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Comic relief: How comics and graphic novels are getting kids to read the classic

Posted April 6

Chicago-based high school teacher Eric Kallenborn got an idea as he prepared his 2011 Advanced Placement English students for another year analyzing the classics: What if, instead of simply handing out texts and homework, he could give them a choice between a traditional textbook and a graphic novel version of the same story?

On a trip to his local library, Kallenborn stumbled on a perfect test text for his experiment, Gareth Hinds’ 2007 richly illustrated adaptation of “Beowulf,” an epic poem he planned to teach that quarter. Kallenborn wondered if the kids who chose the graphic novel would be left behind on test scores and writing assessments.

What he found inspired his master’s degree thesis a few years later.

His AP students split evenly between the full text of the poem and the graphic novel — 27 students each. Those who chose the graphic novel spent half the amount of time reading as those who chose the full text (60 hours vs. 155 hours), and they scored just three points lower on tests than students who chose the full text. In assigned essays on the poem, the differences in scores were negligible — Kallenborn was surprised his students could write about the story in such an elevated way, even when they hadn’t read the full text.

He tried it again with his sophomore Honors English class with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a graphic novel adaptation. This time, the students who read the graphic novel scored higher on assessments than the kids who read the original play.

“It makes sense for us to watch Shakespeare and analyze the direction of it, which is what a graphic novel allows you to do,” Kallenborn said. “Shakespeare didn’t write his plays for us to read in high school classrooms.”

Kallenborn’s fellow English teacher Ronell Whitaker had similar success in his class of at-risk high school students. Using 35 issues of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Whitaker was able to get kids who had no interest in reading before, to fully engage in classic material by the end of the year.

“I took those groups of kids from Spider-Man to (August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play) ‘Fences’ to Shakespeare within months because, once the kids had gotten into books they loved, they trusted I’d put something good in front of them,” he said.

Together, Kallenborn and Whitaker are using their successes with graphic novels in the classroom to launch Comics Education Outreach, a program that gives teachers a starting point to use comics and graphic novels in the classroom. When it launches sometime in the next year, CEO will offer a classroom lending library of eight titles, reviews, lesson plans, and teacher professional development Kallenborn and Whitaker believe will help teachers make the most of class time and better engage students in classroom material.

“It sounds elementary, but it’s really not,” Kallenborn said. “We’re seeing a paradigm shift of people translating images more fluently than text — think of Snapchat or Instagram. It’s a natural shift for kids to move into the pairing of text and images because that’s what they’re given on a constant daily basis. So it makes sense for teachers to utilize (graphic novels and comics) more.”

The comeback

Over the past decade, comic books have, once again, become a huge part of American pop culture. Comic book titles dominate the box office, and conventions surrounding the comic book and superhero culture are held regularly in cities across the country. The comic craze has also taken hold in publishing, where graphic novels are the only profitable print format in the past couple of years, according to Publishers Weekly.

Now, America’s love of comics is coming into classrooms, what with recent research finding that reading comics and graphic novels offer a range of benefits — from improving literacy skills to fighting obesity. Therapists also find comics a reliable and safe way to connect with teenage clients, finding a level of trust more quickly than traditional talk therapy alone.

“Chances are, your kid has been around Batman a lot longer than he’s been around me,” former therapist Patrick O’Connor said. “We’re not just reading Batman comics — we’re inventing a more comfortable situation to discuss uncomfortable topics.”

It hasn’t always been this way. As Columbia University journalism professor David Hajdu wrote in his 2008 book, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America,” it wasn’t long ago Americans were so sure comics books were a detriment to children’s minds that they burned them en masse in school yards.

“At the same time Nazis were burning books, Americans were burning comic books,” Hajdu said in an interview. ”By 1948, there were over 50 acts of legislation at the municipal and state level either restricting the sale of certain comics or banning comics. The country went absolutely hysterical.”

Today, comics and graphic novels are much more integrated into American culture, which is likely why educators embracing comics as a tool to encourage reading aren't met with a lot of resistence. When Whitaker and Kallenborn travel the country talking about their method at teachers' conferences, they say any skepticism they encounter usually dissipates once colleagues learn more about how comics can help in the classroom.

"We have had teachers who were a little skeptical, but the fact they’re in the room speaks to the fact that they recognize this is coming, no matter what. Common Core requires kids to be able to read information from a variety of texts and images. No other kind of reading helps them acquire that like comics," Whitaker said. "With parents, I'll show them my syllabus, and they'll see some Spider-Man on there, and maybe they're a little skeptical. But, by the next conference, they're happy their kids are reading. That's how it's been winning people over."

While American culture has made a dramatic shift in embracing comic books and graphic novels, has it gone too far by introducing animated adaptations of classic texts into institutions that greatly impact children’s lives? Can kids meaningfully benefit from reading colorful panels and word bubbles rather than the Shakespearean stanzas and classic novels their parents read in school?

For many people who are only familiar with the superhero side of comics, the format can seem juvenile at best, or overly violent and sexualized at worst. But most educators and therapists who use comics say the format stands to greatly benefit children, as long as the comics are vetted and kept appropriate for the therapeutic or educational setting they’re intended for.

“There’s so much more out there than superhero comics right now, and I wouldn’t look at graphic novels to replace traditional texts as much as to supplement them. It’s about coming up with one more way to challenge (students’) thinking, and this is a good way to do it,” said Salt Lake City Granite School District curriculum specialist Quinn Rollins. “It’s right in front of our faces. They’re actively reading (comics and graphic novels), and it’s going to waste if we don’t try to use it to engage them.”

