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 Jordan Kerkhoff, an elementary teacher at Yorktown Elementary in Yorktown, Indiana.
Ashley Kronsberg: First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching, where do you teach, what subjects, etc.?
Jordan Kerkhoff: I’m in the middle of my 3rd year of teaching at Yorktown Elementary in Yorktown, Indiana. I teach in a 5th grade classroom, covering all of the standards based curriculum (Math, Reading/Language Arts, Science, Social Studies). I also lead an a Comic Club for grades 3-5, which consists of 8 week rotations for each grade level.
Ashley Kronsberg: You are unique in that you teach comics to elementary students. While most first-hand accounts about teaching comics tend to come from educators of middle grade and up, what kind of difficulties or rewards do you experience that differ from other levels of education?
Jordan Kerkhoff: The biggest obstacle so far has been finding books that are both engaging, but also appropriate for my classroom. Obviously, there a number of quality comic/graphic novel options that are perfectly safe, but I’ve found that my greatest level of classroom engagement with comics happens when I use books beyond the kid’s section of my prefered comic shop. I see all these great ideas happening at the secondary level, and I want in on the action. Some of them I’m able to modify, while others I have to stare at from a distance. I’ll toe the line of appropriateness every now and then, and my school has been very supportive and open-minded with this approach because the results are there. I’m consistently rewarded through my use of comics with the “gold medal” that every teacher wants and that is for their students to be engaged. Whether it’s my struggling/reluctant readers finding their voice with a more approachable text or my high ability readers reading critically, comics continually prove to be a great resource.
Ashley Kronsberg: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum? What sparked your interest to begin using them at the elementary level?
Jordan Kerkhoff: Just before my 2nd year of teaching. I was taking a professional development course that summer, and I came across some articles on the subject. I wasn’t an active comic book reader, but I grew up in time when Saturday morning cartoons meant something. So I felt that I would know enough about the material that I could relate to the students that were interested. Based on what I had read, it was clear to me that there was a difference between having them in my classroom and using them. Not knowing where, or how, I should start, I’d decided that I would try to find some allies at one of our local comic book shops. I found even more than I’d hoped for at AwYeah Comics in Muncie, IN. The relationship that I’ve developed with them has been crucial to any success that I’ve had with comics in the classroom.
Ashley Kronsberg: In a previous article you wrote for the Nerdy Book Club, you called yourself a non-reader before comics were introduced to you. Can you expand on how comics revitalized your love for reading, and how that passion has translated into your students?
Jordan Kerkhoff: Teachers need to be able to effectively model concepts, skills, and behaviors to their students. Now just because I wasn’t an avid reader, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be an effective reading teacher for my students. But that’s sort of like a salesperson that doesn’t believe in their product. They’re just going through the motions. True passion is infectious, and that is what would happen, and continues to happen, each time I went into AwYeah. They get me excited about the books, which leads me to model that excitement to my students. This all started with me trying something different to engage my students, but it wasn’t until I started actively reading them myself that I was able to appreciate how well it was working.
Ashley Kronsberg: How do you determine your students’ levels of understanding when using graphic novels at the elementary level?
Jordan Kerkhoff: With comics, I find that the informal discussions that I have in small group or one-on-one conference setting have been very telling. At Yorktown, we’ve adopted a new reading curriculum that encourages students to be constantly writing about what they are reading. Whether it’s in their writer’s notebook or on sticky notes they’ve placed on specific pages, they are providing me with several examples for how they are interpreting the text.
Ashley Kronsberg: Can you give us an example of a lesson or activity you would give your students using comics?
Jordan Kerkhoff: I like to pull specific panels from books that my students haven’t read, and have them try to tell me what is going on in the story based on the text and image evidence. I’ve used panels from books such as Magneto Testament and All Star Superman. Sometimes I take the text away and have them fill in what they believe would be said. The process of making comics has also been an effective method for having the students respond to what they are reading.
Ashley Kronsberg: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?
Jordan Kerkhoff: My favorite this year has been Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up. I think many of my students found it to be relatable, and even though we covered it at the beginning of the year we still find ourselves referring back to it. The current run of Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson is very popular with my students, and it led us to having some terrific discussions with diversity and gender.
Ashley Kronsberg: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built into your curriculum for the rest of the year or next year?
Jordan Kerkhoff: At this time, I cannot honestly say that I have playbook for what books will be used and when. I’m still working towards building a library of group/classroom sets. I try to maintain a diverse library that engages different student interests. This can lead to valuable discussions and mini lessons that can take place during individual or small group reading conferences.
Ashley Kronsberg: For elementary teachers looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?
Jordan Kerkhoff: So many different directions to go and that is a good thing. I’d recommend developing a diverse library that focuses on a variety subjects and feature different types of characters. Don’t get too hung up on what the level of the text is, because when it comes to comics, students will often stretch their reading levels. To be more specific, I really like a lot Gene Luen Yang’s books such as Level Up and Secret Coders. Anything from the Star Wars Universe is usually safe content wise, and it would certainly build on the excitement from the recent films. Honestly, the best advice I could give is to develop a relationship with your local comic book shop. You have lesson ideas and they have reading recommendations.
Ashley Kronsberg: And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?
Jordan Kerkhoff: I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly is a personal favorite just because it was the first book that AwYeah recommended to me for classroom use. It also was the book that made me say, “These aren’t just for my students.” Unfortunately, the content is just a little too mature for my age group, which was disappointing because it is a beautiful story that would relate to a number of students. My other favorite is Superman Birthright by Mark Waid. This is a book that I had very little interest in reading when it was given to me, because I was never impressed with Superman. It’s a terrific origin story.
To join the converstaion, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE TEACHER
This former jock turned comic book nerd is a 5th grade teacher in Yorktown, IN. Jordan first received a BA in Telecommunications Sales/Marketing from Ball Sate University and later returned to acquire his teaching license. Jordan began exploring and implementing comics in his classroom last year to engage each level of reader that he encountered. He also has started an after school Comic Book Club that meets with grades 3-5.
Jordan has had a few opportunities to present his ideas at conferences such as NerdCamp MI and a few of the ideas have been published on the Nerdy Book Club Blog.
Jordan continues to find new opportunities to use comics in his classroom each week and you can follow him on Twitter @JKerk_14 to see some of them in action.