3 Ways to Use Comics & Superheroes to Teach Social Studies
All educators need to be teachers of reading, no matter their class level or subject area. As comics, graphic novels, and superhero movies become increasingly more popular, they become an easy way to engage students in the classroom. However, using comics is not just a hook, as these lessons can be directly tied to Common Core standards, to deep and analytical reading and writing, 21st Century learning (such as hypertext reading), breaking from the textbook, and, of course, they are fun and engaging. As a social studies teacher of 17 years, I know that the key skills in my classroom are for students to provide textual evidence and to analyze political cartoons, historical pictures, primary source writing sources, and propaganda pieces. These skills translate into writing essays, research papers, and shorter writing responses. We want our students to look closely at these sources, to form their own opinions, to tie them into the context of the historical time-period. Comics allow us to do all of this in a manner that is powerfully engaging and will have your classroom being the talk of the school!
There are so many ways to integrate comics and graphic novels into our classrooms, but I am going to focus on three easy lessons you can use in your class.
Lesson Idea #1
Materials: You can spend as little as $.50 to $1.00 per student in your class. Go to the bargain bins at the local comic book store, flea market, etc., and look for cheap books from different eras. Try to find titles from varying publishers, decades, and ones that your students will recognize. They don’t need to be in the best condition – just good enough to read.
Plan: I do this on the first day or two of school, to break the usual routine of handing out textbooks, reading rules, and ice breakers. I want my students to know, from day one, that my classroom will be different from anything they have experienced before. I have a worksheet on the desks and several artifacts. I have my students help each other to define the term “artifact” and to explain how historians use them. Next, they analyze the artifacts at their tables and come up with a working idea of what they are, and a list of questions about them. The students then answer a series of questions about the items and evaluate whether each has value as historical artifacts. One of the artifacts is, of course, comic books. I finish by collecting the worksheets and looking over them for the next class. Almost all students will respond that comic books are not historical artifacts.
In the next class, students walk in to see comic books on their tables (my class is set up in small groups of four). I then have them choose a title to read (I don’t like to assign a title – I like to allow as much choice as possible in my classroom) and to analyze it as a historical artifact, using the definition from the previous class. I have them look for clues in the book, to tell us about the time-period in which they were published. After they do this, I then have them share at their tables. Their answers will usually be short, as they are still skeptical that comics have historical importance. To counter their answers, I pick up a random comic and really get into what I can find out about the society while recording a list of discoveries on the smartboard. I then have the students go back to their comics and look at them again, for advertisements, technology, gender roles, representation, what was going on during the time-period, etc.
At the end of the lesson, I have students reflect on what they have learned. I am always so thrilled to read their answers and to engage in their group discussions. In this two-day lesson, students’ eyes really open to the idea that so much goes into history, and that this class will indeed be different.
Lesson Idea #2 – Making a Historical Superhero
Materials: This lesson can be completely free, unless you want to add in additional resources. I like to use http://www.heromachine.com/heromachine-3-lab/ and/or classroom art supplies. What I love most about history is the stories of people, even though we don’t have the time to go in-depth on more than a few individuals. This lesson will allow students to research and create their own biography of a historical character and to have a lot of fun along the way. Before you know it, the students are able to teach each other about 30 fascinating historical characters.
Plan – I allow my students to pick any person from history, including figures in the world today. These people don’t have to be kings or famous inventors – they may choose anyone who has had a significant impact on the world. This can also be modified for a specific topic like Women’s History Month, LGTBQ+ Month, Black History Month, or even limited in scope to the time-period currently being studied in class.
Once I, as the teacher, have approved their selection, students conduct research on their chosen person. I use this as a great time to conduct mini-lessons on finding credible sources and creating a works-cited page. Meanwhile, the student’s job is to research and create a short biography on the person. Once this is complete, the students then make this person into a superhero, by drawing what this hero would look like. The importance of symbolism comes into play here, as students must explain why they chose the costume, colors, superhero name, superhero team, and the accessories this hero has with them.
Students will then have the choice of drawing their superhero or using an online tool, such as http://www.heromachine.com/heromachine-3-lab/, if they do not feel confident in their artistic skills. When complete, the students present the heroes, and vote for a winner in each class. Once this is done, I then have five winners, and I put the contest out to the school to determine an overall winner. As we have a 3-D printer, I am experimenting with having the winners actually print-out their hero as a physical action figure!
I have also brought in toys that students can analyze and create the packaging for their history superhero as well. We discuss packaging, advertisements, and marketing, as part of a short economics lesson. I will often visit the local toy store for “research materials” to be purchased and brought into the classroom for inspiration.
Lesson Idea #3 – Free comics!
Plan – Use these websites to find amazing comics that are available for free online! Students can either read them on the computer, or you can print them out and copy them. There are so many options, including ones from NASA, The Smithsonian, and the Weather Channel. You’ll find free comics on the Civil Rights Movement, court cases, Native Americans, gold miners, and more. You could assign the class to read and discuss one comic, or have each student read a different one, and then come back to discuss what they learned.
Use my website, www.historycomics.net, as I have organized many comics by time-period and subject area. Look for a section that ties into what you are teaching at some point this year. For example, I use the sources on WWI http://www.historycomics.net/wwi-1/ – to have my students get inspiration to create their own WWI comics and poems. The students will read and annotate WWI poems (e.g. Wilfred Owen) and then create their own original poem. Along with this, they will also create a visual and/or comic to go along with their poems. I use the comic books listed on my website to allow the students to get a sense for the many ways to visually represent WWI.
This is my favorite comics-based lesson as the students create amazing poems and works of art!
If you can only afford to buy one comic on WWI this year, you must buy Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. I place this 24-FOOT-long tapestry/comic across the back of my classroom and have the students do a gallery walk and reflect on the images in this unparalleled comic.
These are just three ways you can immediately get comics into your classroom, and you will notice an immediate impact.
Once you try these methods, let us know how it works with your students!
Tim posts other resources and lessons on his website: www.historycomics.net, and he can be reached with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org! And as always, don’t forget to subscribe to our site for more info (in the top right of this window).