Benefiting students and teachers

The shift from comic books going from the pyre to the classroom has been a gradual cultural change, experts say — one that’s seen both comic books and their fans become more sophisticated, culminating in Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust epic “Maus” winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

“Comics reached a high watermark of aesthetic and literary quality. They just got better,” Hajdu said. “We started seeing comics as something that were serious and literary. Comics grew up, and their audience grew up.”

The shift from simplistic superhero tales and humor-based comics for very young children to deeper storytelling and memoir comics has made the format more suited as teaching and therapy tools. The problem, experts say, is when most people think about comic books or graphic novels, they don’t realize how they’ve evolved beyond superheroes or Archie’s teenage escapades in Riverdale. Many skeptics of the comic book approach may worry comics are generally too violent, too sexual or too simple to be much more than mindless entertainment.

“If you say you don’t like graphic novels, it’s like saying, 'I don’t like horror movies; therefore, I don’t like movies.' If all you’ve seen is straightforward comics, and you don’t like them, you need to try other kinds,” Rollins said. “A school librarian or an administrator who looks down on them as inferior to ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ or whatever, those adults need to be convinced of the power of them to give them a chance.”

In the classroom, Rollins, Whitaker and Kallenborn all argue the right comics can benefit straight-A students just as much as those who struggle to read or hate books. For students facing learning challenges, they contend that comic books make the stories and texts more accessible, and an engaging adaptation (such as Hinds’ “Beowulf”) can be as powerful as the original.

“Having the image helps with context clues, and that’s a huge deal for someone who struggles with reading comprehension because they can use inferencing to marry what’s being said with the image,” Whitaker said, using Eric Hinds’ Romeo and Juliet adaptation as an example. “When we read (Romeo and Juliet), we spent a lot of time talking about what Shakespeare means. With comics, I didn’t have to have those conversations anymore because the students were so happy to have a way to explicate the information.”

For students who don’t struggle, Rollins says comics and graphic novels add a new way to think about the content.

“Students who are gifted readers sometimes need something else to help them think as problem-solvers. Adding this visual dimension helps them extend their thinking in a different direction,” Rollins said.

Rollins said graphic novels also align with new Common Core standards, which require students to think about material critically and view it from multiple sources, while also being able to distill and present what they’ve learned to their peers.

“With a graphic novel, you’re not just reading a script, you’re seeing it play out before you. It’s a more concrete kind of learning,” Rollins said. “Sometimes when you’re reading text, you get caught up in just decoding words, versus seeing a word and pairing it with a picture. With graphic novels, you’re able to take your thinking to a more critical level.”

But Whitaker says using comics doesn’t just benefit the students, it can also help teachers make the most of class time that’s increasingly used for standardized testing.

“Before comics, we would read one full novel per quarter. I would say, we’re in the third quarter now, and the kids have read eight books so far,” Whitaker said. “We have way more time to get to the writing skills stuff we need to do.”

‘A shared language’

When New York City-based teacher Michael Bitz launched his afterschool program, The Comic Book Project, in 2002, he hoped the project would boost students' reading and writing skills to help them thrive in the classroom.

His approach worked — over the past 16 years, the program has reached more than 200,000 kids, has been used in more than 50 school programs in a handful of states and, in 2015, was introduced to schoolchildren in Nigeria. The program has documented successes of helping children improve literacy skills by allowing them to make their own comic books based on their personal lives, experiences or what they're learning in school.

Bitz had no idea, when he launched the project, it would help so many kids process the trauma many of them experienced.

“We were focused on developing writing and creativity skills, but what surprised us was that kids were using the comic book project for therapy,” Bitz said, adding that many of the students in his program had experience with gang violence and problems at home. “It’s become a place of expression to share what they’re going through and be able to work through it in some way.”

The therapeutic effect of comic books is something former therapist Patrick O'Connor used for years in his private practice. In therapy settings, comics take on a different role than in the classroom, in creating a connection between therapist and patient, while also helping patients verbalize their problems, he said.

“Working with comics (in therapy) is about having a shared language with a client,” O’Connor said. “In therapy, you and your client are working toward mental health from two very different education points and expertise. Comics are our meeting point, where we can get each other and find something we both know and understand, almost instantly — I mean, everybody knows who Batman is.”

Where a teacher may lean more toward memoir, non-fiction or classical adaptations when using comics and graphic novels, O’Connor said therapy is where superheroes shine because the characters are often instantly and universally relatable.

“There’s an added element of visual art that a client can easily project or draw meaning from. Everybody will view it in different ways, and the visual nature of it works wonders,” O’Connor said. “It’s easier to draw a parallel between Robin having problems with Batman as a father figure if you’re a teen having your own identity problems. It makes it easier to say, this guy is going through the same thing I am, only on a more theatrical level.”

The power of relating a comic book narrative to real-life problems is something former therapist and host of Salt Lake City’s Geek Therapist podcast Aaron Burton can attest to. Burton’s podcast, which he hosts with his wife and registered nurse Jocelyn Christensen, examines how comic book and other “geek” fandom can help people cope with mental health issues.

“In a lot of ways, I think these stories are our new mythology. Those same stories connected with people who were hearing them in Ancient Greece because they found human elements they could relate to,” Burton said. “Back then, it was how Hercules survived the challenges of Hera and now, it’s if (Marvel superhero) Jessica Jones cans survive PTSD, maybe there’s a chance for me.”

O’Connor stresses that not all comics are created equal, and while he’s a fan of using Batman and other heroes to help bring patients out of their shells, he recognizes not all comics are appropriate for that task.

“It’s just one more tool for therapists to use,” O’Connor said. “Yes, heroes sometimes use violence and powers to solve some problems, but it’s the stories that make people connect to the characters. The fighting is the exciting part, but that’s not why we keep reading.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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