The New Teachers’ Aides: Superman and Iron Man


As a journalism and history teacher at an independent school near Boston, I’m not too proud to admit that I use comic books in my classroom. When we cover World War II, my students analyze the inaugural March 1941 cover of Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which shows super-soldier Steve Rogers deflecting an attack while knocking out Adolf Hitler. When I teach writing, my students analyze Kingdom Come, in which an aging Superman is distraught over a conflict that wipes out much of the Midwest. The pages come alive with lifelike artwork by Alex Ross, while writer Mark Waid exemplifies clarity and concision by making optimal use of each speech bubble.

I use comics in my classroom because stories like these inspired my own interest in history. As a junior in high school during the 1990s, I read the classic March 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense, which includes Iron Man’s first appearance. In this story, the Viet Cong capture wealthy industrialist Tony Stark. To escape, Stark cobbles together his first primitive Iron Man suit. As a 17-year-old, I knew very little about the Vietnam War and what role America had played. The comics piqued my interest, and I went on to read several history books on the conflict. Weeks later, fate smiled upon me when my history teacher assigned a research paper on the Vietnam War.

So I was enthusiastic when comic-book writer Josh Elder invited me to present on one of his panels at the world-famous San Diego Comic-Con this summer. Outside Hall H, the biggest theatre at Comic-Con, over 130,000 fans waited in line for popular panels, like a QA with the cast from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Many were dressed as their favorite villains or caped crusaders, eager to celebrate their love of not just comic books (an increasingly small part of the convention), but also anything related to pop culture and science fiction: Panels related to Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, were all big draws.

In smaller rooms, away from screaming crowds and the mainstream media, panels like “Creating Comic Books with the iPad,” “Popular Media in the Elementary Classroom,” and “Calling All Heroes! Comics and the Crisis of Higher Education” certainly didn’t generate as much excitement. But making my way to as many of those panels as I could—more often than not in busy rooms, a few with standing room only—made one thing very apparent: More educators are paying closer attention to comics in the classroom.

I realized as much last year when I first connected with Elder, a talented writer behind several titles for DC Comics, including Scribblenauts Unmasked and Adventures of Superman #10. Elder is the founder of a non-profit called Reading With Pictures (RWP), which, according to its website, aims to unite “the finest creative talents in the comics industry with the nation’s leading experts in visual literacy to create a game-changing tool for the classroom and beyond.”

Elder says his cause is both professional and personal. As the child of a single parent, he had to wait in line for government-issued cheese. He struggled at home, but in school teachers encouraged his love of comics, which played a large role in his success in the classroom (he went on to become a National Merit Scholar), at DC Comics, RWP, and beyond. “Comics made reading easy and fun,” he told me. “Once that happens, learning everything else becomes easy and becomes fun, too.”

Last month, the organization released Reading With Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter, an anthology featuring 180 pages of original content by top industry talents, including George Washington: Action President by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, Doctor Sputnik: Man of Science by Roger Langridge, and The Power of Print by Katie Cook. Each story is aligned with Common Core Standards to justify classroom use. A 150-page teacher’s guide, with a lesson plan for each comic, is available for free download at the publisher’s website.

At Comic-Con, I spoke with Tracy Edmunds, RWP’s curriculum manager, who played a key role in crafting content and overseeing production. A former elementary school teacher, Edmunds has been working in educational publishing and curriculum development for over 20 years.

“All of my years of doing this have shown me that we need new tools, and comics bring a one-two punch with images and text working together,” she told me. Still, the idea of using comics as an educational tool is foreign to many teachers. “In creating this book and teacher’s guide,” explained Edmunds, “we wanted to give a reason for teachers to use comics, and the research and rationale behind their effectiveness.”

The study guide, which lays out its case in illustrated panels and in comic sans text, points out that comic strips as we know them were invented by an educator—a former Bronx high school principal named Maxwell C. Gaines. By the 1940s, though, there was a public backlash; a 1942 article in the journal Elementary Education Review warned of “The Plague of Comics” polluting young minds and distracting them from serious schoolwork. The study guide argues that this was a mistake. Comic books not only awaken an early love of reading but also help children grasp abstract concepts. What’s more, graphic novels are considered works of literature in their own right: Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust story Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, while David Small’s memoir Stitches was a finalist for National Book Award.


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