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November 25, 2013

Mr. Marvel Saves the Day


Peter Kmet is a new kind of teacher. After graduating from teacher’s college in 2010, Kmet began a career as a visiting literary specialist at schools and libraries across his native Canada, and he uses comics to make his point. A huge fan of Marvel Comics, Kmet makes learning fun in a special way. We talked to him about how comics work so well in the classroom and the different way he is able to use comics to convey important lessons.


First off, let’s talk about the basics of what you do. Describe a little about your comics in the classroom program and how you use comics to teach literacy.

During my final practicum in Teacher's College, I had a grade 4/5 class that didn't like to read. Independent reading was a struggle for my associate teacher and me. One morning I took a survey and asked the class what they were interested in, and the majority of them said superheroes and vampires/zombies/the supernatural. The year before I had read a graphic novel called Army of Darkness VS. Marvel Zombies, so I decided to start adapting it into a literacy lesson. Every book my associate teacher and I used to read with the class never interested them, but this graphic novel had both superheroes and the supernatural in it. I went home and started adapting the graphic novel into a script. I did not take the dialogue and settings and transcribe them exactly as stated in the graphic novel; instead I inserted vocabulary from our class word wall into the characters' dialogue and changed some scenes to fit the curriculum and I wrote out questions that I wanted the students to answer while we read the story as a class. Reader's Theatre was not implemented enough from what I had observed in the school, so I decided to create a Reader's Theatre lesson. I created a PowerPoint that described how to read as these superpowered characters. I went over the five elements of voice acting: tone, pace, pitch, volume and audience consideration. I then created a PowerPoint about the story we were about to read. I included pictures from the graphic novel and questions to consider.

When I presented the Reader's Theatre lesson to the class, all of them looked so surprised since they never thought they would be reading about superheroes and zombies in a literacy lesson. After the massive success of that first lesson, the students wanted to read other stories about superheroes. I didn't have any more but I saw how my associate teacher enjoyed it and how engaged the students were that I decided to continue finding appropriate comics and adapting them into various lessons. The next lesson I taught was based on the graphic novel interpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is now a staple Halloween lesson in my class every October. The comics I continue to look for must have some issue or lesson that I can extrapolate on and not have a conclusion that's solved with someone getting beat up.

When Marv Wolfman, Andy Diggle and other famous writers applauded and encouraged what I was doing I knew I had something worthwhile that I should continue working on. When Marvel allowed me to use their characters in my lessons, I was ecstatic. To read a positive reply from Marvel, whom I grew up reading, was incredible and really made me feel like I had struck gold.


How do you vary the comics and lessons you teach by grade level?

It depends on the vocabulary and the issues discussed in the lesson. I have specific lessons for the junior, intermediate and senior grades. 

I also put into account whether I can use the comic lesson to begin or end a similar unit such as an environmental unit or anti-bullying unit. 


What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

Convincing other teachers and school staff that comics/graphic novels that feature superheroes are a viable source in the classroom. They probably see the trailers for the films and think, "How could a lesson be made from all that?" I carefully read each comic I come across and make notes as I read. If there are many great notes that I can base a lesson around then I greenlight that comic into the adaptation stage, PowerPoint presentation and teach it in the classroom. I wish I could just buy a stack of comics from the shelves and adapt them all into lessons but I can't since most comics are written for entertainment purposes and do not always have moral lessons that I can extract from them. With that said, I am always on the hunt for value-infused comics.


So I take it you’re a Marvel guy. No DC ever?

I have adapted some Batman stories into lessons but I have not received permission from DC yet to use their characters in my lessons. Until I hear back from DC, I won't use any of their characters. I would love to teach a lesson based around Watchmen or Alan Moore's other DC works, such as Swamp Thing for the intermediate grades. I finished a Watchmen lesson two summers ago but I will keep it on hold until DC replies back. I also finished creating lessons on Sherlock Holmes Versus the Undead and Dracula but I have not heard back from the publisher so they have been placed on hold too. Sherlock Holmes uses his wits and deducing skills instead of his fists to solve crimes, so it's a comic that I hope to one day teach.

