Comic books have become legitimate teaching tools

  • Article by: AIMEE BLANCHETTE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2013 - 4:51 PM

Graphic novels, which combine text and images, are gaining acceptance as effective teaching tools in the digital age.


Wayzata High School teacher Mark Ferry's class recently read a graphic novel and worked on drawing one of their own. "Kids love to read these books," said Ferry. "They're always asking when they're going to get new ones."

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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The students in a New Literature class at Wayzata High School have been chided for a surprising reason: Not putting their books down.

“I’m telling them not to read ahead,” said teacher Meaghan Decker. “They’re having the hardest time with it because they love these books so much.”

What they’re reading is just as surprising: “The Death of Superman,” “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen.”

Long thought of as easy reads with little substance, comic books have entered the public school lexicon. Originally used to help struggling readers and English-language learners, the books are now used in elementary classrooms and college lecture halls.

The recently implemented Minnesota Academic Standards called for the use of new forms of media — including graphic novels — in the curriculum. And educators nationwide are embracing them as an essential genre in a media-dominated society.

“The graphic novel can no longer be ignored as a passing fad,” said Heidi Hammond, a professor at St. Catherine University who studies the graphic novel. “It is here to stay.”

There’s research to bolster that claim. A study by the University of Oklahoma found that graphic novels engage students, encourage reading and increase complex thinking skills. The study, which measured how students retain information, found that students who read material in a comics format, as opposed to text-only, retained more information verbatim. A full 80 percent of the students in the study also said they preferred the comics.

The great equalizer

Students aren’t the only ones who like graphic novels. Some of the educators who have used them say the medium is perfect for snaring the attention of young learners who have grown accustomed to the vivid imagery on TV, film, magazines and websites.

Teachers like Jill Chang believe the books develop confidence in students, which helps to build interest in reading at an early age.

Chang helped develop a graphic novel unit for third- and fourth-graders at St. Paul Academy that includes the “Ellie McDoodle” series and “The Tale of Despereaux.”

“The excitement and motivation I see in my students is proof these books are working,” Chang said. “They’re making them better readers and writers.”

Other teachers are finding that the text-and-picture format appeals to students with a wide range of abilities and learning styles.

“You can have the AP students in class with the non-AP students,” said Mark Ferry, teacher of the Wayzata High graphic novel class. “It’s really like the great equalizer in education,”

Senior Aaron Olson originally took Ferry’s class thinking it would be a fun diversion from his advanced courses, but quickly learned that psychoanalyzing superheros and plots, and having to read both the pictures and the text was just as challenging.

“It’s like reading and watching a movie at the same time,” he said.

That’s why Ferry has come to believe that that graphic novels require more complex thinking skills than traditional literature.

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