Teacher and graphic novel author Gene Lang created "comic lectures," or mini graphic novels, to teach algebra to his high school class when he was away and a substitute teacher was in charge. He claims this method was very successful and students loved it. Those new to the concept of graphic novels, or long comic books, in the classroom, however, may be unsure of the educational value of such an alternative medium of learning.
No doubt many students respond to the idea of reading graphic novels in the classroom with enthusiasm. Some people take this as a sign that graphic novels do not present a challenge to readers. However, as Lang demonstrates, graphic novels can serve a variety of functions in the classroom, beyond simply sources of literary study, and thus their ease of use can facilitate understanding of dense material or concepts. Furthermore, the more interested students are in a lesson, the more attention they will heed, and the more information they will retain. Educators should ensure, however, that their use of graphic novels has a purpose and that they are not simply including graphic novels in the classroom to add entertainment value.
Graphic novels offer effective media for learning because they are visual, and in the age of growing media that is primarily visual, many young people thrive on visual information. Graphic novels' marriage of text and image clarifies the meaning of either component as they support and refer to each other. One drawback of images in a graphic novel, however, is that the text leaves little to the imagination. Grovel.org, a website that reviews graphic novels, argues that a graphic version of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, in part, defeats Lovecraft's vision of horror fiction, which was that the scariest stuff is best left to the imagination.
Some educators worry that graphic novels are "high interest/low level" reading, which means that although students find them absorbing, their vocabulary level and themes do not challenge students. For many graphic novels this may be the case; however, the graphic novel industry is booming, and publishers are releasing increasingly diverse genres of the graphic novel. Kaplan, a major publisher of SAT workbooks, offers what it calls "Vocabulary-Building Manga" -- graphic novels that incorporate vocabulary words high school students need to know for the SAT and ACT. Other publishers sell graphic editions of Shakespeare -- complete with the original English text.
Availability and Appropriateness
Educators may struggle to find enough graphic novels for an entire classroom as they may not be available in local bookstores, especially in large quantities. The idea of graphic novels in the classroom is still gaining in popularity, and some educational boards may not yet consider them suitable texts for literary or historical study. Additionally, some graphic novels portray scenes of violence. So far, publishers mostly target males or children of certain ages with graphic novels, so choosing a graphic novel for study in a classroom that appeals to all students may prove difficult.
Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.