At Pop Culture Classroom, one of our primary missions is to show that comics and graphic novels are more than superheroes in tights and capes. We believe comics transcend their typical associations as “lowbrow” or “simplistic” texts, offering educators new and unexpected ways to engage students in difficult subjects and content areas.
Whether you’re looking to supplement a math, science, English, social studies or civics lesson, the comic books and graphic novels listed below are perfect ways to liven up your classroom and capture the attention of struggling or disengaged students.
Imagine learning math with the help of comics – how much more fun would that be? As Gene Yang has found, transferring his math lesson plans into comic form made them easier to understand.
Yang’s book Secret Coders combines adventure and mystery with the complicated world of computer coding, making these concepts easy and fun to learn for students. Students are able to slow down and reread parts they need help with and enjoy having pictures to accompany the explanations of concepts.
Likewise, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis looks at the logical foundations of mathematics, inspiring a love for the subject that extends past the pure arithmetic side of the subject. Other math related comics include Manga Math Mysteries by math teacher Melinda Thielbar and Math by Simon Basher.
Science classrooms can similarly benefit from comics being brought into the classroom. Studies show that “comic book stories lose nothing to traditional textbooks while having the added potential benefit of improving attitudes” about science. For example, the graphic novel Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler combines a suspenseful adventure with principles of scientific inquiry and lots of cool bug facts.
Likewise, Trinity, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm is a historical graphic narrative of the creation of the first atomic bomb. Scientific concepts like nuclear fission are explained while contextualizing them in history, making the learning relevant for students.
Finally, T-minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani describes the race and the people that made it happen. The Max Axiom, Super Scientist series has many titles from various authors about everything from sound to magnetism to photosynthesis. And Charles Darwin’s on the Origin of the Species: a Graphic Adaption by Michael Keller makes the stuffy old text fun and colorful.
Introducing students to the traditional literary cannon isn’t easy either. How many of us in school struggled through novels like those of Jane Austen or Shakespeare’s plays? It’s way more fun to read about Austen’s England if there are visual representations of the time period alongside the narratives.
Nancy Butler’s adaption of Pride and Prejudice is true to the original text while including pictures to motivate reading and explain intricacies. No Fear Shakespeare also has a graphic novel collection of Shakespeare’s works, adapted to make the language understandable and includes illustrations to help explain the oblique plot points of his plays.
As an added perk, comic books frequently use a higher than average vocabulary. As one study found, comic books average 53.5 rare words per thousand, while children’s books average 30.9 and adult books average 52.7. This means, alongside increased engagement with a character and plot, students can often enhance vocabulary and language skills from comic book versions of their favorite tales.
Learning about social justice issues is made fun when there is an engaging story line combined with pictures to break down complicated concepts. Congressman John Lewis has spoken about how a comic book inspired him to learn more about the early days of civil rights and from there engage in activism himself. He has teamed up with Andrew Aydin to create his own comic book series March, inspiring the next generation of social activists.
Persepolis is a graphic autobiography by Marjane Satrapi depicting her childhood up to her early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. She confronts Iran’s political past and cultural identity with simple drawings and concise text.
Additionally, the graphic novel Tomboy by Liz Prince confronts gender role construction and the implication of what it means to be a girl in a way that is pictorialized to reflect gender expressions. Other graphic novels that touch on complex social issues include The Silence of our Friends, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Jen.
In each of these subjects, comics prove to be engaging and valuable for use in the classroom. Math is made more fun and easier to understand. Scientific processes are tied to narratives for engagement. Comic books can increase vocabulary and encourage familiarity with the literary cannon. And social justice issues are easily introduced within the comic medium.
Comics aren’t just about superheroes. For educators, comics can transcend these low-brow associations and become useful, even invaluable, tools that spice up your classroom, increase student engagement, and help struggling students better connect to difficult topics and subjects.