I grew up with Marvel so I am much more familiar with that universe. If a student asks me a specific question about an uncommon character's background from the Marvel universe, such as Mr. X or Shuma-Gorath, I could easily provide information on the spot. I am not familiar with many of the lesser-known characters in the DC universe, but I do look them up when I read about one. The students call me Mr. Marvel, so that usually gives them a hint that the superheroes that will be featured in the lessons will be from the Marvel universe.


You’re using mainstream superhero comics to teach in the classroom --- not just the “big guns,” like WATCHMEN or SANDMAN or MAUS. Even some of the people who most vocally support comics in the classroom don’t necessarily pitch for superheroes in the classroom. Do you get flack for the capes?

Every parent I have talked to has given me lots of vocal support, whereas some of the school staff see it as odd to base lessons around superheroes. Some staff have asked me, "How does using superheroes help?" and it all depends on the lesson: literacy (punctuation, learning to love to read), moral-based (anti-racism, anti-prejudice, anti-bullying) or social issues such as pollution and the effects of war.

The staff members who do not understand the layout of my lessons seem to think negatively about the concept but once they read over my lessons and see genuine connections to the curriculum along with the students’ immense interest, they always change their minds. 

It's all about how one uses the superheroes in the lessons. I always make sure to choose the most morally significant issues to include in my lessons. I carefully read through Marvel anthologies looking for universal and relevant themes that I would like to teach my students. One group I always turn to are the X-Men, who always deal with prejudice from the humans that they save. Professor Xavier always has excellent words of wisdom that he tells the X-Men when a group of humans they just saved calls them names. Magneto and Xavier have great moral dialogues that the students find very interesting, since Xavier and Magneto are using their words to fight their battle instead of their powers or fists. 

Magneto says that the humans hate the mutants and that's why he wants to destroy them, whereas Xavier takes the passive approach and has confidence that humans and mutants will one day become united without hatred.

There are many moral lessons to be learned that most students never knew existed in the comics. Once a doubting staff member watches me teach a lesson, they are always smiling at the end and approve of my lessons. Some even ask me to teach a lesson in their class. It's a matter of eliminating the assumptions that the naysayers are making and actually showing them a lesson in progress. Maybe they think I'm bringing comics to class and selling them to the students after a lesson, but I am not Marvel's PR man. Local comic book stores provide me with comics and posters that I give out to the students for free. I also hand out my scripts to my students after the lesson so they can continue practicing to read at home, which parents absolutely love.


Which characters are most popular with the kids?

The Avengers (both solo and together), X-Men, Spider-Man and Venom. The only DC character students occasionally request is Batman. Any Marvel character who has been in a major motion picture is always very popular.


Which are the least popular?

The non-superpowered civilians, SHIELD agents and pretty much any character who doesn't have a superpower. Nova, MODOK, Man-Bull and the Leader are not very popular either. 


Who was your favorite superhero when you were growing up? Who’s your favorite now?

This is the number one question that students ask me. My earliest favorite character in the early '90s was Hawkeye. He sounded so confident and he didn't have any mutant powers. All he had was a bow and arrow and yet he could still hold his own in a battle with superpowered villains. I am sure that's why I related to him, since I thought with enough practice that I could become just as good with a bow and arrow as Hawkeye. I moved on to Gambit and then Wolverine.

I was really fascinated with the X-Men when I was growing up due to the '90s cartoon I watched every Saturday morning. I was expecting just 22 minutes of nonstop action as the X-Men battled a revolving roster of evil mutants/villain-of-the-week formula every Saturday morning, but I realized, even at a young age, that there were deeper issues that the X-Men fought against without having to raise their fists.

Issues such asprejudice (people throwing garbage at the X-Men after they had saved them from danger and the "Days of Future Past" storyline where the sentinels are exterminating all the mutants in the world) and isolation/depression in episodes where Wolverine wanted to be left alone since he didn't talk his problems out with the other X-Men or with anyone. I would always wonder why Wolverine would run away and never ask for help, but it's part of his character.

I became familiar with the Holocaust when Magneto would recall his childhood during World War 2, which in turn began his hatred for all mankind. Senator Kelly's Friends of Humanity group demonstrated extreme prejudice toward the X-Men. There were many moral and social themes during the X-Men's animated run that even my parents said to me that it was a deep show and not a typical Saturday morning cartoon.

