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May 19, 2011

Feature Story: Comics in Classrooms: Lisa Coxson

Posted by tom

Lisa Coxson is a ninth-grade English teacher at Bronx School of Law and Finance in Bronx, New York. 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?
Incorporating comics into my curriculum has taught me a great deal. I am pleased that I’ve tapped into a whole new level of participation from my students, especially my male students. It is also great that students who have never read comics are being introduced to the genre. Still, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned about teaching comics is that comics are layered, complex texts that require as much, if not more, teaching preparation as traditional literary texts.
Not everyone automatically knows how to read a graphic novel. How do you approach it?
After the customary practice of introducing the unit and its essential questions and primary texts, I field student questions about the graphic novel. How to read the comic is always asked. I approach this concern in two ways. First, I identify the comics fans in the class and invite them to join me in a discussion about the genre. Together, the comics fans and I share our reading practices. Every student has a copy of the graphic novel during the discussion, so the students follow the comics fans as they explain how to read captions, panels, and images. Second, I take a more academic approach and teach a lesson on reading comics using a cartoon analysis graphic organizer to comprehend and analyze an excerpt from Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby. This two-part approach helps the students understand the genre and our academic work with the graphic novel.

What's your favorite comic to use in the classroom?
I’ve only just begun to incorporate comics in the classroom but comics with superhero protagonists are currently my favorite to use. These comics are rich with literary elements and plot devices. My favorite comic is Marvel Comics’ Civil War, which I use in conjunction with the film Dark Knight.
Can you think of a comic you wouldn't necessarily expect to be a valuable teaching aid, but it turned out to be one?
There hasn’t been a comic in the classroom that wasn’t going to be a teaching aid, but my personal copy of The Marvel Encyclopedia surprised me as a valuable teaching aid. I initially brought it to class to show the depth of interest in the genre, but it quickly became a reference for predicting and analyzing characters, conflicts, and plot for the graphic novel we were reading. It was great. The encyclopedia validated the comic characters and the comics as valid serial texts, e.g. many students mentioned their Harry Potter reading guides.
Have you ever had to get a reader who didn't like comics to open up to them?
The students that resisted reading comics typically fell into two categories. The first group was primarily comprised of girls who refused to read a “corny boy book.” The second group was comprised of students who deemed comics an intellectual wasteland, hence a waste of their time. I did not dismiss their concerns but addressed them through a discussion about comics and intellectual integrity (the unit objectives, historical use as propaganda and social commentary). For the girls, we discussed diversity and fan base (the encyclopedia and the comics fans in the class took the lead here with references to strong female heroes and popular comics, e.g. the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics series).
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 to someone about to use comics in the classroom for the first time is to make sure she/he has a firm grasp of the basic terminology needed to discuss comic art. The resources found on the National Association of Comic Arts Educators website helps me adapt traditional literary analysis to comic art analysis.
What unexpected topics would people be surprised to learn you can use comics to teach about?
Honestly, I think people would be surprised to learn you can use comics to teach anything. Most people are aware of the comics that clearly make historical and political connections, e.g. texts like Maus and Persepolis. Yet the range of themes and issues traditional, mainstream comics make possible astounds me. For example, the recent DC Comics Identity Crisis series enables discussions about sacrifice, responsibility, redemption, tolerance, loyalty, identity, and more. Another example, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, is a great text that has the potential to help students better understand immigration, xenophobia, capitalism, globalization, industrialization, and more.
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?
To begin, my students do not take the graphic novel home; the text must be read completely in class, whereas prose literature reading is done outside of the classroom. As a result, comics reading assignments tend to be shorter, and the prose literature reading assignments tend to be longer. Nonetheless, writing assignments for both genres are similar, e.g. brief reader responses, character analyses, essays, etc. Since my class is an 85-minute block, my typical comics reading assignment is a complete scene (my ninth graders) or a single issue/chapter (my eleventh graders) during a class period.
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?
As of yet, I have not made the predominant orientation of a particular comic’s audience a consideration. However, I do look for stories that have positive, diverse characters.
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?
If comics can be considered a literary genre (and I do consider it as such), then a class devoted to the study of the genre would naturally be one devoted entirely to comics. However, if the class is not a specific genre study, then one devoted entirely to comics creates yet another literature class that potentially stifles student exploration of a wide range of storytelling options. Presently I am teaching both canonical literature and comics. For example, to prepare my students for an upcoming state assessment that asks them to compare different texts, I’ve assigned an excerpt from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and the “Monkey King Dinner Tale” from Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I’ve asked them to identify and discuss common themes between the texts. The positive feedback has been overwhelming. Many recognized the assignment as a Regents task but appreciated the use of high interest texts. Based on their responses and productivity, I am planning on using Yang’s text with other classic literature pieces. For example, their next assignment will pair “The Road Not Taken” (e.e. cummings) and “We Wear the Mask” (Paul Laurence Dunbar) with the Jin Wang storyline in American Born Chinese.