How to Revolutionize Social Studies with Comics by @HistoryComics

This is the type of story that we need to do a better job of sharing in education. I’ve been working with Tim for the past seven years…and until recently didn’t know all the amazing work he was doing in the classroom. This past year Tim was able to share some of the great work he was doing in Social Studies with comic books, and I was able to share how Twitter and other online platforms are perfect for teacher learning and collaboration. Tim has recently started to catalog and share his work with comics in history at this wikispace, and is also on Twitter @historycomics. Here’s his story:

I have been teaching high school social studies for over twelve years and department chair for almost half of that time – I currently teach academic, honors, and AP European History. I am a “tough” teacher – my main focus is to help my students become better critical and active readers of all types of media (print, electronic, propaganda posters, political cartoons, etc). The students read and write almost every day and they are often challenged by higher level analysis questions and the dreaded “so what?”. This skill will always be more vital than a multiple-choice test asking who the king was during the English Civil War.

When I went back to college to earn a MS Reading Specialist degree, I began to open my mind a bit in a quest to get more and more students interested in reading. One key conversation kept coming up – boys do not like to read – the personal opinions of the groups of teachers, and a lot of research studies, backed up this idea. I am a voracious reader and I just could not figure out why so many boys were not reading. Then I asked the most important question of my educational career – what are we having boys read in class? The answers surprised and frustrated me – I would not want to read many of those titles either (I remembered the agony of Anna Karenina in high school). The book titles were great, don’t get me wrong – just not my cup of tea. I had always toed the party line and wanted to be viewed as a true academic (surprised I never actually went and bought the ole pipe and tweed jacket with elbow pads). However, I had a secret passion, one I had my entire life – I LOVE comic books.

I knew how much comics had changed over the years – particularly with graphic novels. They were no longer just simple campy story-lines – but complex, deep, and aimed at a more mature and intelligent audience. Surprising myself, I began to talk to the other teachers about the possibility of using comics in the classroom – it was a tough sell. I began to research the idea and then based my thesis on this passion of mine. The professors loved the idea and, when I presented, the idea was well received and I believe I made some converts that night.

It still took me another year to even think about bringing in comic books to the classroom – after all, I had a reputation to uphold. The following year, I brought Nat Turner, by Kyle Baker, into the classroom. It is a comic that has very few words, but is action-packed and engaging. When teaching about horrific events in history – such as the Jewish Holocaust and African slave trade – it is always a struggle to get the idea across without having the students tune out due to large numbers of deaths, horrific images, etc. This novel does a fantastic job of focusing in on one small African village and how the people were taken into slavery and their experiences on the Middle Passage. I use it to teach the students to think for themselves – they are to “interpret” each page and to summarize, in one sentence, what is going on. The students often ask me what certain images might mean – I allow them to get “frustrated” as the lesson is to think for themselves, while relying on textual evidence.

The textbook simply tells them what happened – there is no room for student created questioning. There is one page in particular that often surprises the students – the riders who come in to capture the Africans are also African – the students will initially write about the white men/Europeans who are capturing Africans. However, through student discussion, they realize that this is not the case. This opens up whole conversations and questions that the students will research when we are done with the book. I also ask them to make connections to other events, such as the Jewish Holocaust. The images of families being separated, clothes being taken, branding instead of tattooed numbers, and ships in place of rail cars are all too similar when placed in context. In just a few pages, great curiosity is raised in the students and they remember it the rest of the year. We use the book to make other connections as well – including Malcolm X and the idea of terrorist VS hero. Not too shabby for a “simple” comic book, huh? Years later, my students will often tell me how much this book opened their eyes – not just to the historical connections, but also to the power of pictures and graphic novels.

I then added Crecy by Warren Ellis to teach about the 100 Years War – the boys LOVE this book. Then I added Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa to teach about the bombing of Hiroshima. This story has the single biggest impact on students that I have ever seen. This past year, I taught a comic book session twice in a cycle – we have a schedule where students can pick from a large list of course offerings by our teachers. The student response has been amazing – the course is filled beyond capacity and we discuss all types of literature and topics. I have been encouraged to see so many different types of students attend – lots of girls too! I have definitely reached a much wider audience in the school and many students borrow my books. I will be looking to integrate more and more comics into the classroom and to change them out from year to year, so it will remain fresh for me as well.

Please visit my wiki ( or follow me on twitter @historycomics and open your mind to the possibilities of the world of comics. I have been told by many people that they just had no idea that all of these titles even existed. Worse, most have never even been in a comic book store! There is no shame to present these marvelous works of literature to our students – they help us to reach students of all ability levels. Feel free to add to the conversation, to tell me titles of books that I have missed, add in lesson plans, collaborate on ideas and anything else that will help students!

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