Comic Books in Classrooms
Graphic novels used to be considered useful for underachieving and learning disabled students, as a means to capture their interest and get them reading. Now they are entering the mainstream of education, partially due to their inclusion as a component of Common Core English standards that have been adopted by most states. Even honor students are reading comic books these days.
“It will come as little surprise to anyone who works with children and young adults that graphic novels disappear from library shelves faster than anything else (except, maybe, vampire novels) and are the topic of eager discussion whenever they find their way into classrooms,” wrote one librarian in American Libraries magazine (08-01-2011). Critics of using comic books in schools may suggest that vampire novels aren’t the best choice for children’s reading material either.
The president of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English told the Chicago Tribune that since graphic novels are specifically addressed in the Common Core standards, they will have a larger role in classrooms. In the Common Core standards it is suggested, for example, that 5th-graders “analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem. (Common Core standards, Reading: Literature CCSS.ELA Literacy.RL.5.7)
A teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois has students read Elie Wiesel’s holocaust book Night, along with the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus, also based on the holocaust; Maus presents humans as animals (Jews as mice, Germans as cats). “You’re always going to have the traditionalists say comic books aren’t real literature, and I guess to a certain extent they have a point. But my point is that it is different literature,” says the teacher. (Chicago Tribune, 12-27-12)
Combining the visual aspect of comic book format in addition to reading a serious literary work may have some validity in certain cases. But when comic books replace literature, a problem arises. In the following example reported in the Chicago Tribune article, the possible outcome of including graphic novels is apparent. At a presentation to the National Teachers of English conference, instructors of a senior Advanced Placement and honors course presented an argument against reading the real Beowolf, in favor of reading the comic book based on Beowolf.
Half the students spent nearly six hours on average reading the full traditional text. The other half, who read a “Beowulf” graphic novel, spent about two hours. Both groups took the same 25-question multiple-choice test. Students who read the traditional text scored 81 percent on average compared with 75 percent for those who read the graphic novel.
The presenting educators wondered if the few points difference on the test were worth the extra time — “would that time be better spent doing other things?” This is exactly what worries some observers about graphic novels in the classroom — and about the increasing and myopic focus on testing to measure learning.