What follows is the handout from a panel discussion I moderated on Saturday, July 24th at 3:30pm in Room 26AB, called COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM. The panel was tasked with discussing concrete solutions for educators and librarians looking to utilize graphic novels in an educational setting.

Comics In The Classroom

Comic-Con International: San Diego

Saturday, July 24th 2010, 3:30pm, Room 23AB


Anastasia Betts (UCLA) – https://www.uclaextension.edu/r/InstructorBio.aspx?instid=27588

Christina Blanch (Ball State University) – clblanch@bsu.edu

Deborah Ford (San Diego Unified School District) – http://www2.sandi.net/IMC/,

Tracy White (NYU). – http://www.traced.com

Moderated by Christopher Butcher, manager of The Beguiling books in Toronto and writer for http://comics212.net.

Anastasia Betts, UCLA: Graphic Novel Successes and Challenges:

Success: The biggest success and most satisfying experience I have had thus far is using several different GNs and other texts (written and multimedia) to create a learning experience for students on understanding the WWII events (among others) that ultimately led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the United Nations.  It is an integrated humanities unit that includes both literature based lessons as well as history and ethics. I use the following:

Maus I (and II if time) by Art Speigleman
Barefoot Gen Vol. I (and vol. II if time) by Keiji Nakazawa
Excerpts from History of the American Empire, by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, & Paul Buhle

Barefoot Gen (the animated feature)
White Light Black Rain (documentary)

Hiroshima Peace Site (Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum): http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/index_e2.html
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN Site): http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
World War II Remembered (Scholastic Online): http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/wwii/index.htm

The combination of all of these resources (I have found) has a profound effect on the students.  Especially when they watch White Light Black Rain after reading Barefoot Gen.  The characters in the manga become real, not just mere illustrations drawn on a comic book page.  I also include some interviews with the artists/authors that are easily found onlin (Nakasawa and Speigelman).  Primarily the interviews with Nakasawa are moving and tragic, as he experienced the bomb and its effects first hand.

I find that students are familiar (a bit) with WWII and the Holocaust.  So, they have some prior knowledge going into the reading of Maus.  We usually start with Maus in this unit, because its the most familiar material.  The format is usually entirely new for students, or rather the format combined with the heavy subject matter.  The visual metaphors portrayed through the use of the animals is both startling (in that it so concretely defines the predator/prey relationship), and relatable (hey, they are mice and cats).  Students often report (at the end of the reading) that it is easier to connect with the characters and gives a much more intimate look at relationships through the use of animals, than it would have it human characters had been used.  The characters as animals also seem to provide another layer of protection for the reader to absorb some material that in horrific.

We talk about this choice (animals vs. humans) a lot after reading Barefoot Gen, where the artist/author chose to use human characters.  It is often pointed out that even though humans are used, they are still quite stylized (manga style) and over the top — which again seems to add a layer of insulation between the reader and the horrific outcome.  However, by the end of the book (vol.1) the reader is completely absorbed and realizes this really happened, this is one person’s TRUE story, and despite the traditional manga plot devices (of crazy humor and gratuitous name calling and physical chicanery), the events that the author lived through are truly tragic.  It is not uncommon to see students crying near the end of the book, as they read through the final scenes of the bomb’s immediate aftermath.

However, sandwiched between Maus and Barefoot Gen, we read the excerpts from History of the American Empire — the chapters on the decision to drop the A-Bomb.  We get into this discussion by discussing (just based on our prior knowledge) whether or not it was right to drop the bomb – -was it necessary.  This is coming on the heels of reading Maus, and so the discussion always takes the route of, if you knew this type of human rights abuse was happening, wouldn’t you feel justified dropping the bomb on the enemy to put an end to it?  Then we read the chapter from American Empire — which of course presents Zinn’s very biased view of US motives for dropping the bomb.  Then, we begin Gen.

