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  • Educating with Comics

    Maryland's "Comic Book Initiative"—a plan to introduce comics into schools to involve reluctant readers and thereby improve their reading skills—presents itself as a bold, experimental program. Maryland authorities quoted in the Washington Post last December inaccurately claimed that "nobody" had looked at the value of comic books as reading material before and "no studies" had previously tried to measure the possible effects of comic book reading on student achievement.

    Actually, educators have been looking at comic books for a long time.

    By the 1940s, teachers in thousands of classrooms were trying to use comic books as a springboard to book-reading. When “The Journal of Educational Sociology” devoted an entire issue to "The Comics as an Educational Medium" 61 years ago, they included a bibliography that listed dozens of articles about comics that had been published in education journals. The 1949 textbook Teaching Children to Read by Adams, Gray and Reese faintly endorsed comic books (those "archenemies of good literary taste") in ways that would be repeated in many reading instruction textbooks for years to come.

    Adams, Gray and Reese urged teachers to reconcile themselves to the huge popularity of comic books. They wrote that "The problem of comic books is not that many children regularly read them; it is that a large and growing number read them to the exclusion of better types of recreational reading." They warned teachers that sternly forbidding kids from bringing comics to school just leads them to hide their comics. (A 1955 textbook would call this "driving comic book reading underground.")

    The Teaching Children to Read textbook went further to propose that teachers could use comic books in their classrooms to "aid children in learning to discriminate among the comics as among other forms of reading." (Other authors would add, "The better ones, such as True Comics and Classic Comics, can be safely allowed a place in the classroom library.") Like the Comic Book Initiative of today, reading instruction textbooks emphasized that assigning comic books can help "children who need remedial reading" gain a feeling of success in reading.

    Adams, Gray and Reese assured their readers that "the exclusive interest many children take in comic books is but a passing phase which will eventually be outgrown." With patience, the comic book reader can move to a "higher literary level," from "Terry and the Pirates" to Treasure Island. (Other textbooks added the authors Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, and H.G. Wells as superior alternatives to comic books.) Many important differences separate then from now. These include the collapse of the comic book industry in the mid-1950s; the invention of newer entertainment media; and the acceptance of comics, in the form of the "graphic novel," as a legitimate medium which readers do not need to "outgrow." Also, the idea that teachers can help children see that Classics Illustrated and True Comics outrank comic books that feature "ridiculous antics" or violate "common-sense" now seems silly. Today's educators speak less of using kids' addictions to comic books as a springboard to reading trade books than of using comic books to entice reluctant readers toward the world of print.

    Unlike the old reading instruction textbooks, Maryland defends the use of comics in classrooms as part of a "war on illiteracy," a "battle" whose progress ultimately will be measured in reading scores on standardized tests. This puts a grim spin on the potentially fun and enriching activity of reading comic books.

    The authors of dozens of reading instruction textbooks published since the 1940s focused cursorily on comic books' words (for example, by quoting researchers who had analyzed comic book vocabularies for reading level, grammatical correctness, and prevalence of slang) but barely acknowledged the "atrocious" pictures. They treated comic book illustrations more as a dangerous lure than as a creative component of an evolving art form. These reading specialists defended the privileged status of unadorned text, and regarded a move from any comic book to any trade book as a step up. They promoted the value of knowing how to read on the shaky grounds that novels still offer the best medium for the recreational consumption of adventure stories. The "Comic Book Initiative," in an improvement over these older approaches, calls attention to comics' interplay of words and pictures as an important strength of this "visual medium."

    One theory has it that educators lost interest in comic books after the mid-1950s because of successful efforts to discredit the medium led by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and others. Actually, of the dozen reading instruction textbooks I have found that referred to Wertham by name or by clear implication, only one of their authors, Florence Damon Cleary, found Wertham's attack on comic books disquietingly convincing. The rest of them emphasized that Wertham's conclusions connecting comic books and juvenile delinquency were "controversial" or "unproven." Remarkably, even those authors who responded to Wertham's arguments connecting comic books with juvenile delinquency or racism ignored the fact that Wertham's book about comics also included an entire chapter about the negative effects of prior immersion in comic books on learning how to read. They paid no attention to Wertham's specific attacks on educational applications of comic books.

    Educators and students lost interest in comic books as television and later media partially replaced them, but comic books did continue their sporadic presence in classrooms. In recent decades, several waves of artistically ambitious works have helped to establish comics as a serious medium and attracted the sustained, respectful attention of a growing community of "comics scholars" at the college and university levels.

    Maryland's "Comic Book Initiative" does not propose to replace books with comic books, nor does it require any teacher to use them. It aims to use the attractiveness of carefully-selected comics to interest students who do not like to read (especially boys); to help students find pleasure in reading; and to give them a foundation to move up to reading novels and other "regular" materials. It would be hard to find anything bold, unprecedented or unreasonable in these goals.

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