A Newbie’s Guide to Teaching Comics

Guest Post by John C. Weaver, Williamsport Area High School

So, you’ve decided to bring graphic novels in the classroom, have you? Excellent! You’ll find it immensely gratifying, and your students will love it. Comics and graphic novels immediately engage both high and low end readers. But, now that you’re committed to teaching with this medium, how do you start? 

Picking Your First Books

Perhaps you have already chosen a comic to bring into the classroom, but if you haven’t quite reached that point, your first step is to select a book.

Would you prefer fiction or non-fiction? Perhaps you’d like to start with a graphic adaptation of classic books (there are many of them).

An excellent resource for teachers new to the medium is diamondbookshelf.com. There you will find plenty of book reviews; lesson plans sorted by elementary, middle school, and high school; and upcoming titles.

Although I’ve taught quite a few graphic novels (my classroom bookshelves are crammed with them), some of my (and my students’) recent favorites include Derf Backderf’s memoire My Friend Dahmer, which recounts Backderf’s high school acquaintance with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer; and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which details her experiences as a child during the Iranian revolutions.

Before You Dive In

Once you’ve picked a text, the next thing I recommend you do is read Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics for your own benefit.

McCloud’s text is a comic book about the medium of comics, which will teach you both the theory and the practice of the form.

Order a class set of these for your classroom as well.

Ready, Set, Go

Your books have been chosen and ordered, so now you need to figure out how to introduce and begin to teach students the graphic novel.

What follows will not be a full unit plan (that’s a different, and vitally important, subject). Instead, this is a step-by-step guide to begin a unit on your comic.

Understand, this is what I do; feel free to adopt or ignore any of these steps, which also goes for the examples I include: use them as is or adapt them as you choose.

Step One (Duration: One or Two Days)

Take the temperature of the room.  Find out, whether through a bell ringer or a show of hands, what their experience with comics is—and newspaper funnies count.

Some students will have no experience at all, and others go to their local comic book shop every Wednesday. (For newbies out there, Wednesday is new comic book day.)

When you identify your comics fanboys and fangirls, RELY on them. They are your experts and will help the other students figure out how to read comics.

Once you have done this, you’ll need to show them how comics work. I suggest introducing the distinction between illustration and comics that Jimmy Gownley (writer and artist of the Amelia Rules series) has discussed in a teacher training that I attended.

Look at Figure 1 below.  (While the idea and the words are Gownley’s, the “art” is my own. Gownley is an actual artist!)

The EGL Blog | Where to Start | Illustration 1In the above examples, Gownley would call the one on the left an illustration, because the text and the art are very closely related, much as you would see in a children’s book.

The one on the right is a comic, according to Gownley, because the reader needs to connect text and art into a single idea that isn’t immediately apparent.

You can ask students to talk about the differences between the two examples. Having them discuss why the man is running for milk helps drive the differences home.

The last thing to do is to show a variety of short comic strips is among many websites that have free online strips, and ask students to discuss the connection between art and text. With the online comics, you can point out that they will read comics the way they read books: left to right.

Step Two (Duration: One Day)

Once students have become familiar with the form, you could consider the create-a-comic activity.

When I do it, I create three panels, each with a different piece of clip art.

In groups, students turn random pictures into a coherent story with some combination of additional art, captions, and speech/thought bubbles. They then share them with the class, which works really well.

My students make me proud with their imaginative responses. I’m sure yours will, also. Figure 2 shows the actual exercise I use.

The EGL Blog | Getting Started | Illustration 2

Step 3 (Duration: Two or Three Days)

Now that students are familiar with how text and art interact in comics, and they have done it themselves with the create-a-comic exercise, it is time to expose them to some comic book theory.

Bring out your class set of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and assign them to read Chapter Three. 

While you may wish to assign them the whole book—which would be lovely—for practical purposes, chapter three of Understanding Comics is very useful.

McCloud looks at the same phenomenon that Jimmy Gownley does, that reading comics requires understanding the juxtaposition of text and art, or art and art. McCloud refers to the concept of closure, which means we can look at a series comic book panels and understand what point the comic artist is making.

Using the idea of closure, McCloud examines the different types of transition of one panel to the next. The taxonomy he creates in chapter three will be useful for you and your students as you discuss the writer and artist’s purpose for setting up the panels as they do.

It would be a good idea to create a graphic organizer such as the one in Figure 3 to help focus your students during the reading.

The EGL Blog | Getting Started | Illustration 3

Step 4 (Duration: As Long as It Takes)

Once your students have both a practical and a theoretical understanding of comics, and all of you have a common vocabulary to discuss them, it is time to distribute the graphic novels and start assigning readings.

While teaching the text for the first time, you will need to rely on the students who read comics or manga regularly. They will be your greatest allies. However, keep in mind, English teachers can always discuss plot, character, setting, theme, and metaphor, just as with any book.

Comics simply add one more element—the interaction of art and text.  All of your students, both the high performing and the struggling students, will respond well to comics.

Have fun with it, and allow yourself to learn from your kids. I did, and I have never been more grateful for taking a risk with a group of teenagers. 


There are a number of teacher-generated resources for teaching with graphic novels, including Pop Culture Classroom.

Another great resource is Dr. Katie Monnin from the University of North Florida at Jacksonville. Her books, which can be purchased at http://www.capstonepub.com/classroom/authors/monnin-katie/ are very useful, and filled with practical teaching strategies and reproducible handouts for classes.

Another useful source is Maureen Bakis, whose books can be purchased on Amazon at this link: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias=aps&field-keywords=maureen+bakis