Teaching Social Justice With Comics

By Amy Wickner — September 05, 2013 4 min read
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As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington prompted a fresh wave of reflection and commemoration, I was particularly drawn to a story from Code Switch – an NPR reporting team exploring race, culture, and ethnicity – about a new memoir of the civil rights movement. March (Book One) (Top Shelf Productions, 2013) is U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ account – written with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell – of his experiences as a young participant in the civil rights movement and in a long public service career since. And, it’s a comic book.

NPR reporter Sandhya Dirks writes: “Every superhero has an origin story – and so does the graphic novel of John Lewis’ life.” It seems a comic book about Rosa Parks inspired Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, to explore nonviolent resistance and led him to greater involvement with the civil rights movement. March, which Dirks refers to as “a primer on non-violence,” may be poised to introduce a new generation of students to social justice issues if widely adopted by libraries and in the classroom.

In fact, comic books may be particularly suited to teaching that combustible combination of history, politics, philosophy, and ethics. A number of formal and informal resources suggest starting points for educators interested in exploring this area of teaching and learning.

Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers a series of lessons, Using Editorial Cartoons to Teach Social Justice, that aims to build critical literacy and understanding of 12 issues, including bullying, gender discrimination, and censorship. Each lesson centers on a single cartoon, exploring how each image’s wordplay, visual puns, irony, idioms, and composition, among other elements, contribute to several layers of meaning.

The lessons may be shared as-is, but teachers may find it more useful to adapt them for the classroom, using the principles of each sample lesson as the structure for a new curriculum. New images may be substituted and similarly analyzed. And excerpts from a variety of thematically related graphic novels may supplement or replace the pre-selected editorial cartoons.

Often the best way to find good books is to ask readers who care. A 2009 thread on teaching social justice issues with comics, from social reading and cataloging site LibraryThing, offers many book suggestions and practical commentary from the site’s users.

One commenter in particular notes the need to think carefully about “appropriateness” when selecting comic books for the classroom: “Even armed with a good and compelling hook, you don’t want to lose them at the starting gate. ... My ultimate recommendation would be to not discount the more mainstream and perhaps less overtly ‘academic’ or ‘scholarly’ graphic novels and trade paperback collections. While working on perhaps more metaphorical levels, there are mainstream comics that deal with the topics you’re looking for, as well as a vast many other highly relevant ones.”

As I’ve written previously, it’s important to be cognizant of the diversity of the genre – and of young people’s reading habits and interests – and to encourage students to find the right fit as with any reading material.

Another useful resource for teachers is the open access The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, published online since 2011. The journal publishes wide-ranging reviews and papers – including some snapshots of research in progress – on a diverse array of titles. Teachers and librarians may use The Comics Grid to discover new books and authors, advise collection development, or infuse lessons built around particular themes and titles with critical arguments translated from the journal. A lesson on Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of the social, political, and personal fallout from the Iranian Revolution, might include themes from Esther Claudio’s paper on identity “confusion” in the book.

The case for considering comics for the classroom has been made by a comic book about teaching itself. To Teach: The Journey, in Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner (Teachers College Press, 2010), combines text from Ayers’ 2001 memoir – To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher – with Alexander-Tanner’s expressive pen-and-ink drawings. Almost every bit of the book is hand-drawn or hand-lettered, down to the colophon, copyright page, and carefully redrawn TC Press logo.

There is one page of printed text: a putative excerpt from a history book, meant to demonstrate the soporific qualities of standard-issue textbooks. Opposite the columns of text, Ayers’ cartoon avatar drools, shakes himself awake, and admits, “When I was a student, I used textbooks to put myself to sleep. I found them anesthetizing. ...” He goes on to assemble his own set of classroom materials, concluding that “no curriculum or text could ever suit the needs of everyone.” Ayers’ comic-book memoir itself demonstrates the viability of – and even need for – a diverse array of alternative texts as vehicles for teaching and learning.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.