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May 3, 2011

Feature Story: Comics in the Classroom: Leigh Brodsky

Posted by tom

Leigh Brodsky is a teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey. We asked her to share her insights into teaching comics. Here’s what she had to say.

What's the most valuable lesson you've learned about teaching comics?
One of the lessons I have learned by teaching comics is that every student will look at a book/panel in a different way. For some students, reading images comes very easily, but others have a more difficult time reading both image and text. In some cases it is the higher-level classes that need more direction as a graphic text is very out of the norm for them.
Not everyone automatically knows how to read a graphic novel. How do you approach it?
I always start with the basic vocabulary as presented by Scott McCloud. Regardless of the level, my classes are always a mixed bag of students who are familiar with comics and students who have never picked up a comic, so I want to make sure that all students use the same vocabulary. We review how words and images are used in conjunction with each other as well as how panels transition to show flow (this also connects to lessons on transitions with regards to essay writing). This way, the students see that a graphic novel is not just a picture book but a different type of narrative text. When I start teaching Maus I also like to give a brief lesson on the history of comics as the underground comix movement plays into Spiegelman’s style and narrative.
What's your favorite comic to use in the classroom?

I love teaching Maus as the kids really hook into the story of Art and Vladek. I also have fun when I teach V for Vendetta as a lot of students are familiar with the movie and when they see how detailed the book is they really enjoy it. I also really like dystopic fiction.
Can you think of a comic you wouldn't necessarily expect to be a valuable teaching aid, but it turned out to be one?

When I introduced Fables to my graphic novel students, I did not know how they would react to the book. We only read the first graphic novel and we did not spend a lot of time on it. However, after the course ended, I had several students come up to me in the halls and say how much they enjoyed that title. Also, I did not know how they would react to reading one book out of a series, but they enjoyed being introduced to a title that they could continue on their own. For me, success as a teacher is seeing my students become passionate about reading and if this is a title they want to read, that makes me very happy.
Have you ever had to get a reader who didn't like comics to open up to them?
Most students are usually pretty open to reading graphic novels, even if they are unfamiliar with them. Since they physically look different from all of the other texts they read, that is exciting. More common is that students have read the titles before, but the perspective I put on the book allows them to look at the piece in a different way so they really do not seem to get bored with the book.
If you knew then what you know now...what advice would you give someone just about to use comics in the classroom for the very first time?
My advice for teaching comics is the same as Julia Child’s is for cooking…no fear. As long as the pedagogy is solid and there is a purpose to the book that is selected, any teacher can teach a graphic novel. The medium has changed so rapidly in the last 15 years that a teacher can find a graphic novel or comic book to fit into almost any topic and still be an age appropriate text.
What unexpected topics would people be surprised to learn you can use comics to teach about?
Most people I encounter are totally unaware that a teacher can use comics and graphic novels to teach anything beyond the plot of a book so when they find out that many graphic novels have the same overarching themes are traditional prose texts they are interested. All of the texts that are on my school’s curriculum contain all of the topics mentioned and because of the visual nature of the texts, these themes stand out to the students in a much stronger way. Graphic novels also allow students to easily identify literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, mood, and tone so they become an excellent tool for critical thinking/reading.
When it comes to the length of reading assignments and how much you expect your students to read in a certain amount of time, how do you compare your comic assignments with prose literature?
Reading assignments depend on the text, and that goes for both graphic novels and prose. I usually try to assign based on chapter, or other predetermined sections in the book and usually no more than 10–20 pages a night. 

Some comics seem to be more “male-oriented,” and some skew more to females. Do you use comics geared toward males and females equally in your classroom? Or is it even a consideration?
The graphic novels that I use in my regular education classes are selected based on how they fit into the curriculum thematically. Although both Maus (used with my freshmen) and Incognegro (used with my juniors) do have male protagonists these texts aren’t seen as “male-oriented.” Knowing this I do use other prose texts to balance out the books. With regards to the elective I teach I do try to balance the protagonists more. My students read Batman Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, which are more male dominated books, but they also read V For Vendetta and Fables I, which have some very strong female characters. Where I do notice a gender gap is in the exposure and the perception of comics. When I begin to teach a graphic novel we discuss what my students know about comics and it is usually the boys who have more of a working knowledge of American comics. I usually have a few girls who are familiar with Manga but not many, and this is more of an issue for me. There are a variety of reasons that I love to have graphic novels in my curriculum, but to show my female students that girls can love comics is a passion of mine.  
Is a literature class devoted entirely to comics a good idea, in your opinion, or would you prefer to see a class that mixes comics and prose together?
I teach both and, for me, there are benefits to both ways of incorporating graphic novels into schools. When both comics and prose are mixed together students see both as valid forms of literature. Students can also use higher-level critical thinking skills to compare literary devices in both styles of texts. But when graphic novels are taught separately students can immerse themselves in the medium. In teaching my graphic novel elective students can focus on titles that interest them separate from their traditional English literature classes.