Comic books have traditionally been the bane of teachers. It's far too easy for sly students to slip these thin pamphlets into their textbooks, making it seem as though they're studying sociology when they're actually distracted by "Silver Surfer."
These days, graphic novels are slowly making headway into classrooms and school libraries. Not as contraband, but as actual teaching tools. Part of the reason for this shift is a spreading appreciation for the fact that students absorb information differently. Some people are drawn to words, while others pick up more quickly on visual cues.
Jeff Hayes, a Ph.D. candidate in secondary education English language arts at the University of Alabama, says that traditionally, the U.S. education establishment has not always recognized how differently students absorb lessons.
At some point, he says, "Our educational system became obsessed with the idea that information was and is best learned through prose, poetry, and script devoid of visual context or connection of any kind."
Hayes believes that the graphic novel medium is underappreciated as a way to reach students with learning abilities that don't match current curricula and also expose these pupils to the variety of styles in which people communicate. Change, however, does not come easily.
As Hayes explains, "Colleges of education and teacher training programs that produce English language arts pedagogues have little room to move with new curriculum ideas due to the pressures of standardized testing and the funding associate with it. There is also the stigma attached to comic books"
Libraries and schools consider comics with caution, in part because of that stigma, but also because many people (such as parents) perceive these types of books as a distraction or detriment to "real" reading.
Still, some teachers believe graphic novels are also helpful for engaging reluctant and struggling readers and those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Colorful comics grab the reader's attention, and the smaller word count cuts down on the intimidation factor.
Comics can help teach students basics such as punctuation and how to write paragraphs and outlines. They also help students develop more advanced reading skills and can help build a reader's confidence level. They help students understand inferences and familiarize them with satire, parody, plot, spacing, allusion, irony, symbolism and other concepts that can be difficult to grasp in text-only mediums.
Furthermore, comics are an engaging way for all sorts of people to exercise their minds in tech-saturated societies filled with passive, mindless pursuits, such as cable television and Web surfing.
Regardless of whether they're digital or analog hard copies, graphic novels are becoming a more popular -- and more powerful -- means of sharing stories both frivolous and serious, for entertainment and for education. It's the kind of happy ending that would make Superman very proud.