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I Need a Hero: Finding a Place for Comics and Graphic Novels in Our Classrooms

Terry Thompson

Grab your cape and get ready! One of the most interesting developments in recent literacy history has captured our readers - and it's causing quite a stir. In the past few years, a swarm of comic book and graphic novel titles (collectively known as graphica) written for young readers has landed in our libraries, bookstores, and classrooms - and our kids are clamoring to get their hands on them! 

Meanwhile back in Literacyland -- despite the uproar this medium is causing among our young readers -- many teachers remain torn. It seems that even the most open-minded in our midst struggles with whether or not comics are an out-and-out literary Power Ring or, worse, a chunk of deadly Kryptonite to be avoided at all costs. And even those who are open to graphica being appropriate for young readers remain unsure of what to do instructionally with the titles once they do welcome them into their classrooms. 

Do you know which side you're on? 

Become a Graphica Hero in Five Easy Steps

As we continue our study of texts that reach beyond leveled books, let's take some time to look at some ways you can take advantage of graphica as you allow it to support the powerful instruction that you're already doing in your classroom -- capturing the hearts and imagination of our readers while doing so. 

Identify Your Superpower

First things first. Where would a hero be without a superpower? Before you can harness the power of graphica, you have to understand it. With a little research, you'll find that the medium wields intense powers of motivation and engagement. Because of this, graphica draws readers in and keeps them reading -- and this is where you will find its potential. When we increase enthusiasm and engagement, we increase attention. And we all know that once we have our students' attention, the sky's the limit. 

Get a Catchphrase

Faster than a speeding bullet! To infinity and beyond! It's clobberin' time! To the Batmobile! Sound familiar? Heroes generally have a slogan or catchphrase that identifies their purpose and makes them stand out from others. While I'm not suggesting that you run out and come up with your own personal catchphrase (imagine how much fun that could be, though), when we consider the idea of a catchphrase for our purposes, think of it as a rationale - a verbal statement you can make to support your reasons for using graphica in your classroom. You'll want to know why you're using graphica and be able to say as much. So, why would you want to bring comics and graphic novels into your classroom? Several studies suggest that, in addition to its motivational power, graphica can boost comprehension strategy instruction and lessons with English language learners as well as conversations in specific content areas. And -- get this -- some studies indicate that comics and graphic novels are actually preferred by struggling readers! How's that for power? As Spider-Man would argue, with great power comes great responsibility, and part of your responsibility as an instructor is to know why you are doing what you're doing and being able to justify it.

Grab a Sidekick

Batman and Robin made a great team for a reason. They supported one another, trained together, and reflected on their work together. If you are interested in learning more about the use of graphica with your readers, you might be wise to enlist the help of your own sidekick (or group of sidekicks). Find some critical friends to explore the medium with; friends who are willing to take risks with you and to support your work and growth as a professional. Don't just limit yourself to classroom teachers. Librarians and media specialists are taking to graphica in droves, so it's likely you'll find a friend in your school or local library who'll be more than happy to stand beside you in your efforts. If you're in the market for a sidekick and can't seem to locate one, consider review websites like www.noflyingnotights.com or even you local comic book store where you can get terrific recommendations for places to start your adventure. 

Prepare Your Lair

Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. Batman has the Batcave. And you? Well . . . you have your classroom. Before your kids can reap the benefits of comics and graphic novels, they'll need access to them. You could certainly find several copies of many titles to form guided reading groups or focus groups, but creating a place for graphica can be as simple as adding a few extra tubs in your classroom library and making them available for independent reading time. You'll be amazed at how quickly they get swiped up. If you're unsure of where to file the titles within your sorting system, you'll be relieved to know that graphica can make a comfortable home on several different shelves. A huge variety of comics is available, so they can be shelved by genre or topic just as you do with the traditional texts in your classroom library. Of course, kids will stand in line to browse them, so you might decide to set them off on their own shelf or even set up a special table near your reading area in order to make them easier to access. 

Choose Your Weapon

You'd be hard pressed to find a better motivational arsenal for young readers than a good stack of comic books and graphic novels. It's no secret that kids will want to read them. But, even with this high interest strongly in place, be picky about what you share with your readers and take special care to match kids to the right titles -- just as you do with traditional texts. Because kids are so drawn to graphica, many teachers might be tempted to simply trust that they will find their way to a "just-right" comic book. Use caution with this. Many students will, but others will need some help as well as some instruction on finding a good match. If students are not properly matched to graphica titles, they may be tempted to abandon the medium as too difficult.

When I talk to teachers about pairing readers with appropriate graphica, their minds immediately seem to move toward questions about leveling. Comics come in a variety of difficulty levels ranging from Kindergarten to High School, but the vast majority of titles are not leveled. Publishers who do print a level on their books are approximating at best. You see, the pictures and the text in comics are so integrated that leveling them becomes a difficult process, indeed. This doesn't mean you can't find a good match for your readers, but you will want to put some thought into it. Certainly, you'll want to consider a text and word level analysis of difficulty, but aside from that, take a moment to look at the pictures. The pictures scaffold and hold the meaning of the text. Are they too cumbersome? Do they support the meaning of the text in a way that would make for a successful read? Additionally, consider your reader's interest in the topic being presented as well as his motivation to read graphica. Are both of these high enough for him or her to maintain maximum engagement? As you learn to screen titles better, be sure to take the time to train your graphica readers to look at their selections with these questions in mind. This will help foster more independence in choosing comics that match them well.

You can also help kids find appropriate titles by offering book clubs and literature circles that include graphica as an option. As you spend more time with readers in these settings, you'll learn more about what types of graphica supports them best and what types seem too difficult or too easy. 

As we move into this next decade, you can bet you'll see more and more appropriate comic books and graphic novels available for young readers. Teachers need to have an understanding of this medium and how to work with it well. The best place to start your journey is to become a graphica reader yourself. Take some time to get to know the medium and all that it offers. Keep an eye out for new and exciting titles by asking your kids for references, visiting with your favorite librarians, and checking review sites on the web. In short order you'll be a well-versed graphica hero. 

There's no time to lose! 

To the bookmobile!


 

Terry Thompson

Terry Thompson likes to help people. That's why he became a teacher, a literacy coach, and a psychotherapist. Terry lives in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of Adventures in Graphica, and is working on a new book about scaffolding.