When he first saw The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, the “comic book version” of the almost-600-page 9/11 Commission Report, on a bookstore shelf, Dan Tandarich was shocked. After flipping through it, however, the 5th grade teacher at Public School 124 in Brooklyn decided that condensing and illustrating the commission’s findings was a great idea. “I wouldn’t pick up a non-graphic version of the report,” he says. “You could have a whole new set of 9/11 [report] readers.”
The readers he has in mind are middle- and high-schoolers, not his own students. (They’re too young.) But Tandarich is among a growing number of educators nationwide using comic books—and their full-length siblings, graphic novels—as literacy tools.
For many reasons—parents weaned on comics, Hollywood adaptations, growing acceptance in literary circles—illustration-based volumes have grown in popularity over the past decade. They warrant their own sections in bookstores and libraries, where picture-heavy takes on classic novels, biographies, and history books proliferate. Critics, however, argue that the content found in such works is either too inappropriate or dumbed-down to use in classrooms.
Tandarich, who helps kids transition from picture and chapter books to full-length prose, disagrees. Reading, in the long run, “has to be something they’re going to want to do on their own that’s not teacher-directed,” he insists. The first step is to rid them of the notion “that reading’s not supposed to be fun.”
A comic book reader since age 4, the 32-year-old is still a big fan of the Marvel classics of the ’60s and ’70s—X-Men and Spider-Man, especially. He says, however, that there are innumerable contemporary publications (superhero- and history-oriented alike) aimed at young audiences, making for a plethora of age- and content-appropriate materials.
Once kids are hooked on characters and their stories, the opportunities to make “teaching points” are endless, according to Tandarich. (See his Spider-Man analysis, left.) The visual cues—facial expressions, dialogue balloons, sequential panels—enable kids to follow narratives while inferring the meanings of words they’ve never seen before. “Distress,” for example, pops up—and is immediately defined—in a graphic treatment of the Titanic disaster. “You’re attaching something [concrete] to an idea,” he explains.
Tandarich first made educational use of comic books in the late ’90s, when, as an Americorps member, he helped run an elementary-level after-school program. That experience led to his getting a master’s in education, followed by his gig at PS 124 in 2001. The following year, he authored an eight-lesson curriculum commissioned by the New York City Comic Book Museum. Although the museum is now defunct, Tandarich says more than 75 schools and libraries across the country have used the curriculum. Next, he’d like to write a book on the subject. Meanwhile, anyone with questions on comic books as literacy tools can e-mail him at email@example.com.
Tandarich, by the way, was one of those kids who got hooked on comics but didn’t stop reading there. As a teen, he moved onto sci-fi novels, mythology, and the classics—all of which he still reads today. “Comic books,” he says, “can spark that imagination and create the foundation for a love of reading.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Comics in the Classroom