A social studies teacher explains how he uses comics to bring challenging issues to life for students

How a teacher uses comics to teach social justice


A social studies teacher explains how he uses comics to bring challenging issues to life for students

As a social studies teacher who spends a lot of class time poring over comic books with students, it’s been gratifying to see the attitude about comics in education shifting over the last decade or so. Years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a bit of side-eye when I talked about teaching with comics.

I’ve spent about a decade as the chair of the social studies department at Wissahickon High School, where I teach grades 9-12. I write teacher guides and curriculum for graphic novels for publishers like Macmillan and Scholastic, and I have a book about teaching with comics coming out this summer. I also deliver in-service learning for teachers, and these days I’m more likely to hear gratitude than skepticism from educators whose own teachers took their comic books away from them as students.

From a-ha to validation

The “a-ha moment” came to me in graduate school. I was pursuing my master’s degree as a reading specialist and was the only male in the whole program. I kept getting this information about how boys don’t like to read, and I started thinking about how we all have different reading interests. Even as a life-long avid reader, there were books that I just did not want to read when I was in school. I started doing research and wrote my thesis on using comics and pop culture in the classroom to increase engagement and confidence in readers.

I knew I was on to something when I began putting this research, and my personal passion, to use in the classroom. In 2011, Miles Morales, a Black teen, was introduced as Spiderman and our class discussed the ways in which pop culture reflects society. A Black student came up to me after class and we had this really meaningful conversation in which he told me that he was much more impressed that Spiderman was Black than that the president of the United States was at the time.

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