Sprinkled throughout the unit, we investigate the websites, and after Gen we watch the film White Light Black Rain.  The transformation of students from only passively interested in WWII and the UDHR (or not interested at all), to impassioned rights activists is a marvel to behold.  At the completion of the unit, students are ready to write letters to congress about any number of current human rights crises, from Darfur, to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in Gaza, to Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan, and more.  The challenge at the end of this unit is for students to take what they’ve learned, to analzye what we’ve learned from these events as a global people (which they usually surmise is pretty much nothing), and to apply it to a modern day issue.  What have we learned?  What should we have learned but didn’t?  Where is your proof that we did/did not learn it.  They write a paper and pick an NGO or an issue to become involved with.  Later we have follow up discussions related to their choices.

My biggest goal with this unit is that students CARE about what happened, and have reasons TODAY for caring about what happened.  They always exceed my expectations in this regard, and that is why I feel so successful with this unit.
CHALLENGE: As I am sure my colleagues will share, some of the biggest challenges that can be overcome with graphic texts are those with reluctant, struggling, or second language readers.  This past year I had a fourth grade ELL (English Language Learner) at my school that absolutely hated to read.  He had some major issues, was not reading on grade level, etc.  No books interested him and it was extremely difficult for him to get into any books.  Normally with a boy like this I might suggest the Wimpy Kid series — but he had already read that.  Next on my list was Bone — but he had already read that.  So, we were running out of options.  Finally I had just had a copy of vol. 1 of Amulet come across my desk.  I decided to give it to him and he LOVED it.  He kept coming to my office asking when the second volume would come out.  His teacher reported that she actually had to stop him from reading to tell him to go out to recess.  We ordered the second book and he read that as well.  He shared the books with his guy friends, many of whom were not eager readers themselves.  Basically this book really turned him on to reading.  We were able to provide other books, combining text and graphics with great success — but really, it was Amulet that lit his fire.  I wish there were more of these.
Along those same lines, my own children were reluctant readers.  As most adolescents will do, they found anime and manga, and got very interested in that world.  Before I knew it, they were always reading!  They wanted to go the book store, the library… I couldn’t keep them away because they always wanted to read the next installment.  Because Manga traditionally deals with archetypes and the heroes journey, it was easy for them to apply the ideas they had been exposed to in mange to their more “traditional” school reading, like Catcher in the Rye and Great Gatsby.  Because they had become used to “reading” and holding a book in their hands, it no longer seemed like such a chore.  They were more receptive to reading traditional texts, and got over their aversion.  They no longer identified themselves as “non-readers” — rather, they considered themselves readers.  They would go online to research anything and everything about their favorite manga series.  They would read up on Wiki about their favorite characters, story arcs, and more.  They watched English subbed anime (which required very FAST reading), because they truly couldn’t stand the English voice acting on the dubbed versions.  Their reading skills GREW by leaps and bounds.  Then reading a traditional book was no longer an issue.  It was amazing.

I find the biggest challenge to teaching graphic novels to the uninitiated (other than overcoming the bias that it’s not real literature), it teaching the students to SLOW DOWN and READ THE IMAGES.  Its more about understanding visual literature.  Newbies tend to want to read the comic the same way the read a book.  They just glance at the images, read the speech bubbles, and move on.  Then they are done and find that they really didn’t get anything out of the book.  I find myself playing that scene in Lion Kind when Rafiki says to Simba (who has just said he sees nothing in the reflection in the stream), to “look harder…”  To help students look harder, we typically take the first panels/pages one at a time on the overhead, discussing each as we go.  I invite them to REALLY LOOK.  What is the artist showing us?  He isn’t going to tell us what he wants us to know, he is going to show us. Etc.  Moving through that way, you can really see the light bulbs go on for students in ways they hadn’t before.  We also talk about perspective and gutters.  What is he showing us?  Why is he choosing to show it to us inthat way?  Why is he NOT showing us?  Why is he NOT showing it?  What happened between what he showed us HERE and what he is now showing us HERE?  Etc.