My favorite character changes every so often. It all depends on how well the character is written in the comics that really leaves an impact with me. At the moment I enjoyDaredevil when written by Frank Miller, Andy Diggle or Mark Waid;Thunderbolts when written by Warren Ellis or Jeff Parker (but the current team of Thunderbolts has renewed my interest in them);Venom: Lethal Protector; IDW's Ghostbusters series is great since I am a major fan of the Ghostbusters. As much as I would want to adapt a Ghostbusters comic into a lesson, I have yet to find an appropriate issue that I could base a lesson on.


Which are your favorite comics and characters to use to teach?

Spider-Man is one since the students can somewhat relate to him. Peter Parker is a student, he maintains straight A's while he's working at the Bugle, paying Aunt May's rent and he gets teased by his peers. Most of my students can relate to what Parker is going through in his life. Spider-Man's origin story is its own lesson. The problem with Spider-Man lessons is that the cast size is small so not many students get a turn to read. I like using X-Men or the Avengers or Defenders comics in my lessons since the cast size is bigger. If there are too many male characters, then I will change a few of them into a female so that there will be an equal amount of boys and girls being involved in the lesson.


What’s the best era of comics to use for teaching?

I continue to read collections and anthologies of comics that were released in the '50s and onward but I have mainly used comics from the late '80s until the present time. The best era at the moment is the '80s. I have adapted many comics from that decade, especially Chris Claremont's X-Men issues. I have also adapted scripts from the '90s X-Men cartoon and the 1981-83 Spider-Man cartoons, which all have great timeless values instilled in the writing.


How did the first school react when you wanted to bring comics in and use them to teach?

The school was very interested. I had a meeting with the principal and then invited him to watch my lesson. When the lesson was over, he gave me a thumbs-up and a smile that I will never forget. The rest of the staff wasn't sure what I was doing but my students were telling students in other grades and that's how the other staff and students found out about my program. The local libraries heard about my program and so I started teaching my programs in local libraries during March Break and in the summer. A few schools from different boards have invited me to teach some lessons next year. I will also be using my program to teach adults next year at night.


Can you provide examples of some of the lessons you use?

Common themes that I always incorporate into my lessons are intolerance, racism, prejudice, depression, accepting people and pollution/environmental issues. I have also adapted episodes of the Twilight Zone and the Night Gallery for the junior and intermediate grades. Maximum Carnage is one of my expansive lessons that is 14 chapters long and it places Spider-Man in the middle of a moral dilemma that he has never contemplated before. Carnage is terrorizing New York with his devious gang. Spider-Man can't stop the villain by himself so he enlists some familiar and unlikely allies, like Venom. Spider-Man has to listen to the angel on one shoulder (his conscience telling him to arrest Carnage) and the devil on his other shoulder (Venom, who takes a Draconian approach, telling Spider-Man that vicious criminals should be exterminated so they can't take any more innocent lives. Peter Parker also hears his father take on Venom's sentiments, so it's a moral battle that Spider-Man and Peter Parker have to really consider throughout the series. 

I start the lesson by presenting a PowerPoint that shows pictures of the characters the class will be hearing from and the settings in the story. This helps the students, especially the visual learners, see the characters and they can determine what kind of voice to provide the characters. Next I have an audition where the students read their lines in character and the class votes on who provided a more appropriate tone of voice for that character. Once the roles have been selected, I go over questions that the students will consider while we read the story. Once the story is over, I present the questions back to the students and they will answer them. I will occasionally stop the story and ask a question during the reading so the students can focus on a particular character's emotion or situation.

If there is time after the lesson, I show a montage of classic comic covers that the featured heroes and villains have appeared in since there are many aspiring artists in my class. 

A lesson I just finished is based around the environment and pollution. The Kingpin has created a substance that can burn through any vault but the substance causes a lot of toxic waste, which the Kingpin dumps into the river. The Sub-Mariner's niece falls ill due to the toxic waste, so Prince Namor exacts his revenge on the surface world. Spider-Man sees Namor destroying New York and intervenes. They team up and confront the Kingpin, telling him about the dangers of polluting. The Kingpin runs away but the pollution he caused ends up trapping him in the river when he attempts to escape. In the end, the surface doctors revive Namor's niece and Namor feels bad for destroying a part of New York City. He thanks the doctors but warns them to tell everyone not to pollute the planet ever again or else he will return with a vengeance.