In the spring of 2016, I had the opportunity to draft and present to my school district a class focused on the use of the Comics medium in the instruction and application of literary theory. I had grand plans: I worked to ensure that my list of materials was varied and included plenty of texts beyond the superhero genre; I included as the backbone of the course ample supplemental readings based not only in Comics Theory but literary lenses of feminism, structuralism, and New Historicism; I aligned my course and every assignment in it with the Common Core Standards. I recruited administrators from my school site and district office to vocalize their support of my course and, with all my proverbial ducks in a row, sent my plans along to the school board for what I and all others involved assumed would be a brief review followed by a ratification.
You’re reading this article, so you can guess how that went.
When word came back that our district’s school board had refused to adopt my class model, I was dumbfounded: I had done everything right, hadn’t I? Every day on social media I saw teachers like me raving about their successes using books like MARCH, and Persepolis, and superhero fare like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. I’ve attended and participated in presentations at WonderCon and Comic-Con, alongside educators from all over the world, celebrating academia’s alleged openness to the unconventional-yet-effective study tool that is the Comics medium. So what happened?
In the roughly three years since my initial attempt at course approval, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time wondering precisely that – and how, when next I get the chance, I might avoid the sinking feeling of being left outside in the cold due to the well-intentioned misgivings of the administrative forces of our public school system. What I’ve come to realize is that the openness to the Comics medium promised by academia is not so much promised as it is insinuated, not guaranteed but offered with a catch. While a great deal of Comics studies has been and is done with specific regard to the classroom implementation of the medium, the academic bureaucracy can remain surprisingly unyielding in its belief that the medium represents something lesser than pure-text works. When dealing with these entities, be they school boards, parent groups, or even the occasionally text-devout student, the emphasis is in the approach: how one prepares, presents, and predicts with the goal of a Comics-centric course of study in mind.
I learned early on that I was unlikely to receive school board approval for my course without significant clout from within my district. Thankfully my situation is such that I had professional relationships upon which to fall back, people that knew the caliber of my ability in the classroom and found themselves sympathetic to what I was trying to achieve. I’m optimistic that, in this regard, I am not an oddity: the odd teacher-friendly administrator, especially those that put in their time in the classroom, can be an important link between your desire as an educator and the procedural requirements of the school bureaucracy. All of the enthusiasm I brought to my project would have been for naught had it not been for a dedicated core of teachers-turned-admin that could take my plans, understand their workings within the classroom, and translate those goals and expectations into a format palatable to the school board and district policymakers. Consider a resource like this one a cross between liaison and troubleshooter: someone that is able to make introductions, parse phrasing for the most administratively-digestible morsels, and spot potentials for confusion and conflict before they crop up. They speak the language of the school system’s upper echelons, a tongue with which most teachers are largely unpracticed.
Speaking of language…
As much as I personally detest the canned-curricula feeling that comes from sweeping proclamations such as the Common Core teaching standards, there’s no denying their potential for productive use. A number of the Common Core State Standards make mention of the use of a “variety” of texts without specifying the intentions of the operative word. Similarly, the literature standards at the 9th-10th grade level (specifically, RL.9-10.7) make mention of the use of “two different artistic mediums” in the analysis of message conveyance. Though the bane of many teachers due to administrative over reliance on their stilted and stuffy wording, I’ve learned that the language of the Common Core Standards can be a powerful influencer on the administrative body that is less than receptive to the idea of Comics within classroom walls. Pointing out that alternative media are not only feasible but outright required in order to achieve the intentions of the CCSS can be a powerful first step in making Comics accessible for your students.
