Comics in Education: Tim Smyth
Ashley Kronsberg

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 edition, we speak with Tim Smyth, a high school social studies teacher and former Social Studies Department Chair.

Ashley Kronsberg (AK): First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching high school, what do you teach, etc.?

Tim Smyth (TS): I have been a high school social studies teacher since 2002 – my second day as a student teacher was on 9/11. The courses I have taught include: Modern American, Modern World, European, AP European, and AP Economics. I also have a MS degree as a Reading Specialist – I firmly believe that all educators need to be teachers of reading. I was also a social studies department chair for eight years.

AK: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum? What prompted you to make this addition?

TS: I began sprinkling in comic books about three years ago and began to see a high level of student interest – including hard to reach students. As interest increased, I began to bring in more and more of my collection and encouraged students to borrow my graphic novels to read and review for extra credit. These novels often sparked students to write research papers based on the topics presented in these books. I then shared Kyle Baker’s phenomenal Nat Turner as an actual lesson for all students to read. It was amazing how many skills can be taught through this mostly wordless novel – history, close reading, textual evidence, etc.

AK: You recently decided to take your teaching strategy on the road. What led you to make this decision? How has presenting across the nation impacted you and your relationship with comics in education?

TS: I was encouraged to share my experiences on Twitter and blogging by a staff developer. I had found myself on an island teaching with these resources, but I was able to find similar minded people around the country (and world!) and received a lot of positive feedback. As a result, I submitted to present a panel at WizardWorld in Philadelphia and was accepted. I was completely nervous for the hour – but the panel was well attended and so many stayed after to chat with me and to pick my brain. Here were people giving time out of their day to find out how to use comics in the classroom. I was thrilled – especially when education majors and new teachers expressed relief in being able to share their own passions.  After that presentation, through like-minded educators, I then began to present at other conventions – San Diego and NY Comic Cons were amazing experiences. I am now focusing on presenting at educational conferences as well – state social studies conventions, district in services, etc.

AK: You follow the mantra of Art Spiegelman: “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.” How would you say this sentiment has proven true through your teachings and travels?

TS: This mantra is personal for me as it involves my now eight-year-old son and his love of reading. Early on, my son was termed a “reluctant reader” by his teacher as she related his unwillingness to read in the classroom. His mother and I struggled with him in so many ways to build up his confidence and to instill our shared love of reading. A few years earlier, I had written my graduate thesis on using comics in the classroom to engage reluctant readers – but on a high school level. However – I knew this would also work on my son. I firmly believe that reading begets reading and that it is often just about finding a proper hook. Comics proved to be the gateway drug for my son – he is now an avid reader and is excited to have moved on to graphic novels and we often read together. His teacher simply did not find any reading value in comic books and superheroes – so we worked with him at home. I am encouraged to have seen this scorn of comics as literature to be changing – and it is why I am so devoted to spreading the word myself.

AK: Is there a specific lesson plan that has become your “go-to” when teaching graphic novels?

TS: I don’t have a generic lesson plan that fits all graphic novels – each is unique and I use them for different skill sets and content. However, I would say that one thing in common is to teach the use of images as textual evidence. This often forces students to look at the content on a much deeper level than text alone. The conversations in class are fascinating as the students discuss their own opinions of the meaning of these images and their relation to the text. These types of lessons teach the students to rely on themselves and to trust their opinions – as long as they can back it up with evidence. This translates to all subject areas.

What are the major differences you’ve experienced with teaching a graphic novel as opposed to other formats?

TS: There are so many differences – the most obvious being student interest. Many students have never read a comic or graphic novel and are excited to do so for the first time. It is also relatively easier to adapt lessons for multiple levels of students using a graphic novel – from those who need the most help reading, such as ELL, to gifted readers. Additionally, these resources often spark student interest in reading other traditional texts. My 10 year-old daughter loves reading Manga Classics and now wants to read the “real” books like Les Mis, Jane Eyre, etc. Graphic novels are NEVER to be used a replacement to traditional texts, but as another resource in our teaching toolboxes to create engaged and analytical readers.

Have there been any big challenges with using graphic novels? What have been the major rewards of teaching them?

TS:  The most frustrating challenge, and an ongoing one, is that of adults not seeing comics and graphic novels as literature. The biggest problem is that many have not read a comic since they were a child and have no idea how much they have changed. My greatest thrill is seeing the lightbulbs go off in the minds of educators who attend my presentations – especially when I start to tie everything into common core standards!

Major rewards – on a selfish level, I love them! This is not to be overlooked – students know when a teacher is excited about a topic or resource and it becomes contagious. The other major reward is being able to reach students who often feel disconnected or as a social outsider. 

AK: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?

TS: Up to this point, it has been Nat Turner by Kyle Baker. The students love the book and our discussions as well – especially when we tie it into current civil rights issues and hip hop. 

AK: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built in to your curriculum for the upcoming semesters?

TS: In a few weeks, we begin teaching the March trilogy based on John Lewis’ life. I have never been more excited to teach something before as John Lewis is a personal superhero of mine. I have seen him speak and have been moved to tears – my own children were able to shake his hand at San Diego Comic Con. To have literally met history, just wow! I can’t wait to share this wonderful book with my students.

AK: For high school teachers looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?

TS: This is the question I am most often asked (other than what is my favorite superhero) and I never have a good answer. I often suggest beginning with a comic book or a section of a graphic novel. It is important to slow down and make sure that students know how to read these resources – something I learned over the past two years. Often, just using one panel, or one page, can be used to great effect. So much depends on level, interest, course, etc – it can be overwhelming. I have been putting together lists of comics and graphic novels that I own and that would be of use in the classroom, as well as some of my lesson plans. These resources are available on www.historycomics.net

TS: All that being said, I have recently loved titles from Manga Classics (Udon), First Second, and Dark Horse.

AK: And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?

TS: Nat Turner and March are my two favorite for the reasons listed above.  As for others –
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks – an amazing way to learn and teach about an often overlooked part of African-American history. 
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.  The parallels to politics and current events are uncanny and makes me think every time I read it.
Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa.  This book brings tears to my eyes as it makes the tragic bombing of Hiroshima so personal and allows for a first-hand account.  This is also the strength of comics and graphic novels – being able to make events personal and accessible.
I could go on and on…

To join the converstaion, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at kashley@diamondcomics.com.


Tim Smyth

Tim Smyth has been a high school social studies teacher since 2002, and currently teachers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has a BA in History and received his Masters as a Reading Specialist. Smyth is a firm believer in cross-curricular writing and close reading analysis and has used graphic novels and comics to engage students while maintaining those beliefs. 

Smyth takes his knowledge of teaching and the use of graphic novels in the classroom on the road by presenting panels at various conventions such as WizardWorld, San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con. More information about Smyth's beliefs and adventures can be found on his website here.