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.

As a white teacher, that conversation just blew me away, and I started bringing in more and more comics wherever I thought they could bring some value to class.

Creating comics

I’ve always been a tactile, hands-on learner, so an early project I had students work on was building a castle. They would write a research paper on how castles were built and then they would create their own physical model. One of my students asked if he could build his model in Minecraft. I didn’t know anything about Minecraft, but I told him to give it a shot.

He spent weeks on it and gave the class a 20-minute tour through this castle he’d designed in incredible depth. He does architecture work now, so it may not be surprising that he excelled at this assignment, but it got me thinking about how to get students creating their own comics, rather than just reading them.

Now my social studies students use a digital comic platform called Pixton to create their comics. The platform has a plethora of prepared backgrounds and assets for students to use, which makes it easy for students who, like me, have a bit of art phobia but lots of ideas.

Civil rights and comics

My favorite comics creation project in the classroom centers on the civil rights movement. My students read March, a trilogy of graphic novels written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with powerful art by Nate Powell, about Lewis’ experiences in the movement. Then students break into groups of four or five and pick a modern civil rights issue to research and create their own comic about. They use Pixton to create the comic, but if there’s an artist in the group, I encourage them to draw a cover for the comic.

Another of my favorite lessons involves a graphic novel by Kyle Baker called Nat Turner, about the slave rebellion. There are no words in the book, so students really have to be skilled analytical readers to navigate the personal analysis within each panel. This is the true power of comics as literature. I also discovered a local Philadelphia hip hop artist, Reef the Lost Cauze, who has a song called “Nat Turner.” We listen and annotate this song alongside “Can’t Trust It,” by Public Enemy. As the students look at these different pieces of art, they see that some of the messages haven’t changed, that these social and racial issues are persistent throughout our history and today.

This project culminates in a student showcase. Some students create their own comic, but others choose to tell the story through their own original song or poem. I try to be as open-minded as I can when it comes to their creations. What’s important is that they’re personally engaging with the issues, not the medium through which they express that engagement.

More lesson ideas!

Of course, I teach social studies, not a comics class. We do research papers, write essays, and read textbooks and primary sources. But examining comics as an artifact can be a potent lesson as well. Here are a few examples of lessons that use comic books as a starting point or ask students to create their own as an ending point:

  • Ask students to choose an issue—an environmental challenge in your area, for example—and create a superhero team to solve it. How would they do that? What powers would they need? Who would try to stop them?
  • Using Captain America as a template, imagine another country’s eponymous superhero. What powers would Captain Mexico or Captain Poland have? What would their uniforms look like? How would they solve a problem in a different culture? Collect students’ work at the end and create an anthology.
  • In Spiderman 36, Spiderman is at Ground Zero in Manhattan, which can be a great place to begin a discussion about the September 11 attacks.
  • Jason Aaron wrote a Star Wars comic with Stormtroopers as the protagonists. It’s told from their perspective, as though they’re the good guys, and it makes excellent fodder for a classroom discussion about point of view. We then write our first argumentative, textual evidence-based essay based on the comic.
  • Champions #24, by Jim Zub, centers on a school shooting at Miles Morales’ High School. This is a moment of stark realization for students as they realize that this issue is so ever-present, that it is being depicted in our comics.
  • I get new comics every Wednesday, and they take on a lot of real-world issues. I never know what they’re going to tackle, but if there’s something relevant in each week’s new stack, I’ll just scan a panel, project it on the Smartboard, and begin a conversation that way.

Why it works

I have a website where I share resources and information about teaching with comics, including a page with links to research about it. Take a look through them and you may be surprised to find out that readers are exposed to a higher level of vocabulary in a comic book, on average, than they are in adult prose books.

Part of that is the fact that you only have so many words to use, but comics also come with this amazing built-in scaffolding because of the images. My son has a rare form of meningitis that has led to a lot of struggles for him, and comics gave him not just the motivation to learn to read, but the confidence that he could do it because the pictures helped him understand the text, even if some of the words were unfamiliar. Now he loves to read everything, not just comics.

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