Comics in the Classroom: Comics as Educational Texts

Humans have been using pictures in sequence to communicate and educate for thousands of years; hieroglyphics are the ancestors of comics. Before the advent of the printing press, beautiful stained-glass windows in cathedrals throughout Europe used images in sequence to educate parishioners. And the tradition of education through images in sequence continues today.

The next time you’re on a flight, pull out the Aircraft Safety Card in the seat-back pocket in front of you and take a look at it carefully. What is the instructional format of choice when lives could be on the line? Comics!

This is one of the best and most immediate examples of the power of images in sequence to instruct and educate, but there are many more.

An early example of printed comics being used for instruction and education is Will Eisner’s PS Magazine, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly. From 1951 to 1972, Eisner’s American Visuals Corporation published this instructional periodical for the U.S. Army. It featured Eisner’s bumbling character, Joe Dope, teaching servicemen to perform preventative maintenance on army equipment, from guns to Jeeps to tanks. AVC produced graphic instructional materials for the government and various businesses, including RCA Records and New York Telephone. Will Eisner was not only the “Father of the Graphic Novel,” he was the “Father of Educational Comics.”

Emerging research and practice are consistently proving the efficacy of graphic texts as teaching tools, but so far most of this work has been done with pre-existing texts not specifically created for the classroom. Now, a team of teachers and artists has tackled this challenge head-on by creating a graphic textbook specifically for use in college level composition courses: Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, by Elizabeth Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon. This complete first-year college writing textbook in the comic format is an ambitious project and a groundbreaking work. Read an extensive interview with the creators at the Reading With Pictures blog.

And now, Reading With Pictures is extending this work into the elementary grades. Reading With Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter unites the finest creative talents in the comics industry with the nation’s leading experts in visual literacy to create a game-changing tool for the classroom and beyond. This full-color volume features more than a dozen short graphic texts (both fiction and nonfiction) that address topics in social studies, math, language arts and science, aimed at students in grades 3–6. A downloadable Teachers Guide includes standards-correlated lesson plans customized to each story, research-based justifications for using comics in the classroom, a guide to establishing best classroom practices and a comprehensive listing of educational resources.

There is, of course, much more to the story. For a complete history of comics in education, I recommend Gene Yang’s History of Comics in Education. Comics and graphic texts have certainly come a long way, and research and practice are proving, time and time again, that comics can be powerful learning tools.