To the Editor:
Recent attention to the use of comic books in schools drove me to the search engine Google, where my query of the phrase yielded 682,000 English pages. It also set off a mental time travel, turning my life’s calendar backward more than 70 years. In particular, it brought me back to the late 1930s, when, as a high school substitute teacher in Troy, N.Y., I was called upon to teach a course in English for students in a low-status vocational program.
I was at the time an itinerant substitute. My permanent teaching license permitted me to teach any subject at any level. Some days, I would teach in a rural school, others, suburban and mostly urban. One day it would be history, another, biology or English or algebra. I found the diversity of students and locales fascinating and the variety of subjects a real challenge. I enjoyed my work, hoping all the time that even in the height of the Great Depression I would be offered a permanent position.
Then this day in the vocational program came along. To my dismay, I discovered that the chief literary fare in this so-called class in English consisted of comic books. As a recent graduate of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.—then an all-male institution of about 800, with a proud record of well over a century of teaching the liberal arts and science—and with a major in philosophy, I had nothing but disdain for this folly and for the elderly teacher, now ill, who had created it.
Fortunately for me, she was absent for a month, during which time I came to see that my arrogance had blinded me to her creativity. These boys and girls, all from working-class families, many of them children of immigrants, were devouring the comic books, and were reading for pleasure for the first time. Some of them had moved from comic books to Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Jack London, and they enjoyed discussing Oliver Twist as much as Superman.
The wisdom of this experienced woman taught me that there are numerous ways to get children hooked on books and learning. In the many ensuing years, the lesson I learned from her influenced my teaching at the college, university, and postdoctoral levels. I discovered that it didn’t matter whether an instructor lectured, led discussions, or used role-play or any other procedure, provided the students—no matter their age—were engaged. It’s not surprising that educational research has substantiated that principle.
The writer is a dean emeritus of the graduate school of education at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, as well as a professor emeritus of its graduate school of applied and professional psychology.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as Other Classroom Resources On Elections Are Available