Graphic Novels have had a historical year in literary acclaim with John Lewis' graphic novel memoir, March, winning the prestigious National Book Award. But even before this celebrated win, professors have been including graphic novels in their curriculum even in higher education courses. BookShelf Editor, Ashley Kronsberg, talks with educators about their use of graphic novels in their classrooms and the benefits they have in their curriculum. In this addition we speak with Rich McNeil, high school social studies teacher in the Special Education department at Massapequa High School.
Ashley Kronsberg (AK): First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching, what do you teach, etc.?
My name is Rich McNeil, I teach social studies in the Special Education department at Massapequa High School on Long Island. I also teach in an alternative program called the Wing Program that is designed to help students who are at-risk for dropping out. I have been a high school teacher for 10 years, and I have been presenting at social studies conferences on the use of graphic novels in the classroom since 2013. I teach U.S. History, Global History, Government/Economics, and a class called Navigating NYC (a history of New York).
AK: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum?
In 2009, I discovered the comic book X-Men: Magneto Testament, a book about the life of Magneto as a child during the rise of Hitler. This book is historically accurate, well written and beautifully illustrated. The quality of the book gave me the confidence to ask my supervisor to order copies for my classroom, which gratefully she did.
AK: Were you an avid graphic novel reader prior to teaching them in your classroom? And now that you have taught them, do you find yourself reading them more outside of the classroom?
I was 9 years old, but I still remember the day my Uncles would bring me their old copies of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man comic books. I was hooked from that moment. To this day, I still look forward to new comic book day every Wednesday. Since I began supplementing my lessons with graphic novels I have been reading more historically accurate graphic novels such as the March Trilogy, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., Economix (How our economy works…), and many other books that connect to themes in the social studies.
AK: How has working with graphic novels evolved or changed your way of teaching?
Graphic novels have led me to be a more open and honest educator. The ability to bring a true joy and passion of mine into the classroom is a gift. A gift that I share with my own children at story time. When students realize that comic books are a part of my life, they are more inclined to give it a chance. Teaching with graphic novels has also given me the confidence to bring various other interests into the classroom including, music, movies, spoken word, and art.
AK: Do you notice any differences among students’ interest or responsiveness to a topic working with a graphic novel as opposed to another literary format?
As a social studies educator, it is very important to bring in a variety of literary formats including poetry, chapter books, novels, and picture books in conjunction with primary and secondary resources. I will pair Magneto Testament with Elie Wiesel’s Night or V for Vendetta with Mussolini’s definition of Fascism. The graphic novel must be balanced with context. Prior knowledge of the historical content is important to build interest in the book. The use of the graphic novel and single-issue comic books in the classrooms is met with skepticism at first but eventually they begin to see the value of the format.
AK: Is there a specific lesson plan that has become your “go-to” when teaching graphic novels?
My “go-to” lesson has to be X-Men: Magneto Testament, the first book that I used in the classroom. It is a great introductory graphic novel written at a lower level than Maus but is historically accurate and beautifully illustrated. This is a great fit in the self-contained class, a support class, resource room, or middle school social studies class.
AK: What are the major differences you’ve experienced with teaching a graphic novel as opposed to other formats?
The major difference between the graphic novel and other formats is that my introduction to comics in the classroom is usually a first for my students. One other difference, a positive one, is the beautiful combination of text and images is unique to the graphic novel. Greg Ruck and J.H. Williams writer and artist respectively on Batwoman utilize the format of the panels and frames to move the story forward as much as the text.
AK: Have there been any big challenges with using graphic novels? What have been the major rewards of teaching them?
