Comics in the Classroom
Thanks to a new generation of educators, the school and library markets keep on growing

December 22, 2008
by Laura Hudson

There was once a time not so long ago when the only way comics made their way into classrooms was surreptitiously—hidden in backpacks or behind the textbooks of daydreaming students. But in many schools and universities around the nation, the attitudes of educators toward comics have been turned upside down.

Long ghettoized—even demonized—in North America as puerile and pulpy, both “comic books” (traditional comics periodicals) and book-format graphic novels are now being used in both k–12 and higher education classrooms as everything from early developmental reading tools to serious literary texts.

Partly, the shift is a recognition that the medium of comics has grown up, with graphic novels now claiming significant space on library shelves. Titles like Maus, Fun Home and American Born Chinese have won literary awards normally reserved for prose novels, and an increasing number of educators–cum–comics fans now work within their institutions as thoughtful advocates for the medium.

According to Milton Griepp, CEO of the pop culture news site, and Diamond Comics sales manager John Shableski, sales of graphic novels to libraries and schools increased from about $1 million in 2001 to more than $30 million in 2007, spurring many comics publishers to eye the unfamiliar multibillion-dollar educational publishing industry with increasing interest.

Librarian Advocacy Key

Educator and comics specialist Peter Gutierrez attributes much of the growing interest from schools to the support and advocacy of librarians, many of whom responded to growing mainstream interest in graphic novels by developing significant library collections. “In the last two years, there’s been an explosion of interest, spurred by the popularity and obvious quality of graphic novels in libraries. It’s created more fertile ground for the kind of lateral movement of sequential art narratives into the classroom itself,” says Gutierrez.

“The schools market is a sleeping giant, and it’s about to wake up,” Shableski says. “NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English] is the big conference, attended by 8,000 to 9,000 English teachers. Historically, they’ve had one or two programs out of 300 where they mention graphic novels or comics. Last year there were eight. This year at San Antonio, there [were] 11 dedicated graphic novel programs. That’s a big thing in the educational market.”

Most major comics companies are now dipping a toe into the schools market, and while some have made only cursory attempts to reach teachers, others, such as Dark Horse Comics, have worked directly with academics and education experts to develop materials. The publishing home of Hellboy and Sin City, Dark Horse also publishes materials for an educational comics initiative called the Comic Book Project, developed by Columbia University Teaching School professor Michael Bitz in 2001 to reinforce literacy by teaching kids to develop, script and draw their own comics.

“There are currently about 900 [Comic Book Project] programs across the country,” says Dark Horse marketing coordinator Aaron Colter, who adds that participation in the program has been increasing. “We’ve had about 115 schools adopt it this year alone, and 30 in the last three months.”

But for every publisher working side by side with educators or attending American Library Association conferences, others have made only perfunctory attempts to reach out. “It’s great that there’s some material for teaching graphic novels, but they aren’t really comparable to what a typical language arts teacher would expect from an educational publisher or trade publisher,” Gutierrez says. “In graphic novels, publishers don’t have the expertise or the money to invest in research or teaching guides. They’re waiting to see if the market justifies that kind of incursion, while the educators are waiting for more third-party–verified research studies.”

New Market a Challenge

The biggest question mark is not just whether educators will accept comics as teaching materials on a broader scale, but whether traditional comics publishers, who only began to get their graphic novels into the general bookstore market in the last 10 years, are prepared to capitalize on the opportunity.

“Comics publishers are lagging behind traditional book publishers,” says Janna Morishima, director of the Diamond Kids Group at Diamond Comics Distributors. “Creating for kids hasn’t been a big priority until rather recently. I think they’re still getting used to the book market, and the educational market is an even more specialized part of the market. They are at a bit of a disadvantage.”

For DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman and, with Marvel, one of the “Big Two” mainstream comics publishers, the most efficient way to deal with their relative lack of expertise in educational publishing was simply to switch to a distributor that already possessed it. DC moved from Hachette to Random House Distribution in 2007.

“This discussion of how to expand our market was a crucial factor when we moved distribution. One of the more impressive things in the Random House package was the systems they have to access the school and library markets,” says John Cunningham, v-p of marketing at DC Comics. “Understanding their needs and how to sell and market to them is an enormously complex undertaking. Plugging our materials into [Random House’s] system made more sense than trying to develop systems of our own.”

For publishers who don’t have the option of signing on with a distribution giant like Random House, however, industry experts say there are still plenty of ways to make inroads into classrooms, often by starting simply.

“Connect with the teachers who are using your titles, and they will be your low-cost or no-cost guides to this terra incognita,” Gutierrez says. “You probably have an enthusiastic pathfinder and guide in the educators out there, who would love to tell you how they’re using your material. If you don’t have that conversation to gather feedback from k–12 educators, you’re really doing message-in-a-bottle advertising and just throwing stuff out there.”

Evaluating Visual Literacy

Many teachers who want to use comics in k–12 classrooms say that they need more information about graphic novels in order to evaluate them as teaching materials, ranging from age recommendations and teaching guides to more complex measures, like Lexile scores—tools that most comics publishers don’t provide.