Where accessibility is concerned, it is important to approach your integration of Comics with a specific and realistic goal in mind – not only to prevent the eager teacher from biting off too much at once but to ensure that difficulties are not presumed where none exist. Depending on your subject area it may already be understood that the Comics medium be in use in your classroom (consider use of the political cartoon on the AP Government subject exam and in many Social Science classrooms, for instance). Use of the Comics medium in innocuous doses has been standard practice in many districts for years, even decades, ranging from Maus in World History to graphic novel adaptations of classic literature in classes catering to students to whom reading does not come easy. Before you storm the gates of your district office with grand plans for Comics implementation it is important to know your goal – and whether it is a fight that needs fighting. Are you using a Comic adaptation of an established literary classic? There’s a good chance that such an implementation is not only accepted, but encouraged: my district’s use of the StudySync curricular materials includes a graphic novel adaptation of The Odyssey as one of its recommended supplemental texts with the understanding that it be used alongside the text-based source. Knowing the extent to which you wish to implement the Comics medium in your class is not only useful for developing your own scope and sequence, but it can save a lot of headache and undue stress in the event that it becomes apparent that your implementation strategies are already approved and in use.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your intent of Comics implementation is on a scale grander than that for which your district has a precedent. In that case, and with as much administrative-savvy support as you can muster, it is likely time to plead your case before your district’s trustees. In my area this meant first appealing to the district’s volunteer Curriculum Council, a group comprised of teachers and administrators sensitive to each subject area; peers in other districts report having presented immediately to their organization’s supervising board; others still have to content with site-based overseers before moving up the metaphorical chain. Whatever the process, it’s important to consider to whom you’ll be presenting, and the impact that your language can have on that audience.
To take a page from the English teacher’s playbook, your approach comes down to a case of rhetorical appeal. Speaking to a room full of in-the-classroom educators, many of whom will be familiar with the Comics medium through hearing and seeing their students interact with the texts willingly, commands a different approach than speaking to the school bureaucracy that may or may not have a direct link to its student population, much less to popular culture as a whole. Knowing your audience, as well as its tendencies toward new models of education (recognizing that “new” here is a fairly relative term) is absolutely essential to making any kind of successful case for your course.
This is where a knowledge of vogue pedagogical terminology comes in handy. Terms like multimodality (the ability for a text to address multiple avenues of comprehension and conveyance, such as the visual and the textual), high-engagement, and even reluctant readers all send the signal that Comics media are not the fluff that some of the old guard in education erroneously believe them to be. Framing your implementation of the Comics medium as simply another foray into literary study may not be enough – though that is, at its core, precisely what Comics offer. Using the perceived Otherness of the Comics medium to your advantage, thereby acknowledging the medium’s perceived exotic qualities as a feature rather than a bug, is a good way to circumvent the aura of suspicion that might otherwise derail a successful implementation plan.
As much as I advocate for Comics implementation, however, I likewise feel the need to caution the use of language that sets Comics apart from more traditionally-viewed literature. I feel that we as educators serve to do the Comics medium a disservice if we for too long capitalize on the apparent fringe nature of the art form in place of its eminently more laudable storytelling qualities. When talking to other educators I refer to this as “key jangling” the Comics medium in front of those that we look to impress: it works in the short term and gets the medium in the door, but the medium must stand on its own after that initial test. Educators know from experience that the promise of the new and exciting is not sufficient motivation for a text to take hold with our students; presenting Comics as the Hip New ThingTM stands to shoot us in the foot with administrations that perceive “new” to generate results. Better for the medium to be presented for what it is – an innovative yet wholly normal and longstanding marriage of image and text to communicate aspects of the human experience in the way all stories do – than as some hitherto unknown and untapped panacea.
Perhaps the most significant lesson I can pass on from my experiences is the need to prepare for disappointment. The fact is that education, like many of our entrenched institutions, is in a site of constant flux, and what is new and exciting (or scary) to one leg of our field is old hat to the other. Sometimes it is startlingly difficult to determine where those vested in your school’s curricular development will fall: it eschews age, demographic, and even educational background. The tendency to regard the perceptively new as either an educational boon or distraction appears tied instead to the open-mindedness of the observer and their previous experience with the artifacts in question. Be prepared to defend the most banal aspects of the craft – it will sometimes feel like you’re Bill Gaines in front of that foolhardy 1954 Senate subcommittee – and be prepared for those defenses to fall on deaf ears.
Then try again. Research your craft, turning to people in business that have been successful in implementing Comics in even the most cursory ways. Learn from their use of language in presenting the educational highlights of the medium and how they direct focus towards things like multimodality and away from trivialities like genre and capes. Believe in the craft – not for the sake of its popular culture clout, but for its artistry and conveyance of all of those elements of storytelling that we find in texts without pictures.
Pop Culture Classroom