5 Tips for Bringing Comics into Your Classroom

Throughout the month of August, Teach.com and Reading With Pictures are bringing you Comics in the Classroom, a blog series about using comics in education, including why graphic novels are complex texts as defined by the Common Core Standards, how to use graphic texts to teach in the content areas, how and where to find the best graphic texts, and more. We hope you’ll join us and bring the power of comics to your classroom!

The following guest post is written by Ronell Whitaker, an English teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He writes a blog about comics in the classroom over on The Comic Book Teacher.

Four years ago, my boss approached me with a proposition: “I’d like to order you a classroom set of Ultimate Spider-Man. What do you think?” I said yes without hesitation! I taught our at-risk population, and we were searching for a way to increase motivation and literacy. That first year allowed me to see how powerful comics can be. Since then, I’ve presented across the country with my colleague Eric Kallenborn, trying to teach people how to incorporate comics in their classrooms. However, I realize that not everyone will have a set of comics fall into their laps, so here are five things every teacher should know to start using comics in the classroom.

1. Get Familiar With Your Local Comic Store

I know I’m not the only teacher who feels at home in a bookstore. The bright, welcoming lighting, the wide aisles, the convenient, systematic shelving…all of these things are antithetical to the typical comics store experience. Be that as it may, you must fight the urge to go to your local big box bookstore, and instead make your way to your local comic store. I know this can be intimidating for some people, but you have an entry point that most people don’t: you’re a teacher! In fact, when comic shop owners hear that you want to use comics in your classroom, most of them want nothing more than to help. For one, you are single handedly creating more potential comics readers. This is definitely good for the industry in the long run. Nothing makes a geek happier than the opportunity to geek out. You are the young padawan to their seasoned Jedi Knight, and they would love nothing more than to show a novice the ways of the Force.

2. Talk to an Expert

You know that one guy who wore a Green Lantern shirt to work? Or the woman with Wonder Woman button on her ID lanyard? Ask them what comics they’re reading right now. Better yet, be specific. Ask them questions like “What would be a good comic to teach symbolism with?” or “Any suggestions for a good book featuring a strong female protagonist?” or “Are there any comics that are appropriate for my third grade class?” Comics can be used to cover a wide range of material and skills, and those of us who believe in them are eager to help anyone who wants to start using comics in their classroom.

This brings me back to my point about bookstores. Yes, they are more welcoming and inviting (comic stores are often named after dungeons for a reason), but the people who work at bookstores aren’t asked to specialize the way a comic shop clerk or even a librarian might. Comics, or graphic novels as they are often called (to make the uninitiated feel a little less queasy), don’t take up a lot of real estate in a traditional bookstore, but in a comic shop that’s all there is, and the folks there will do their best to point you in the right direction.

3. Read, Read, Read

Even with the help of a few experts, you’re the only one who knows what will work in your classroom, so it will be up to you to find the right material in the end. The good news is comics are amazingly quick reads. Time is often the one thing that educators wish they had more of, but comics, even at their longest, can usually be read in less than two hours. Additionally, there are tons of licensed works (i.e., popular characters or franchises from other media) that your students will already be familiar with like Transformers or My Little Pony. These are great places to start reading because you already have an idea about whether or not your students will be engaged with the material. The most important thing is to find comics you are excited to teach, and that you know your students will be excited about as well. The only thing left to do now is to convince the other stakeholders that comics are respectable enough to make the leap to the classroom.

4. Do Your Research

The Common Core State Standards require exposure to varied textual formats, and they encourage the use of graphic novels in the classroom.

I won’t lie, it can be an uphill battle when trying to adopt comics in the classroom. We’ve come a long way from the Frederic Wertham Seduction of the Innocent days, but there is still a general misconception about comics and the positive impact it can make in the classroom. You have to arm yourself with scholarly writings and data.

You can point to the fact that since 2009, nearly 50 films based on comics have been produced by Hollywood, and that the top 10 of those films have grossed close to $6 billion worldwide, not counting DVD sales. So clearly there is an audience for comics. There’s tons of research out there that proves that comics help students strengthen multiple literacies for all readers from emergent to accomplished.

5. Get Social

Stay connected to comic industry thought leaders like Reading With Pictures, How to Love Comics and Comic Book Resources on social media. Go to comic book conventions, where they often offer professional development for teachers. Go to comic-centered events at your local libraries and bookstores. It is just as important to be involved in professional learning communities, as it is important to talk to like-minded individuals in the comics world as well. This will help you meet people who could become resources for you down the line.

Hopefully this list helps you take your first steps on this rewarding journey.

Join the conversation! How have you used comics and/or graphic novels in your classroom? Connect with us on Tumblr and Twitter and share your story with the hashtag #teachcomics.