Anastasia Betts


Tracy White, NYU: Graphic Novel Successes and Challenges:

SUCCESS: Third idea: Something unique to comics and important to grasp when reading them is the experience of reading/seeing how words plus images together can create an understanding bigger than the sum of those two parts.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic Alison Bechdel ISBN: 978-0618871711

Epileptic, David B ISBN 978-0375714689

The Greatest Marlys! Lynda Barry   ISBN-13: 978-1570612602
CHALLENGE: TIME. Every choice a write/artist makes within a graphic novel is deliberate including how time is depicted.

The Arrival, Shaun Tan ISBN-13: 978-0439895293

Buddha Osamu Tezuka ISBN-13: 978-1932234565

Tracy White

Christina Blanch, Ball State University: Graphic Novel Successes and Challenges:

SUCCESS: I teach in Higher Education, but the idea of how I use graphic novels in my Anthropology class can be easily adapted for 9-12th graders in High School Anthropology, Sociology, or even Cultural Geography.

I use the first volumes of “Y: The Last Man” in my Introduction to Anthropology class. In the class throughout the semester, we learn about culture and how culture affects everything that we do. We first learn how to study culture, or ethnographic methods. Then we study different topics relating to culture such as language, economic exchange, adaptations, marriage, kinship, religion, social stratification, and globalization. We also look at how culture is integrated, i.e. if one part changes, it affects the other parts of culture. During the class we learn about a variety of cultures including the Dobe Ju/’hoansi of Africa (sometimes referred to as “bushmen” and featured in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”), the Yanomamo that live in the rainforests of Brazil and Venezuela, and the Inuit (commonly referred to as “Eskimo”) who live in the northern regions of North America.

After we get a grasp on culture and how much we depend on our culture for survival, we read “Y: The Last Man.” This graphic novel is about a man named Yorick and his monkey Ampersand who, after a disaster, become the last males on Earth. As you can guess, this changes culture drastically. The students are asked to look at this culture (American culture) and see how this one incident will change our culture. Simple things like language…do you still call a manhole a manhole? Will the masculine words eventually disappear from our language? How will this affect marriage and family? We talk in class about things like in the United States more than 95% of commercial pilots, truck drivers, and ship captains are male. Also, 99% of the mechanics, electricians, and construction workers are dead. How will this affect our culture?

After the students look at how this will affect the United States, we look at global culture and how other cultures will be affected. How will this affect matriarchal cultures as compared to patriarchal cultures? How will magic and religion be used or not used to explain this? Will horticulturalists be better off than hunter/gatherers and agriculturalists?

Then finally, we look at globalization. How will this affect world culture? Will it be nation against nation or will women band together to help each other out? With many members of the United Nations dead, how will leadership be affected? There are many possibilities to discuss in this area.

Results from this were outstanding. Not only were the papers excellent, but the students told me they read the graphic novel ahead of time and many times over and over and that it made them WANT to read the textbook (something that ALL teachers struggle with) so that they would better be able to understand Yorick’s story.

This year I am using the first four volumes of “The Walking Dead” as a text as we are also looking at the cultural construction of zombie culture.

CHALLENGE: One of the most challenging things to get students to understand about culture is how different cultures can be. They see them as strange or weird sometimes, and we try to teach cultural relativism, accepting cultures on their own terms. Not judging them by the standards of another. To help them understand this, I use comics. I show them a foreign comic, such as manga (not Pokemon or something they are familiar with). First, having to read it “backwards” and “the wrong way” is challenging and the jokes and terms, even translated, don’t make sense. They just think it’s silly. Their assignment is to take an American comic that is humorous in some way (I provide several that they can use or they can use one of their own) and read it and then explain why it’s funny to our culture. Then they have to try to explain why it’s funny to another culture of their choosing. Sometimes I will let them use comic strips if they are pre-approved by me. Finally, they have to think of how to change the comic to make it funny to their chosen culture. One student chose a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin is buying lemonade from Susie’s lemonade stand. The culture he chose was a very patriarchal culture where women would never dress without being covered, would never own a business, and would never talk to a man the way Susie talked to Calvin. This exercise really gets the students to take off their cultural lenses and see that their culture is just one model of reality and other cultures are not failed attempts at emulating our culture, but as Wade Davis said “unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

