Learning Lessons: Comic books in the classroom

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Learning Lessons: Comic books in the classroom

Voice: May 2017

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.

In most high school classrooms, if a student was reading a comic book, it would be taken away. But in Tim Smyth’s social studies class at Wissahickon High School, the walls are covered with comics, bookshelves are filled with comics, graphic novels, and figurines and toys, and even Smyth’s tie features Spider-Man.

Educators across Pennsylvania find many different ways to reach and connect with their students. Smyth uses his passion for comics to help his students at the Montgomery County school learn about important figures and events in history.

“I decided to start using comic books in the classroom because I realized it really resonated with my students,” Smyth said. “One student, through Miles Morales, who is an African-American Spiderman, now saw himself in a superhero. He wasn’t impressed that we had an African-American president, but that Spider-Man is black.”

Comics books also have a personal connection for Smyth.

“My son was termed a reluctant reader early on,” Smyth said. “He was engaged and learned how to read through comic books, and it’s been a very powerful experience for him.”

Gateway to literacy

Smyth has been reading comic books since he was a young child, but didn’t think to integrate the medium into his teaching until he was studying for his master’s degree as a reading specialist at Gwynedd Mercy University.

Discussions in his graduate class revolved around studies showing that boys don’t like to read. But as Smyth pointed out, the options being offered weren’t appealing to him as a child either. With an open-minded professor, he wrote his thesis in 2007 on using comic books to engage readers. From there, the idea blossomed into a powerful classroom tool.

Smyth is quick to say that comics aren’t the only thing his students read.

“I put comic books out with more traditional books,” Smyth said. “The comic books are an easy hook. They say they like a certain topic, found through a comic book, and I say, ‘well, here is another text on that topic.’”

Creating a superhero

Smyth allows his students to choose the subjects for their research projects. He believes in giving them the power to explore their passions.

One such assignment is the history superhero project. Students are instructed to pick anyone from history or current events.

“Some students might choose Beyoncé, while others might choose Rosa Parks or George Washington,” he said.

Smyth brings in different toys still in the packaging, and the class discusses how they catch people’s eyes.

“The students do their research, they do the biography, and then they create an actual superhero. The symbolism in that superhero is very important.”

There are many different aspects to consider when creating a superhero, including accessories and their team.

“You might have Leonardo DaVinci partnered with Benjamin Franklin,” Smyth said. “It forces them to look across a timeline.”

The students then create their own comics using their superheroes and the supporting items they’ve imagined.

New era of comics

For those who haven’t seen comics in a decade or more, they’ve become quite diverse.

The recent movies made from the comics don’t necessarily represent the comic books themselves, Smyth said, and comics have really changed with the times. This is part of the reason these texts decorate the walls of his classroom.

“I want my students to see themselves in the superheroes,” Smyth said. “Thor is a woman, and Wolverine is a woman. You’ve got Muslim superheroes, and you’ve got a Pakistani-American from Jersey City who is Ms. Marvel. You see kids go, ‘Oh!’ They want to read it because they see themselves in it. It really is an empowering thing for them.”

Comic books offer a unique way of looking at current events as well. Smyth uses panels from these texts to spark conversation about tough subjects.

“There is a Batman comic book that came out last year that directly referenced Black Lives Matter,” he said. “That is a difficult topic for us to have sometimes in the classroom. But through a comic book, it kind of opens up those lines of discussion.”

Sharing a passion

While many may see comic books as a juvenile vehicle for learning, Smyth believes they are a great tool for today’s visual learner at every level.

“Comic books actually teach hypertext reading, because they’re not necessarily linear, and this is what students are used to,” he said. “This also allows us to get into annotations and close reading skills because it forces us to really focus on what’s going on, but they also have to guess what’s going on between the panels of each page. And there’s a lot going on there. So there’s a lot of room for interpretation.”

Smyth recognizes that comic books aren’t for everyone, but he encourages other educators to bring their passions into the classroom, whatever they may be.

“You’re not going to reach every student through a comic book medium, but a lot of students just love the fact that it’s something other than a textbook, but also the fact that I’m very passionate about it,” Smyth said. “Any time a teacher brings in a personal passion of theirs, it really comes back to the students and reflects from them.”