Truth be told, using comic books in the classroom is by no means as unusual or risqué as it might have once been. Nowadays, comics are considered a legitimate teaching tool for any subject. Here are some I’ve used in class.
Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is one of the resources I turn to when teaching students about the origins and nuances of written language. A spectacular tome, that.
A warning beforehand, I tend to use bits and pieces of literary works in class, as it helps keep the perpetually short attention-spanned students at least somewhat involved. Several students have continued reading the books on their own – and honestly, reading should be for fun anyway, not for a grade.
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
This is an amazing autobiography in which a woman looks back on her childhood in revolution-era Iran. This book is ideal for a teacher, in that it is broken up into bite-sized bits that can be used separately from the main text.
I use “Shabbat,” which spotlights Marji’s childhood days of hanging out with friends, shopping, talking about boys and avoiding Iraqi bombs. With the exception of the last bit, this helps my students – most of whom have never gone more than 50 miles from the place of their birth – connect with someone from a culture different from their own. It also shows a little-shown aspect of Muslim-Jewish relations: Muslim and Jewish kids can be friends (a revelation to my students, as Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians make up less than one percent of the local population).
Oh, and I am eternally grateful for VLC, once I learned I can record short segments for class, rather than playing an entire movie (sorry, students who would rather spend two or three days watching a film). This allowed me to record just the part of the pretty dang good 2007 film that applied to the reading.
I do not go into the second volume of Persepolis, as it goes into areas of self-discovery that some of the more impressionable students might take the wrong message from.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
This one goes without saying, of course. Stories about World War II have long been part of the curriculum, but Maus’ anthropomorphized sort-of-autobiographical take on the Holocaust provides a unique take that helps students intimidated by more verbose literary accounts or distanced by cinematic versions. Side note: it’s amazing how many students don’t know that some movies are based on real life – they didn’t know Titanic was based on a real event (yet they were devastated when I said “Rose” and “Jack” weren’t real).
This is one graphic novel that I use (nearly) all of. There comes a point in which many students get too bored, and I need to shake up the readings a bit to keep them going (before you cry “foul!” remember that some of my students are struggling to learn English, and others will – hopefully – be the first in their family to graduate high school and go to college), but the complex modern story and intriguing historical setting is enough to keep them going for a long while. And again, many go back and finish the story on their own.
Interestingly, the modern story bits about dependency, suicide and family problems helps a lot of students look at emotional issues from a new angle.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
I use the flashback story from the second volume of the Scott Pilgrim saga because it is a nice, self-contained vignette that can be understood without knowing anything else about Scott Pilgrim.
It helps that there exists an animated version of the same scene.
This is usually one of my first-day readings for British literature (Canada counts as British, right?) as it’s a fun way to get kids into the process of reading.
Watchmen, by the Original Writer and Dave Gibbons
Speaking of British lit, Watchmen is a great resource. No, I don’t use the entire graphic novel – a little too much full-frontal nudity for most classrooms – but I do use the first issue. And thanks to DC’s continual reprints (which, unfortunately, keep Alan Moore from getting his book back), I now have a class set of issue #1 (no penises in that issue).
Here’s how it worked: I found out DC was reprinting issue 1 as a $1 intro to draw in new readers, so I asked the comic book store to order me 30 copies. Being all around cool dudes, they cut me a deal so I could get them at cost (or near to it), allowing me to fairly affordably get enough copies for all of my students to read together.
No, I do not play the movie in class. I can sometimes be persuaded to play Rorschach’s monologue.
Superman: the Dailies, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Superman I use when teaching American lit, because what’s more American than an undocumented immigrant, adopted by a poor family who goes on to become the most famous person in the world?
More specifically, I use the opening scenes of Krypton. These were barely touched on in the original newstand comics, but in the newspaper editions, Siegel and Shuster went into detail, showcasing the world of Superman’s birth for the first time.
I use this to illustrate the differences between mediums. Kids read this version, act out the radio play version, watch the Richard Donner version, and if I have time, the 90s animated version as well.
They can see how some elements were repeated, some changed for the medium or era, and some forgotten about altogether.
Yotsuba&!, by Kiyohiko Azuma, and Chi’s Sweet Home, by Kanata Konami
I use these two when working with English language learners (ELLs, also LEP for limited English proficient).
Both stories have simple narratives and feature young children as the main characters. There’s no over-arching plot involving demon princesses or time traveling alien robots, just simple family life presented in extremely cute packages. Sadly, the official translation of Chi’s New Home features baby-talk, which does not help students trying to learn English, but it is fun to think that “chi” is slang for urine in both Japanese and Spanish.
Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes, and for that matter Far Side, are often included in literature books, and honestly, they are great ways to get kids into something with only a few panels.
I haven’t used these for full lessons yet, but I have used them to supplement other things.
Doraemon, by Fujiko Fujio
Interestingly, this is one title better known to my students from Mexico than many US comic book readers. It seems the most popular cartoon in Japan was dubbed in Spanish and put on Spanish television, but not in English (at least, not that I’ve heard).
I was lucky enough to go to Japan several years ago as part of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund, and as part of the deal, I was supposed to tell American students about what I learned overseas. The deal was for me to talk about it one year, but I now make it an annual (sometimes bi-annual) event. I dress up in a kimono, put on geta and bring out a kendo sword (I’m careful to point out that I am not “dressed as a Japanese person” but rather “dressed as an American wearing random Japanese things” – it’s a culture, not a costume). I have multiple lessons I created to tie into Japanese culture, but one of the simpler ones involves using an ELL version of Doraemon I found in a Japanese bookstore. The same book intended to teach Japanese students English, now teaches my students.
Others for later…
I have not yet incorporated these two directly into my lessons, but I’m planning on it for later – probably the next time I teach British lit – but I have incorporated them somewhat.
Every November 5th I encourage my students to remember, remember.
So anyway, that’s what I teach with. Any lessons that would be good to add to my collection?
Where to find these comics.
For anyone looking to order these books, here are some of the comics I mentioned.
The Complete Persepolis has both volumes of the autobiographic novel.
Many schools are willing to order class sets of Maus I or Maus II, or you can get the Complete Maus with both. I also highly recommendMetaMaus, although it may be more for personal enrichment and background-building than for lessons.
Schools are often willing to order class sets of the Watchmen graphic novel, but I prefer it in a smaller format, so I ordered one of the DC Comics reprints, the most recent is DC Essentials: Watchmen #1. This is only a reprint of the first issue, not the entire 12-issue story.
There are thousands of Superman books out there, but Superman: The Dailies Vol. 1 presented the simplest to understand version of the story, as many of my students had never tried reading a comic before, this was a good introduction to the medium.