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Food for Thought

Food for Thought: Comic books*, pop culture and superheroes as a conduit for connection?

Thirty years ago, being called a “geek” was not a compliment as it was just one more way to be ostracized from the group. And comic books were thought of as “not real literature” that would “ruin a child’s brain”. But with “geek culture” making its way into popular culture and the rise in use of graphic novels used in K-12 and college curriculum, maybe they are worth a closer look. It can be difficult to notice what these trendy things can offer any student, nonetheless for students with disabilities whose accessibility and inclusion are often at the forefront of our concerns. Can integrating comic books, superheroes and pop culture into the classrooms serve students with disabilities? Some food for thought…

Inclusion – engagement, participation and learning.

When graphic novels are used as a supplementary class text, many instructors are finding that it creates inclusion and accessibility with those with difficulties with reading, such as students with dyslexia. Brain studies have indicated that reading a comic book stimulates the same parts of the brain as reading (decoding and making meaning) but more importantly, struggling readers and English Language Learners can still participate in class discussions about the content, sequence, theme, tone, etc. There are numerous graphic novel adaptations of literary classics such as Pride and Prejudice, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Kindred, A Wrinkle In Time, Jane Eyre (and more), while bookshelves are also full of more modern works.

Cross Discipline.

We expect that comic books could easily be included in English classes but what about other classes? Great news… many fiction and nonfiction graphic novels are being included in STEM, Business and the Social Science courses too. Actually, even medical schools are recognizing the advantages of using a comic book style delivery method for their students’ learning AND for patients in the hospitals (check out “graphic medicine”). The sky is the limit in how comic book style literature can supplement learning.

Self-expression and storytelling in fewer words.

A popular assignment in K-12 and some college classes is for students to create a narrative in a typical comic book form – with panels and a sequential mix of some visual art with written words. Students who appreciate the arts seem to enjoy this activity as it allows them to capture visually, without using so many words. In creating the narrative, they are demonstrating all the elements of storytelling such as outlining, plot, sequence, dialogue, and more. It to be an effective gateway into essay writing. One educator (instructor Rachael Sawyer Perkins) makes a comparison between a comic book and an essay.  A comic panel is comparable to a paragraph and the narrative text at the top is like topic sentence, giving an overview of the main idea- what’s to come in the next few panels. And details are what’s found in the art and dialogue. Paragraphs, main idea, topic sentence…. Wait. This is starting to sound like … like… an essay?? These are key concepts instructors can refer back to with students when advancing to the next step — writing an actual essay. Integrating an activity such as this, where students create a comic strip, has the potential to serve as a building block for communication skills and written expression.

Someone like me?

Writers and illustrators have been more inclusive to communities who were not often represented in these narratives. They are creating a diversity of central or main characters, including those with disabilities (i.e. Daredevil (visually impaired), X-men (“different”), Hollow Earth (hearing impaired), and Percy Jackson the Lightning Thief (Dyslexic) are just a few of the more popular examples). For some, their skill or heroism stems from their special (dis)ability and for others their disability has little to do with the plot. Personally, I find it valuable to have both of those narratives available.

Meaningful connections.

Several therapists are using comic books that have characters with PTSD, depression and bipolar disorder to help their clients connect and express their feelings and experiences.  Also, another thing growing in popularity in for therapists is Superhero Therapy.

Building community.

Everyone geeks out about something. Celebrating student and staff skills and passions can give space for community to form. While such celebrations can occur in a classrooms, or within a Department or Program, more campus are hosting campus-wide events that celebrate these passions. Often referred to as Geek Week, the college (or group of programs) hosts a week long schedule, filled with a wide variety of activities initiated by student clubs, academic disciplines/departments, etc. The name and the event helps to diminish the stigma of “geek”, “nerd” or “outsider” and brings students together in a positive way, who may not otherwise connect. Sharing passions and exposing students to new experiences are positive attributes to a student’s social skills, mental wellness and to their larger community. UCLA and Rutgers University are two colleges whose entire community has embraced this regular activity. And other schools have created and modeled their “geek weeks” after these two pioneer colleges.

Making the most of your work space.

Therapists and college intervention specialists have found that their office decor (when including pop culture references) have helped students begin talking with them when no other strategies worked. Having such wall art or a toy figurine or two on a shelf can help bring student and educator or therapist to the same figurative space and offer an opportunity to connect, which offers an opportunity for communication with a little more ease.

Integrating pop culture, comic books and superheroes into one’s educator repertoire is certainly not a “miracle tool” to enrich the lives of all students, but as these interests have grown in mainstream popularity, more professionals are reporting ways these modalities have offered something positive for their students or clients. From my experience, the most effective educators are those who enjoy trying new ways to reach more students. That is what inspired me to share this “food for thought” piece, in the event you are looking to add to your repertoire. Something very small or simple could have the capacity to reach, teach, inspire or connect one more student.  One of my favorite quotes from Marvel’s Black Panther movie is from young Shuri, the young genius technology engineer (also a princess!): “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” Do you have experience with any of these as a professional or as a student? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience. Thank you.

Lisa Carlsen, Chabot College

Learning Skills program Instructional Assistant

*”Comic books” are short works, consisting of panels of a drawing and words in a sequence to tell a story or share information… “Graphic novels” are larger works which may be a compilation of many smaller comic books or may be a larger story or even a piece of nonfiction. In this article, I used the term interchangeably.