Schools Embrace Graphic Novels as Learning Tool

By Rado, Diane | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Schools Embrace Graphic Novels as Learning Tool


Rado, Diane, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


CHICAGO --

In honors English class at Alan B. Shepard High School, sophomores are analyzing Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" with the help of another book filled with drawings and dialogue that appears in bubbles above characters' heads.

"Capote in Kansas" is what generations of kids would recognize as a comic book, though it has a fancier name - a graphic novel.

That honors students at the Palos Heights, Ill., high school are using it illustrates how far the controversial comic-strip novels have come in gaining acceptance in the school curriculum, educators say.

Once aimed at helping struggling readers, English language learners and disabled students, graphic novels are moving into honors and college-level Advanced Placement classrooms and attracting students at all levels.

They're listed as reading material for students in the new "common core" standards being adopted across the country, even though some naysayers still question their value in the classroom.

There's no data on precisely how many schools nationwide use graphic novels. But no one disputes that in other markets the popularity of the comic-style books -- adapted to classic literature, biographies, science, math and other subjects -- is on the rise.

Karen Gavigan, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina who has focused her research on graphic novels, points out that their sales have increased by nearly 40 percent over the past 10 years. And public libraries have seen significant increases in circulation after adding such material to their collections.

"A whole range of kids just love these," Ms. Gavigan said.

Fans abound in English teacher Eric Kallenborn's sophomore honors class at Shepard.

"It perfectly complemented 'In Cold Blood,'" sophomore Kyle Longfield said of "Capote in Kansas." He believes the story helped him better understand Capote's groundbreaking book about two killers and their brutal murders in Kansas.

On a recent day, Kyle, 16, led his fellow honors students through a discussion that compared the depiction of Capote in the comic- book novel to the author's voice and literary style in "In Cold Blood."

That discussion would have been considered unusual in the past.

Just ask Daniel Argentar, a communication arts instructor at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Along with a colleague, he introduced the graphic novel "Maus" to some struggling freshman readers about eight years ago.

"People thought we were crazy," Mr. Argentar said.

The Holocaust-related book won a special Pulitzer Prize award in 1992, the first graphic novel to do so.

At the time, many Stevenson students already had read Elie Wiesel's Holocaust book "Night," so Argentar was looking for an alternative that would appeal to students more attuned to the visual. Some colleagues didn't think the comic-book format of "Maus" was rigorous enough, Mr. Argentar said, but students liked it.

A website he and his colleague created to help educators teach "Maus" still generates calls and emails from around the country, Mr. Argentar said.

"You're always going to have the traditionalists say comic books aren't real literature, and I guess to a certain extent they have a point," he said. "But my point is that it is different literature. It is visual literature, and I'd be failing my kids if I didn't train them for all the visual reading they do today."

Ms. Gavigan said graphic novels help students develop language skills, reinforce vocabulary and develop critical thinking skills, among other benefits.

The comic book-style format goes back decades or even centuries, depending on scholars' interpretations. In the 1970s, the term graphic novel emerged when Will Eisner's "A Contract with God" stories were published, Ms. …

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