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.

The graphic novels being used in schools today typically offer a heftier reading experience than the traditional paper comics that sold for pennies decades ago. Graphic novels contain more pages and are bound like books instead of magazines.

They aren’t all about superheroes, either. They can address serious issues such as immigration, identity, racial stereotyping and discrimination. For example, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” is a graphic novel about the Holocaust. There also are graphic forms of history, physics, even math books.

While it’s difficult to say how many schools use graphic novels, the number of the comic-style books being published for young adults and adapted to school subjects is on the rise.

At Big Time Attic studios in northeast Minneapolis, cartoonists Kevin Cannon and Xander Cannon (no relation) have been writing and illustrating educational nonfiction comic books for nearly a decade. They’ve written books on genetics, the Soviet space race and paleontology, and recently just completed their first graphic novel textbook for college publishing giant Bedford St. Martin’s.

“It totally blows my mind,” Kevin Cannon said of comics’ growing popularity in education. “I’m just regretful they didn’t exist when I was in high school.”

Stigma still exists

Librarian Tori Jensen is happy to see credit given where she believes credit is long overdue, especially since comics launched her interest in books.

“My dad would buy me comics from the drugstore and that’s how I learned to read,” said Jensen, the media specialist at LEAP High School in St. Paul, where graphic novels are as popular as such other well-read books as the “Twilight” series.

“When I became interested in being a librarian, I believed comic books should be a big part of the collection,” she said. “I just think they’re the best things since sliced bread.”

Still, it has taken a long time for them to be taken seriously. Schools in the Twin Cities didn’t consider them a legitimate form of literature until a few years ago.

Ferry and Decker spent a year researching the educational benefits of graphic novels before introducing the class in Wayzata. They quickly gained support from administration, fellow teachers and the majority of parents, but, Decker said, they still have to convince skeptics.

“Anyone who comes in and watches what we’re doing will quickly realize this is a real class with real books,” she said.

“There may still be a stigma attached to the comics format of graphic novels that causes people to regard them as subpar literature — the reading equivalent of junk food,” said Hammond at St. Kate’s.

Like any new genre, full acceptance of the graphic novel as a literary medium will take some time, said Diana Green, a professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“Sure, the superhero and kids’ stuff is fun,” Green said. “But you can tell a really sophisticated story with people who are pelting each other with planets.”