Teaching

4 Ways to Use Comics and Graphic Novels to Engage Students

By Alyson Klein — July 05, 2023 4 min read
Blue comic book strip with the word WOW! in red in the center.
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Most classroom walls display rules about arriving on time or raising hands to speak. Tim Smyth’s has a sign reminding students: “You’re Not Allowed to Ask Which is Better, Marvel or DC.”

Even as he sidesteps fervent debates about which comic book publisher is superior, Smyth leans into comics and graphic novels in his 10th and 11th grade social studies classes at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa. He believes they can offer students an engaging entry point into history and world cultures.

Lesson one: Comic books are hardly a modern invention. Stories in pictures can be found in cultures all over the world, stretching back to prehistoric cave paintings. Smyth shows his European history students a drawing made circa 1460 of the torture of Erasmus, which historians have interpreted as a warning to those who spoke out against the medieval church.

“And people say ‘that’s real history. That’s capital H history,’” Smyth said. His response? “Yeah. So is Captain America Number One.”

Published in 1941, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the comic depicts a shield-wielding hero punching German dictator Adolph Hitler. Once the United States entered the war, Captain America became a symbol of America’s strength, values, and resilience, Smyth tells his students.

It doesn’t hurt that comic books are clearly having a pop-culture moment, giving Smyth a way to bond with his students as they geek out over their favorite characters.

Smyth himself didn’t read comic books back when he was in school. “I was already getting my [butt] kicked,” he said, referring to the stereotype of the bullied, comic-book loving kid. But these days, “my own kids and my [students] are proud nerds. The whole thing has changed. It’s fantastic.”

Here are four tips from Smyth for using comics, graphic novels, and pop-culture in class, shared in a session at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia in June:

1. Analyze political cartoons

This is a social studies staple. One of Smyth’s favorites: A cartoon printed during the women’s suffrage movement, showing a mother heading out to vote while her husband is at home caring for their children.

The picture isn’t exactly flattering to suffragettes. “We have this whole conversation about strong women” and how they might have been perceived when the cartoon was first published.

As an involved father in 2023, Smyth tells his students he finds the cartoon is also “anti-male” because it assumes that caring for children is burdensome and menial.

“When my wife goes out to vote [or work], we’re OK. I’m not baby-sitting my kids. I’m with my children,” he said.

Smyth’s take—and the depictions in the cartoon—offer a lesson in changes in attitudes towards gender over the last 100 years, he said.

“What’s great about visual literacy is it’s open to interpretation,” Smyth said.

2. Use the content as entry points into complicated topics

Smyth introduces World War I by posting in his classroom a 24 foot-long, wordless comic depicting the first battle of the war. He has students explain what they see, and what they’re curious about, using evidence from the graphic text.

In helping students understand the incarceration camps for Americans of Japanese descent set up by the U.S. government during World War II, Smyth shows a graphic that makes it clear each detainee was given a number. Students will point to that part of the picture and “will always ask that question, ‘what is that?’ And then we do the research,” he said.

3. Use historical comic books

Smyth also uses graphic novels to teach history. One staple: Madaya Mom, a free, digital comic, tells the story of a real, but anonymous mother’s experiences in Syria’s ongoing civil war. The comic was produced by Marvel and ABC News.

“It’s a vehicle to take these complicated, huge historical events, and boil it down to one mom,” Smyth said. “That’s why Anne Frank is so powerful, right?” he added, referring to a 16-year-old Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and whose diary written while in hiding from the Nazis is among the most well known first-person accounts from the period.

He’s also a fan of March, a series of graphic novels chronicling the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of one of its leaders, the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

And he shares the Spiderman comic that tells the story of September 11, 2001. It’s set, like the rest of the series, in New York City.

“It actually is a really powerful comic,” Smyth said. “It gets into politics and worldwide reactions and all these different things. And Spiderman is right there, at ground zero.”

4. Engage students in creative projects

Smyth’s students also make their own comic book creations, including an international spin on Captain America. Students choose a country and then create its superhero, figuring out what they would look like, what their origin story would be, what their powers would be, and what they’d do with them.

Smyth’s advice to teachers whose administrators question their use of comics? Remind them that graphic novels are explicitly referenced in the Common Core state standards as a type of literature text students might encounter and analyze.

Smyth has had only one student complain that he was relying way too much on comics in his class. Her father came in for a conference.

“He came in all fired up, he was gonna chew me out,” Smyth said. “And then I showed him the March graphic novel. And like, five minutes later, he’s like, ‘I don’t understand what my daughter’s problem is.’”

Teachers who want to use these tools need to overcome the attitude that comics are just “bam, boom, Superman in tights,” Smyth said, when they can actually be insightful and educational: “If [people] haven’t ever really read a comic, a lot of times they don’t understand them.”

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