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How Comics Enhance Learning

The following guest post is from David Cutler’s Spin Education and is reposted with permission. You can listen to audio of David’s interview with Bucky Carter at the original post at Spin Education.

In Captain America: The Winter Solider, smashing the box office at a theater near your, a brainwashed, bionic arm-wielding “Bucky” squares off against the titular hero.

As fate would have it, last week I spoke to another Bucky. But other than a shared name, this Bucky resembles not at all the villain portrayed on the silver screen.

Then again, perhaps that’s not entirely true. Both are very involved with comics.

Prof. James Bucky Carter has written extensively about how comics can enhance education. “A substantial, expanding body of evidence asserts that using graphic novels and comics in the classroom produces effective learning opportunities over a wide range of subjects and benefits various student populations, from hesitant readers to gifted students,” Carter writes in Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels.

When teaching American history, I love using comics to heighten engagement. In fact, when covering World War II, I ask my students to analyze the inaugural March 1941 cover of Captain America, depicting super-soldier Steve Rogers deflecting an attack while knocking out Adolf Hitler. From there, students contemplate why for the better part of the 1940s, Captain America remained a huge success for Timely Comics, the publishing company which would evolve into Marvel Comics.

Marvel Comics

I’m curious to hear more of how Carter recommends teachers make effective use of comics in the classroom. As a first step—just as most responsible teachers do—he suggests thinking about big themes one wishes to explore during the year. Then he advises teacher to go out and see what comics or graphic novels fit those themes. In other words, Carter doesn’t suggest building an entire curriculum around comics and graphic novels.

“You don’t necessarily have to feel like you’re reshuffling your curriculum,” he tells me, as I shake my head in agreement. “You’re just looking for material that will help your students address those things or answer those big questions that you’re posing to them . . . If you’re exploring the issue of sacrifice, maybe go look at some comics where characters might have sacrificed themselves in one way or another.”

In fact, four years ago I ran an “unofficial” independent study with two interested students, curious to explore how superheroes personify sacrifice. I first had them read The Death of Superman, the hugely successful, bestselling 1992 storyline from Detective Comics. Superman makes the ultimate sacrifice in defeating Doomsday, a crazed killing monster whose might equals (or surpasses) that of the Man of Steel. My students then read ensuing issues, narrating Superman’s return from the dead, and they soon referenced strong similarities with the Passion. In a very real sense, Superman awakened in them a genuine desire to learn more about Biblical times.

Detective Comics

I also recall how comics ignited my eagerness to learn history. As a junior in high school, I read a reprint of Iron Man’s first appearance in the March 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense. In this story, the Viet Cong capture wealthy industrialist Tony Stark. To escape, in secret Stark cobbles together his first iron man suit, a primitive iteration of what he will eventually create. As a 17-year-old, I knew very little about the Vietnam War, and what role America had played in the conflict. To address that deficit, I read several history books on the topic—at first, mostly to have a better understanding and appreciation of Iron Man’s origin story. Weeks later, fate would smile upon me when my history teacher assigned a research paper on the Vietnam War.

Marvel Comics

As I listen to Carter, I realize more and more that it’s not unusual for comics, even superhero comics, to instill a love of learning. “Going back to the X‑Men series, I know that [Chris] Claremont’s vocabulary certainly helped inspire my own,” Carter says. “Not everyone needs to know what a telekinetic person is, but I knew at a fairly early age. There’s a long history of comics influencing people’s vocabulary for the better, or at least not doing them any harm.”

The same holds true for Josh Elder, an award-winning graphic novelist and nationally syndicated cartoonist who, in 2009, founded Reading With Pictures (RWP), a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of comics to promote literacy and improve educational outcomes. Elder also had a difficult time in school—not so much with comprehension (his IQ tested off the charts), but with finding relevance in his studies. All of that began to change when his teachers encouraged his passion for reading comics.

Friday, at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, I’ll be speaking with Elder on a special RWP panel, titled, “Getting the Most out of Graphic Novels in Your Classroom and Library.” I’ll be supporting Elder’s position that this medium engages and enhances student interest, even with history education.

Reading With Pictures

“The biggest challenge is getting [students] to pay attention in the first place, getting them to give a damn,” says Elder, who also writes several titles for Detective Comics, includingScribblenauts UnmaskedThe Batman Strikes! and Adventures of Superman.

“Comics are a way to do that. That’s the hardest fight you have to face as a teacher. Getting them to actually understand the material once they’re actually paying attention to you and listening—that’s not as hard as getting them to pay attention in the first place.”

Taking that a step farther, I can only imagine how much interest a classroom visit from actual comic producers would elicit. I would do almost anything to have John ByrneDan Jurgens,Alex RossMark WaidDarwyn CookeScott Snyder, or Geoff Johns talk about their work to my students, and what role comics and education played in their own lives.

Carter gives me some advice. “You might be surprised who is working for Marvel or who is inking for DC or who is editing for scholastics in your state,” he says. “Even if they’re not particularly in your neighborhood, you’d be surprised how many folks are nearby.”

I’m certainly going to look.