Graphic novels are being used as educational tools

As his classes struggle throughout the year with some denser Shakespeare passages, Brad Fennessy pulls out his secret weapon – comics.

The modern, graphic interpretations of Shakespeare’s classics, Fennessy said, help supplement the traditional text. His students get to see how characters interact.

“It helps them with the visual component,” said Fennessy, a Woodstock North High School English teacher. “Most kids these days, they lack the imagination as they read.”

Fennessy isn’t the only one in the area using graphic novels as an educational tool. Thanks in part to a broad interpretation of reading materials under the state’s new Common Core learning standards, the books are gaining popularity in area districts and in schools across the country.

Though the word “comics” tends to conjure images of Marvel superheroes, supporters of the genre note its diversity. In addition to adaptations of serious literature, historical graphic novels and original works are finding their way into local classrooms and libraries.

In addition to supplementary Shakespeare comics, Fennessy’s students have read the Pulitzer-prize winning “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, which depicts the World War II experience of the author’s Jewish father, a survivor of Adolf Hitler’s Europe. Next year, they’ll read an original memoir called “The Quitter,” by Harvey Pekar.

And as Fennessy and others have noted, students are not only receptive to comics in the classroom, but have helped drive the trend.

In Harvard’s District 50, librarians noticed their graphic novels were rarely on the shelves, so they applied for and received a $5,000 “Back to Books” grant to buy more.

Student appeal is a big reason, but in a district heavy with dual-language learners, the books provide an added benefit.

“They’ve shown definitely to support English language learners, just because of the nature,” said Karen Kruckenberg, who works in library media technology for the district. “It’s primarily dialogue, so they can use the illustrations to support what’s going on.”

Kruckenberg also notes that the books support those she calls “reluctant readers.”

Nearby, Harvard Diggins Library separately applied for and received the same grant in the amount of $2,500. The library will use $1,500 of that to bulk up its own graphic novel collection, which these days is in constant demand, Library Director Karen Sutera said.

Sutera said she figures some people believe graphic novels are a less pure form of reading. She disagrees.

“I personally don’t, and most of the librarians that I’m familiar with don’t think that either,” she said. “They know it’s important to reinforce kids’ reading skills by giving them something they want to read.”

In McHenry County, a growing interest in graphic novels has reached the college level. This year, McHenry County College held its first-ever course in comics. Students learned the history of the form and started on their own books, which some have continued outside of the course, said Susan Sieber, who taught the class.

Sieber, who originally studied creative writing, was herself indifferent to the genre of graphic novels until a teaching trip to Japan in 2000 and 2001.

There, authors had created comics for nearly everything, she remembered. New moms learned how to change diapers that way. Students studied comic-style cliff notes for class.

“Before that, I was thinking it was all superheroes and the sort of thing I was seeing around here,” Sieber said.

The U.S. might have been on a similar path until the 1954 formation of the Comics Code Authority, Sieber said. The code enforced by the authority limited the content graphic novels contained, solidifying the typical superhero narrative. It was abandoned by most publishers in the early 2000s.

“We as Americans, we’ve always had that wonderful creativity. Look at our novels. Look at our literature,” Sieber said. “[With regards to comics], that’s really got strangled down a bit.”

But Sieber is happy to see that creativity returning to the craft over the past 10 to 15 years, bringing more interested young people with it.

Her graphic novel class was in a trial period this year but, because of strong enrollment, will be picked up permanently going forward. Sieber will expand the curriculum next year, however, teaching students how to create visuals and text for film, animation and games.

“My point is really ... ‘How do you juxtapose pictures and words to tell a story?’” she said.

As Sieber looks to appeal to the creativity of her students, Kruckenberg, of District 50, has a similar objective toward her district’s teachers.

Although a few have inserted comics into their lesson plans, not all have warmed to the idea just yet. And with more graphic novels coming into circulation this fall, Kruckenberg hopes teachers find new ways to incorporate them.

“The first step is to get teachers to look at graphic novels in a new way,” she said.

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