Christina Blanch
Department of Anthropology
Ball State University
Muncie, IN 47306

Deborah B. Ford, San Diego Unified School District: Graphic Novel Successes and Challenges:

Success Story: “Non-reader”: Sammy comes from a family that “does not read.” When his mom told him he had to read Coraline before she would take him to see the movie, I sent him home with Coraline, the graphic novel. He begged to stay up and finish reading it. He read it twice and then moved on to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His mom says he is the first reader in their family.

Coraline / adapted & illustrated by P. Craig Russell ; colorist, Lovern Kindzierski ; letterer, Todd Klein.

Publisher: HarperCollins, c2008

ISBN-13: 978-0-06-082545-4
ISBN-10: 0-06-082545-6

Coraline / Neil Gaiman ; with illustrations by Dave McKean.

Publisher: HarperTrophy, c2002

ISBN-13: 978-0-06-057591-5
ISBN-10: 0-06-057591-3

Diary of a wimpy kid : Greg Heffley’s journal / by Jeff Kinney.

Publisher: Amulet Books, c2007

ISBN-13: 978-0-8109-9313-6
ISBN-10: 0-8109-9313-9

Challenge: Connecting to the Curriculum: Teachers can use comic books and graphic novels to teach what they already teach. Many are award winning books that are directly related to the curriculum. Capstone Press publishes graphic history, science, and biography graphic series. Toon Books publishes early readers in graphic novel format. First Second Books publishes many different level books that can be used, including their new series on mythology.

Toon Books- Benny and Penny series

Benny and Penny in The toy breaker : a Toon Book / by Geoffrey Hayes.

Publisher: Toon Books, c2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-935179-07-8
ISBN-10: 1-935179-07-1

Olympians. 1, Zeus, king of the gods / George O’Connor.

Publisher: First Second, c2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-59643-625-1
ISBN-10: 1-59643-625-5


Deborah B. Ford blog, Libraries Matter http://deborahford.blogspot.com/

Capstone Press http://www.capstonepub.com/default.aspx

First Second Books http://www.firstsecondbooks.com/

Toon Books http://www.toonbooks.com/

Deborah B. Ford is an award-winning teacher librarian, author and international speaker with over twenty five years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K-12 schools. She is the author of Scary, Gross and Enlightening: Books for Boys. She is currently working as the District Resource Librarian for San Diego Unified School District, serving over 180 schools. Traveling in the United States and Canada, she also does seminars for the Bureau of Education: “Increasing the Effectiveness of Your School Library Program,” and “Books and Boys.” Deborah Ford is available for workshops and keynotes at conferences, as well as for school districts. Contact her at auntbettyblue@yahoo.com for more information.

3 Comments on “SDCC: Comics In The Classroom”

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  1. MC_Nedelsky says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this Chris. Was the panel more of a replication/explication of the materials in the handout, or did your discussion delve into or deviate from the topics the handout touches on?

  2. Deborah says:

    We ran short of time on this panel, so if you have questions you didn’t get to ask, feel free to contact me @ auntbettyblue@yahoo.com.

  3. Kat Kan says:

    As a school librarian who is trying to find a way to integrate comics into the school’s curriculum, I was very interested in this panel. Thanks so much for all this info. I work with preschool through 8th grade, and I’ve had similar experiences to Deborah Ford’s. For this coming year, the art teacher and I will be collaborating on helping the students create their own comic books.

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