There is no shortage of curriculum experts who have weighed in on the growing impact of comics in the K-12 classroom. Drawing upon anecdotal examples of how visual narrative has been able to engage and inspire reluctant readers, these experts have argued that comics and graphic novels can be important tools to develop basic literacy skills in young readers. Take a classroom of kids, the experts say, who find it challenging to deal with the traditional genres taught in English or Language Arts, and give them comics and graphic novels. Then, watch how their reading, writing, understanding, and engagement with literature improve.
For the most part, these experts are right. Armed with books that have significantly less text than a novel (or even, at times, a short story) and include illustrations that provide a visual anchor, reluctant readers are able to build vocabulary, use visual learning skills to read, and make connections between what is being said, perceived, and understood. Should we continue to use comics and graphic novels to develop basic literacy skills in kids who struggle with reading? We don’t need experts to tell us that we’d be foolish not to.
But there’s another issue with comics in the classroom that needs to be talked about. When it comes to using them with kids in academic English classrooms—specifically those classrooms preparing kids for college and university—educators have shown greater reluctance. “Sure, it’s fine to use them with kids who struggle,” the argument goes, “but academic kids can handle more challenging texts and, heck, who doesn’t think we should be challenging kids who like reading to begin with?” This is the product of the first of two related attitudes towards comics commonly found among K-12 educators: that visual narrative is not as worthy of serious study as more “traditional” genres, and as such is only useful in developing the skills of struggling readers. These educators are often assisted by parents of high-achieving kids who want their sixteen year olds reading The Economist or The Wall Street Journal as supplemental reading rather than Swamp Thing or the Finder series.
The problem, of course, is that this attitude represents an inability to see visual narrative as a genre. As soon as one recognizes it as a genre, considers its origins, and traces its development, one is divested of the idea that it’s somehow not a genre. Part of this has to do with the fact that comics and graphic novels are a combination of words and images, and that in the Western tradition, something that is just words or just images is generally understood as a more significant artistic accomplishment than something that is both (with, of course, a few notable exceptions, like the works of William Blake). However, if we’re ever going to make significant inroads with comics and graphic novels in academic classrooms, we need to convince educators that visual narrative is indeed a genre. It’s not an inferior genre or a childish genre or a genre only suitable for students who struggle with reading. On the list of Time magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels since 1923, Fahrenheit 451, a frequent visitor of academic English classrooms, doesn’t make the cut. Watchmen, it should be noted, does.
There is a second reason, however, that graphic novels (outside of, let’s say, Maus, Persepolis, and a handful of others) aren’t finding their way into academic English classrooms. Sometimes educators will privately admit to me that they don’t fully understand comics and would therefore be uncomfortable teaching them. Even those I’ve met who have spent time researching pedagogical approaches to teaching comics and graphic novels are still a bit nervous about the enterprise. None of this should be surprising. Few educators teaching in schools right now grew up reading and studying comics in their high school English classrooms.
It’s important that we take the time, however, to determine how to teach graphic novels as something more than accessible literature for struggling readers. The most obvious reason is that visual narrative is a genre worthy of study in its own right. Another, though, is that it helps to develop the specific kinds of “new” literacy skills that all students need in order to engage with the present millennium. In education circles, there has been a considerable focus on teaching students not simply traditional literacy skills, but a range of 21st-century literacies. These literacies are a diverse group, including critical, cultural, environmental, health, and computer/ICT literacies, to name but a few. And just as the National Reading Panel in 2000 determined the set of skills students need to access basic literacy (six skills in fact, including things like “print motivation” and “print awareness”), there are basic skills that students must develop in order to access these new literacies.
In 2010, I assigned a rather curious task to a group of twenty-two graduate students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) while teaching a course called New Literacies: Making Multiple Meanings. The students included K-12 educators with a range of experiences and backgrounds, as well as those working in education in a non-teaching capacity. The purpose of the activity was to determine what they saw as the basic skills needed to access “new literacies.” Pairs of students were assigned a given literacy, and then came up with a thoughtful analysis of the skills that would be needed for someone to possess, for example, information literacy or health literacy. The following week, just as one might do in a middle school classroom, I had the students fill up a blackboard with the skills they came up with for their given literacy. Then we simply circled the skills that appeared over and over again. The following five were repeated multiple times:
- Critical Thinking
- Navigation Skills
- Making Connections
Given that 21st-century students in our K-12 classrooms spend a considerable amount of time immersed in a visual culture outside the classroom, it seems absurd to avoid teaching visual narrative to academic students as they develop the above-mentioned skills. Having students navigate through different genres and across different platforms of learning as they critically think about and make connections between poetry, novels, short fiction, visual narrative, epistolary writing, discussion boards, blogs, and hypertext fiction seems like a no-brainer. Are students’ self-awareness and metacognition really better served by avoiding comics and graphic novels in the academic English classroom? Isn’t visual narrative an ideal starting point in exploring with students both the traditional “print” genres of the novel, short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and the world of writing that hypertext and the web has opened up for all of us?
We’re in the business of preparing students for the 21st century, after all. We should therefore get busy doing it.