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Using Comics and Graphic Novels as Instructional Tools

Posted Date: 03/01/2018

Glenn is a curriculum consultant at ESSDACK and was a co-chair of the 2013 Kansas state social studies standards writing committee. He supports any instructional strategy that encourages higher order thinking and hands-on learning. Graphic novels? Check. And while Glenn focuses on using comics in social studies, the following ideas are cross-curricular and can be applied in a wide range of classrooms.


I’ve always loved comics. I lean a bit more to things like Calvin & Hobbes and Doonesbury rather than the Marvel and DC universes that my kids love. But no matter what I was reading – growing up or now – I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of visual storytelling.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve also intrigued with the idea of using comics and graphic novels as part of social studies instructional design. And during the February social studies PLC, we nerded out with some great conversation about what that can look like.

Teachers started by doing some basic action research on the pros and cons of comics and graphic novels. And then broke up into a couple of groups – one representing classroom teachers and one representing concerned parents – each spending some time creating a case for and against the use of comics as teaching tools. Those two larger groups then jigsawed back into smaller groups with both teachers and parents included.

We used a variation of the Structured Academic Controversy discussion activity – one that I especially like because it encourages the art of civil discourse. And it really encourages kids to look at questions from multiple perspectives. After our SAC, I think we all came to the agreement that we should be using comics and graphic novels. I especially enjoyed hearing all of the great conversations about possible uses.

The best part of the morning? We got about 30 minutes of conversation with Tim Smyth.

Tim is @historycomics on Twitter and a true superhero in the graphic novel / comics as teaching tools world. A high school teacher in Pennsylvania, Tim’s room is packed with comics, posters, and memorabilia. And his teaching toolbelt is full of ideas for how using comics might look in the classroom.

He shared some sample comics and described some of the comic books he uses in his instruction. We had time for a few quick questions and he was back with students. Even though we had just a few minutes with Tim, I was super impressed with his passion for using tools and strategies that he knew connected with students. And afterwards, the room was buzzing with ideas and possibilities.

Some quick takeaways from our conversation:

  • Have kids make their own comics using Pixton and Hero Machine.
  • Amazon is a great place to find inexpensive comics. And always check local comic book stores.
  • You need to teach kids how to “read” a graphic novel and other forms of visual literature. (We created a Google Doc with tons of resources that can help with that.)
  • Be aware of the “power of visuals.” What might be acceptable as fictional text can become inappropriate to parents and admins when read in a graphic novel format.
  • Just like other forms of literature, comics and graphic novels are a “reflection of our society” and can be seen as both primary and secondary sources.
  • Find other teachers to talk with. Tim suggested joining the Comic Book Teachers Facebook group.

Get more of the awesomeness that is Tim at his History Comics site and be sure to explore his list of comics and graphics novels organized by social studies content areas.

Need something small to start with? Try Pop Culture Classroom’s How to Teach with Comics. You get three sections – how to read a comic, explaining comics to parents and administrators, and how to use comics to teach.

graph novel example

Need more? We’ve got more. I mentioned our Google Doc – it’s two pages chock-full of research, resources, teaching ideas, lists, and comic creation tools. Head over there to explore all of those goodies.

Have fun!