way since the invention of Spandex-wearing crime-fighters. Even if you consider many well-known comics (such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, or Superman) unsuitable for yourself or your students due to portrayals of violence or scantily-clad women, plenty of other high quality comics exist that can be used to teach reading, English language learning, and science.

Nor are comics limited in their appeal to children (or young men with power fantasies). Many comics exist that can appeal to a broad range of ages, interests, and genders. Since the 1970s, American comics have flourished as an art form, producing award-winning “serious” comics such Art Spiegelman’s Maus and quirky thoughtful works like Daniel Clowes’ Ghost WorldEuropean comics were historically more diverse and often higher-quality (in terms of art and story craft) than American comics; in addition to drama, fantasy, and detective books (including classics like The Adventures of Tintin), many European comic book series are historical fictions.

 

The case for comics in the classroom

I hope you’re already convinced that comics can be a great addition to your curriculum, but maybe you need to convince your boss, students’ parents, or a librarian. Comics are a unique medium that combine words and pictures and can be used for everything from cheering students up to delivering information. Comics in curriculum can be compatible with Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards, and other state and local standards. (For a great presentation on this topic, check out this slide show.)

When to use comics

As much as I love comics, I wouldn’t recommend using comics for comics’ sake. That said, whether you use one-panel “funnies” or graphic novels, comics can improve learning and the learning climate of your classroom. Writing about one-panel “funnies”, Kerry Cheesman says, “Displaying a comic at the start of the class helps focus students’ attention and sets the tone for the lesson that follows. You can even display the comic just prior to the start of class and remove it when class officially begins to encourage students to arrive on time.” Whether you’re getting laughs or groans, you’re still fostering a climate of learning in the classroom.

Incorporating comics into your curriculum

Some comics are ready to leap right into your classroom–they could even be used as a textbook! (I’m thinking of books like Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to Statistics.) Others need to be integrated more carefully.

For help understanding comics, I highly recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (I know I’ve mentioned it a few times already, but it’s really worth a read!). McCloud’s exploration of what a comic is and what makes it work will help you figure out how best to incorporate comics into your curriculum.

Comics–especially comic books and graphic novels–can easily be incorporated as literature because many are literature. For other subjects, there are an abundance of resources, like Reading with Pictures’ database of resources, Graphic Classroom’s reviews of comics, ready-to-use lesson plans from Comics in your Curriculum, or this handy guide on integrating comics into common core curriculum.

Some comic book publishers also create curriculum to accompany their books, such as Diamond and TOON, Night Flight (activities start on page 27 of their PDF).

Of course, you can always create new curricula or add comics to an existing curriculum. You can do this by using comics that you find, creating your own, or having your students create comics.

Copyright considerations

If you plan on incorporating comics into your curriculum, keep an eye out for comics you might be able to use and hoard them by saving images you find online or buying collections of comics in book form. Make sure you keep each comic’s copyright information intact (e.g. don’t erase the creator’s signature or byline). You are allowed to hoard comics and use them in class in a variety of formats–projected, printed, etc.–as long as you don’t give copies to anyone. (Depending on the copyright, you are not allowed to duplicate comics to give to students or other teachers, but you can tell them where to find comics and get their own copy. Don’t put comics on your website or on homework that goes home with students without first getting permission. For more on copyright, see CETUS or Creative Commons.)

Where to find comics

Comics are (almost) everywhere! There are plenty of educational and topic-specific comics (see below) but you can also find many “Sunday funnies” that relate to the subject you’re teaching (for example… Fox Trot on animal behavior/learning or Calvin and Hobbes on gendered nouns).

 

Winifred’s Great Big List of Comics for the Classroom

There are so many great comics out there and many are already being indexed elsewhere. Graphic Classroom has a great list of recommended comics by age group. But there aren’t nearly enough lists of topic-specific comics, especially for science.

I’m finding new comics all the time! I’ll be adding them to an ever-growing list: (click here to access the spreadsheet). Please note that not all of these comics are appropriate for children. Some may be “NSFW” – Not Safe For Work – because of adult humor or language.

 

You can also find my original posts about teaching with comics at Getting Smart: STEM, art, and humanities.

 

Leave a Reply