Math Teachers Take a Page From English/Language Arts: Comic Books!

By Catherine Gewertz — September 24, 2019 7 min read
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Math teachers: What if you could use the colorful stories of comic books to teach multiplication, prime numbers, and linear equations? Would you?

What’s that you say? You don’t think there are any comics-based materials for math? You say you’re jealous of your language arts and social studies colleagues when they use smash-hit graphic novels like Smile, Dog Man, and Maus? You envy your science colleagues when they reach for books like The Manga Guide to Physics and The Cartoon History of the Universe?

Most math teachers don’t think that engaging, visually appealing books like these are an option for them.

“Are things like that really out there?” said Brandi Green, who teaches math at Sharon-Mutual High School in rural Mutual, Okla. “Because I’d love to use them.”

In the past 15 years, comic books and their longer cousins, graphic novels, have hit the big time in language arts and social studies classes and, to a lesser degree, in science. But they’re just now tiptoeing into math classrooms.

Part of the problem has been that there hasn’t been much out there. And the other part of the problem is that teachers aren’t aware of what is out there. It’s a small slice of a booming market, but it’s growing.

Little is available from major publishers, but smaller publishers and independent cartoonists are quietly building a small cache of comic books, in print and online, with math themes.

Sales of comics—a market sector that includes traditional and online comic books and graphic novels—exceeded $1 billion last year, making $80 million more than the previous year, according to Publishers Weekly. Graphic novels on a variety of themes, but virtually none about math, accounted for most of that growth.

Math themes are “just starting to get traction” in that space, said John Shableski, who trains teachers, librarians, and others on comics resources as the director of education development at Udon Entertainment, which publishes art books, graphic novels, and the Japanese-style comics known as manga.

“It’s a real opportunity for teachers to shape the market,” he said.


Comics in the Math Classroom

Teachers who incorporate comics into their instruction tend to use them as companions to their districts’ or their own curriculum to introduce math concepts.

In a private Facebook group for math teachers, one high school teacher said he uses The Cartoon Guide to Algebra to give students a pleasant taste of a topic before going deeper into a lesson. That book, which is available in calculus and statistics versions, too, isn’t exactly a comic book, since it’s as text-heavy as most textbooks. But it’s laced with cartoons and characters who poke fun at math ideas.

Amy Hopkins offers another example of the way teachers use comics in the math classroom. As a 4th and 5th grade teacher in Illinois, she discovered Solution Squad, a 32-page comic book by Elkart, Ind., middle school math teacher Jim McClain.

The original story features a team of six teenage superheroes—boys and girls of all races, each with an extraordinary mathematical power, such as being able to do complex calculations at lightning speed. They must crack a secret code of prime numbers to escape from a force field, but the story is also laced with math jokes (their aerial transportation is the “coordinate plane”).

Hopkins said she used the story as a “mentor text” to introduce the concept of prime numbers before turning to the curriculum to assign problems for students to solve.

“By using math comics, my students got the story behind the idea first,” she said. “They got invested, excited, to figure out how and why it works.”

She’s now assistant principal at LEARN 10, a K-6 charter school in the city of North Chicago, and plans to introduce McClain’s math comics to her teachers this year.

Tracy Edmunds, a former science teacher who now develops curriculum for comics and graphic novels, calls McClain “the superstar” in the emerging field of comics for math. She also frequently recommends The Beast Academy, an elementary-level book series by Jason Batterson and Erich Owen, with an accompanying math curriculum.

McClain has since added five more stories and a lesson plan to his original comic book to create a 138-page edition, and he’s produced a digital version with companion lesson plans. He said he created Solution Squad in 2013 because he thought it would give his students new ways to connect with a subject that many of them didn’t like very much.

“Stories involving characters and personalities are more memorable than remembering rules,” said McClain, who retired last spring after 32 years in the classroom.

McClain used the comics not just to introduce math ideas but also in direct instruction to facilitate comprehension and retention. The narrative approach to math is a “subliminal” route to learning, he wrote in a blog post explaining how he used his comics in class.

Francisco Cardoza thinks the comics approach made a difference for him. When he was a 7th grade student of McClain’s in 2007, following the adventures of the Solution Squad “made everything make more sense,” he said. He remembered the ideas better, his grades went from Cs to As and Bs, and he even opted for a math concentration in college, Cardoza said. Now he’s a 4th grade teacher.


Misconceptions About Comics

Some teachers, in any subject, might write off comics because they don’t like superhero stories. But if they do so, they’d overlook a rich trove of books that could capture students’ imaginations, said Dallas Middaugh, a former publishing executive who now advises companies on publishing strategy. He specializes in comics and manga.

“People get confused. When they hear ‘comics,’ they think it’s going to be about superheroes or manga or adventure stories,” he said. “But comics is much broader. It’s not a genre. It’s a medium, and it can be any kind of content.”

Graphic novels that have become classics in many classrooms and subjects demonstrate his point. There’s Raina Telgemeier’s 2010 novel Smile, about enduring an orthodontic nightmare during middle school, and the hugely popular Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, which follows a young girl’s adventures with an enchanted necklace.

March, co-authored by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, is a trilogy of graphic novels about the civil rights movement. Maus broke new ground by using the comics medium to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor. Author Art Spiegelman self-published it as a serial strip from 1980 to 1991, then published it as a book, which became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Likewise, many of the math-oriented comics opt for regular Jims and Josephines, not superheroes. The Beast Academy books skip boots and capes in favor of cuddly, fantastical creatures. And Jason Shiga’s book Meanwhile uses appealingly pudgy characters in a caper that introduces ideas from math and physics. It’s done in a “choose your own adventure” style, which allows readers to customize the way the story progresses.

Shiga thinks there are a couple of reasons the publishing world hasn’t produced a lot of math-themed comics. For one thing, math is particularly tricky to translate into a sequential storytelling form, since most of its ideas are abstract and lack inherent story lines, he said.

Then there’s the problem of finding artists who are “mathy,” he said.

“Most of my cartoonist friends don’t like math and most of the math people I know aren’t artists,” said Shiga, a prize-winning cartoonist who studied math at the University of California, Berkeley. Publishers are hardly new to the task of pairing artists with writers, but Shiga imagines that it’s particularly tough to assemble the kinds of teams needed for “mathy” comics.

As math teachers forage for interesting materials, they should cast a wide net and not discount books that aren’t explicitly about math, Shiga said. A puzzle book—Alice in Puzzle-land, by magician and mathematician Raymond Smullyan—was what permanently hooked him on math at age 10, Shiga noted. Secret Coders, by Gene Luen Yang, is about programming, but high school-level math concepts are woven in, Shiga noted.

Yang, a former math teacher whose 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese, about a boy’s struggle with his Chinese-American identity, won armfuls of prizes and became a bestseller, said he hopes teachers will step up their demand for math-related comics and graphic novels and that publishers will listen.

“Sometimes the stories in math aren’t obvious, but they’re there,” he said.

Yang admires Fleep, Shiga’s young adult web comic about a guy who gets trapped in a phone booth by a mysterious wall of concrete and has to use math skills (and bits of physics, too) to survive.

“Stories like that show you that making stories with math is possible,” Yang said. “It can be done.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2019 edition of Education Week as Comic Books Bring Color to Math Class


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