Education Matters: The bullied and the bored: Tips for victimized students and for innovative teachers [Part Two]


In addition to live-action role-playing strategies for academic learning, discussed in last week’s column, other panels at San Diego’s 2018 Comic-Con presented fascinating information about using comics and graphic novels to teach students core curriculum lessons.

There’s an “endless array of opportunities using comics in the classroom,” said Adam Kullberg, education program manager at Pop Culture Classroom and moderator of the “Comics in the Classroom” panel.

Education consultant Tracy Edmunds explained why comics work in the classroom:

  • Engaging. Comics require readers to actively engage in making meaning from text and images and can make “boring” information more interesting.
  • Efficient. The comic format conveys a great deal of information in a short time.
  • Effective. Processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning. Vocabulary is expanded when shown in context, and comics can bring out empathy and prompt emotional reactions in the reader.

Edmunds said comics and graphic novels work well to teach lessons across all curricula, and research shows that students who read text and images together have better attitudes toward learning, recall information more effectively, and can transfer their learning to new problems.
Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Aron Steinke said, “Comics are a gateway to literacy.”

He said he uses multiple sources to teach subject matter, including comics, graphic novels, other novels and film adaptations.

Temecula Valley High School teacher Derek Heid said he sometimes has to teach students how to read comics because the structure is so different from textbooks and regular novels.

Comic book writer Scott Westerfeld said the format can cross boundaries and include memoirs, histories, nonfiction and many other genres that kids aren’t often interested in.

Heid said he has had some pushback from parents who object to having their children read comics in high school classes. But they usually see the results of the format’s effectiveness as their kids discover a love for learning and a better appreciation of the subject matter.

Heid said he’s also had to deal with negative reactions from staff and school administrators. “I say comics and my bosses hear superheroes. It’s a struggle,” he said.

Ramona High School teacher Erin Hill said the only skepticism she’s had has been from some students themselves.

“Kids sometimes challenge me, saying this is not English,” she said.

Panel members were enthusiastic about the possibilities for educators using comics and graphic novels in the classroom and suggested the following resources for teachers and parents:

Morality in comics

Panels also addressed how to use comics to teach children about social justice and morality.

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund executive director Charles Brownstein gave examples of how comics going back to the 1950s have addressed moral issues such as racism, gender identity and war crimes.

CBLDF is a nonprofit organization formed in 1986 to protect the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers and retailers.

“CBLDF protects your freedom to read,” Brownstein said. “Comics are a powerful form of free expression.”

In 1954, the comics medium was attacked by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham who claimed that reading comic books seduces youth and contributes to juvenile delinquency.

His claims were later disproved but not after they led to a congressional hearing and the creation of a Comics Code, which was established by comics publishers to prevent a third-party government agency from regulations and censorship.

Bill Gaines, an early icon of the comic book industry, testified against Wertham’s claims and said no one ever became psychotic from reading comics.

Brownstein said the charge that reading comic books turns good kids bad is analogous to later (false) claims that video games and heavy metal music lead to juvenile delinquency.

Mental health

In the “Social Justice Warriors” panel, moderator Heather Newman noted that Superman was a social justice warrior from decades ago.

Superman was fighting the Nazis for years and then began fighting the Ku Klux Klan, said producer Matt Nix.

“We have a responsibility to address these issues,” he said. Although it’s important to stand up for those being victimized, voice actor Mela Lee said, “It’s uncomfortable to be a hero.”

“Everyone is so beautifully different,” said voice actor Erica Lindbeck, encouraging those who feel ostracized or marginalized to recognize that they have gifts to offer.

“I look forward to the day when [being] transgender is the least interesting part of that character,” said Nix, pointing out that social justice warriors are first and foremost human, regardless of color, race, nationality or gender identity.

With mental illness taking center stage in the national conversation about gun control, of interest was a discussion about mental health and how it’s portrayed in comics, graphic novels, film and television.

In the panel titled “Crazy Together,” a question from the audience directly addressed an education quandary: “Do students blur the line between normal behavior and what’s mental illness?”

This is a concern, said psychiatrist Vasilis Pozios, because there may be an over-representation of serious mental illness as a superpower. Harry Potter villain Voldemort was named as an example.

Pozios said mental illness has been used as a reason for villainy, but that’s changing. “We don’t want to conflate mental illness with evil, and we are getting away from that,” he said.

Touching on the concept of moral insanity, he said, “We don’t want to stigmatize mental health issues because it discourages people from seeking treatment.”

Moderator Sue Karlin said, “A lot of characters [in comics and film] are born from trauma.”

Attorney Jeff Trexler identified three kinds of people: good people who obey the rules, good people who go bad, and the insane.

Traditionally, there has been a relationship between mental health and malice or destruction, he said. The assumption has been that if you have a mental health issue, you’ll be violent.

“Everybody now can have mental health issues,” Trexler said. “We need to find empathy for the mentally ill.”

The “Hamilton” experience

The power of popular culture to positively influence children is unlimited and can be particularly effective on those suffering from depression, anxiety, bullying, suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts, isolation and alienation.

As social and emotional learning becomes more critical for today’s youth, teachers are looking for ways to connect disaffected children to their common humanity, by improving self-esteem, nurturing empathy, and increasing joy and happiness in their lives.

According to a recent article in Education Week, elementary school principals are concerned about students’ emotional problems, mental health issues, poverty, and other factors connected to well-being. Many of those issues did not crack the top 10 concerns of principals just a decade ago.

Educators focused on academic success must begin to look at new avenues for teaching that engage students with passion and encourage them to take the initiative in their own learning.

If there’s any doubt, think about how the musical “Hamilton” has deeply connected students to an interest in American history.

Live-action role-playing, graphic novels, musicals, film and comics are some ways that can excite kids and make learning pleasurable.

The old ways of teaching can’t continue to be successful without innovative efforts by educators to inculcate their lessons with a broader array of non-traditional options to expand learning potential.

LARP on.

[To read Part One, see:]

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at