At least one comics publisher has taken that advice to heart and has created comprehensively researched and educator-tested comics works for use in the classroom. Toon Books, an imprint founded by Françoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker, publishes titles for children in kindergarten through third grade that were developed and tested with the hands-on help of teachers and reading specialists.

“The intent of Toon Books was specifically to provide comics for children who are just learning to read. That’s a very specific step in the development of the kids. You have to acknowledge that if you are publishing for children, you have to select an age level and vocabulary that has been vetted for degree of difficulty,” Mouly says. “This is a very different set of knowledge. I worked very hard with educators editorially, going to various schools and watching the kids reading our books, so that we didn’t take anything for granted.”

Toon Books was also the first graphic novel publisher to analyze its books using the Lexile scale, a system designed to measure the difficulty of a text and help teachers assess its suitability for students at different reading levels. Although an external measure of academic rigor could potentially add credibility to comics in the eyes of teachers, the Lexile system is designed to assess only text, ignoring the visual component in a medium where images and words are inextricably linked. “It’s evaluating [the text] as though there are no visual cues. It’s apples and oranges in terms of what that means,” says Peter Coogan, director of the Institute for Comics Studies.

The visual component of comics may be difficult to quantify, but it is also part of what makes comics a valuable learning tool, particularly in an increasingly image-oriented world. “We’re a visual culture now, not a typographical culture,” Coogan says. “Comics teach visual literacy.”

Literacy isn’t simply being able to understand the written word, Mouly explains, but “being able to extract meaning from a printed page. There’s a kind of visual literacy that is innate. There’s a lot that kids are able to understand and an enormous amount of complexity that can be used. It’s like poetry: deceptively simple, and levels and levels of meaning can be brought out.”

At the same time, English and Language Arts teachers often have no training in visual narratives and need to learn new skill sets. Even those teachers who are enthusiastic about using comics face other institutional obstacles, such as the testing demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as any state or institutional requirements.

“I think that many teachers want to value comics and graphic novels in their classrooms, but are not sure how to do so,” notes Katie Monnin, an assistant professor at the University of North Florida who is researching ways for teachers to integrate visual literacy into standards-based classes. “Since there are so many federal mandates on their curricula, they want to make sure that they are teaching all of their goals and standards.”

Comics in the Classroom team: (l. to r.) Diamond CEO Steve Geppi; Darla Strouse, CBI director; Nancy Grasmick, Maryland supeintendent of education; John Snyder, Diamond; and Jonahtan Yagred, Disney. Although comics programs in public schools may leave some superintendents dubious for that very reason, they need only look at the Comic Book Initiative in the state of Maryland for a model of a comics program that can work in standards-based classrooms. Five years ago, the Maryland State Department of Education launched a pilot program in a few school districts to teach lesson plans based on comics from a toolkit developed by Disney. The lessons were integrated into the voluntary portion of the state curriculum, and developed with extensive input from principals and teachers. “It was very vetted,” says Darla Strouse, director of the Comic Book Initiative.

An in-depth evaluation by the University of Maryland examined the motivational impact of using comics in the classroom, through focus groups of teachers, students, and parents. Strouse says, “It came back very positive. [The students] won’t put their hands down. You start with graphic novels and they’re so excited.” By the summer of 2008, the program’s success led to its expansion from eight schools to 160 schools, with similarly positive results. Although Strouse says that adopting a comics program might have been difficult without a supportive superintendent, she believes that Maryland “can be a jump start for other states” to launch similar projects.

Outside of the k–12 level, graphic novels and comics have also made their way into university classrooms, where they have been adopted as course texts in a variety of disciplines. “There’s a critical mass of [professors] who are pursuing this as a study, and they’re legitimizing the medium not only for their students but also for their departments,” says Coogan, adding, however, that many comics publishers doom their chances for course adoptions by their unwillingness to send free copies to professors.

“Comics publishers could be actively trying to cultivate relationships with university English departments,” suggests Aaron Kashtan, a teaching assistant who researches comics theory at the University of Florida. “At my university, the English department regularly holds book fairs where textbook publishers like Penguin and McGraw-Hill market their materials to the department’s instructors. These publishers do this because for each instructor who decides to adopt a textbook, 20-some students will then have to buy that textbook. Comics publishers don’t seem to have come to a similar realization that university students represent an untapped source of income.”

Top Shelf Productions co-publisher Chris Staros explains it this way, “If 100 university courses with 40 students each use a book on a regular basis, that’s 4,000 copies a year.” In the comics industry, where sales of the top graphic novels often run under 10,000 copies, those sales can constitute a significant base.

Coogan suggests that comics publishers still willing to ignore the sales potential of the educational market in favor of their established fan base might find it in their interest to take a longer view. “Comics are graying in many ways; there aren’t many eight-year-olds reading comics. Kids have so much media to experience now, there’s no guarantee kids will be exposed to comics. If comics aren’t careful as an industry, they’re going to become a nostalgia item for a niche market. Teaching comics definitely brings in new readers.”

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