How Comic Books Get Students Talking

Times have changed. Unlike when I was growing up, it is now cool to be a nerd. Superheroes are dominating film and TV right now, as well as informing pop culture in general. As a teacher, I can capitalize on this to get more kids, especially boys, into reading. In fact, I already have.

When I taught in LA, I used to have a huge bookshelf behind my desk in my classroom. While it was mostly filled with Spanish textbooks, I dedicated one row to graphic novels I collected over the years. Mostly Spider-Man and Batman, which were, and still are, my favorites. I welcomed and encouraged students to borrow (and return!) comics from what informally turned into "Rico's Comic Book Library." Borrowing comics became so popular that I had to create a checkout sheet to keep track of who had what.

The comics sparked intriguing dialogues about their themes. I found this fascinating because many of the students borrowing my comics were the same students who refused to read the texts in their English class. For instance, reading Magneto Testament, an excellent graphic novel, lead to a discussion with a student about the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto Testament shows Magneto, as a Jewish child in 1935 Germany, as he witnesses Nazi soldiers murdering his friends and family and destroying everything he loved. That's what ultimately led him to become the X-Men supervillain we all know and love. This particular student and I might have had a similar conversation if I were his English teacher but he often "accidentally" left his copy of Anne Frank in my classroom. Clearly, he wasn't reading it.

Having conversations with students about the comics we read got me thinking about how I could leverage that interest in my Spanish class. So, I decided to have my students read an excerpt from the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, who is black and Latino, and then read an article explaining the negative backlash in the Latin American community against this new character.

Besides the usual argument that only Peter Parker could be Spider-Man, there was a real sentiment in Central and South America that one could not possibly be both black and Latino. After having my students read both documents, I asked my class if that were true. Obviously, I know, personally, one could definitely be both black and Latino but I wanted my students to think critically about the information presented.

Ultimately, that discussion led into my unit in which we dissect the caste system of Spanish colonization. During that unit, students learn how current thoughts about race and ethnicity in Latin America are derived from that deep-rooted racist and colorist structure. And it all started with a dialogue about a comic book.

Now I'm not advocating that teachers swap out The Dark Knight Returns for The Great Gatsby, but I do believe comics can serve as a high-interest supplemental reading for comic book fans, like they did for me. Some students will never go on to pick up novels, and that's okay. But some will. Some will develop a love for comics. Once they graduated, I took two of my students on their first visit to a comic book store and they've been reading comics ever since.

Ultimately, comics are simply another tool teachers can use to capture students' interest and get them talking about the subject matter. Also, comics aren't all about superheroes. There are many comics about real-life experiences, such as being a first-generation immigrant or visiting your family from your home country for the first time. As unnatural as that sounds, if used right, comics work. Not only with the heroes inspire them but also their stories will help guide their thinking towards whatever objective you have planned.

I've since given away most of my comic book collection. Moving to my tiny apartment in New York and lacking my own classroom quickly forced me to become a minimalist. However, I still find ways to engage students into the wonderful world of comic books and superheroes.