The challenges I have faced have been lack of interest, a belief that comics are for kids, and student adjustment to the format of the books. Lack of interest is dealt with quickly; students have a more positive outlook to the use of graphic novels after the first few pages. The artwork catches their eye and the text is delivered in a more interesting way than just simple text on the page. A belief that comics are for kids is a hurdle that most educators have to overcome. I have been lucky; my administrators have been supportive of my use of comic books in the classroom. Educators who have to fight for the use of graphic novels must be diligent and continue to push and educate their district on the positive use of comic books and graphic novels. The unique format of the panels, the frames, and text can be confusing to some students. I believe that most students benefit from an initial lesson on the format of graphic novels prior to initial reading. If difficulties still arise, simply reinforce initial lesson before each reading.
My 9-year old self would be amazed. The realization that I can utilize graphic novels as well as single-issue comic books in my classroom was a revelation. I have always wanted to be a teacher and have loved comic books since I was a child. The ability to combine and share my passions for history and comic books with my students is the reward.
AK: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?
I love them all but my favorite graphic novel to teach has been Economix (How our economy works… and doesn’t) because of its versatility and its lighthearted take on an otherwise dry subject of economics. This graphic novel can be utilized in United States History, Global History, Government, and Economics classes. My students have really enjoyed reading Dark Horse Comics Rebels: A Well-Regulated Militia by Brian Wood. The artwork, the ease of the reading as well as the various points of view of colonial life has enhanced my lessons and their interest-level on the birth of our nation.
AK: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built in to your curriculum for the upcoming semesters?
The most recent additions to my curriculum have been Rebels: A Well-Regulated Militia (American Revolution), Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (Iranian Revolution), as well as single issue comic books highlighting the struggle and celebrations of the LGBTQ community. Those books include issues of Batgirl # 45, Astonishing X-Men #51, Green Lantern #154-155, and The Stonewall Riots. Staples of my curriculum include V for Vendetta in Government 12, Gettysburg the Graphic Novel in U.S. History 11, and various others that are relevant to the curriculum.
AK: For teachers looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?
Start with what you know. It is important not to shoehorn a graphic novel into the curriculum just because you want to give it a shot. The most important aspect of choosing how to start with Graphic Novels or single-issue comic books in the classroom is that you are comfortable with the material. Once you have found books that you understand and of course enjoy then you must ensure that the book fits the standards of the class and the abilities of the student. The comic book movie has garnered so much attention in the mainstream that most current publishers produce books that are of use in the English, Social Studies, and even the Science classroom. If the topic of a book is not straight up historical, it at least has themes that line up with many concepts in history such as Nationalism, Immigration, freedom of speech and religion, conflict and many more.
AK: And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?
That is a tough one. Final Crisis by Grant Morrison is a gorgeous book and a quality read that deals with the conflict of good and evil as well as what it means to be a hero. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore is a book with heavy social studies themes that I have been using in my government class for years. It covers different types of government, authoritarian rule, anarchy, censorship, propaganda, and the impact that one citizen can have on government. Based on pure nostalgia, my first ever-graphic novel was The Greatest Flash Stories Ever Told covering Golden Age, Silver Age and the Modern Age Flash.
To join the converstaion, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich McNeil is a special educator, history teacher, comic book enthusiast, and has presented at local, state, and national social studies conferences. Rich earned his Bachelor's in History from Stony Brook University, and a Master’s in Education from Molloy College. He is a “true believer” in the use of comic books, poetry, music, movies, art in the social studies classroom.
A special educator is a child advocate, which is an outlook I take with all of my students. As an advocate, it is important that I create lessons and activities that will ignite in students a desire to learn, a respect for history, and the acceptance of their responsibility as informed and active citizens of the United States. My job is to lead students on a path of discovery that will not only show them the value of education but also the value of participation in a civic-minded life.
“I know that I do not know” A quote attributed to Socrates by his student Plato. This quote exemplifies how I approach my role as father, husband, student, and educator. An approach that acknowledges there is much to learn, that is open to new ideas, constructive criticism, and self-reflection. The teachers, professors, administrators, and students that I have been in contact with throughout my academic and professional career have influenced my growth as an educator. Presenting at conferences and workshops is my opportunity to share my unique perspective and supply educators with materials that they can use in the classroom from day one.