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High School Teachers Use Comics to Teach Classic Texts

While preparing his lesson plans for his 2011 Advanced Placement English students unit on analyzing classic texts, Chicago-based high school teacher, Eric Kallenborn, pondered the idea of giving his students a choice between reading the classic text or a graphic novel adaptation of the same story. While fleshing out this idea, Kallenborn came across Gareth Hinds' 2007 graphic novel adaptation of the classic epic poem Beowulf. Already planning on teaching the poem that semester, Kallenborn decided to follow through with his plans on incorporating a graphic novel into his curriculum. 

Splitting his AP students evenly between the full text poem and the graphic novel, Kallenborn made several interesting discoveries. First, students reading the full text spent twice as long reading than those who chose to read the graphic novel. Second, graphic novel readers only scored three points lower on tests than students reading the full text, proving his students could write about the epic poem in a poignant and in-depth way despite not having read the full text.

Fueled by these results, Kallenborn continued incorporating graphic novels by introducing his sophomore Honors English class to William Shakespeare's Hamlet and a graphic novel adaptation. Using the same methodology, Kallenborn was surprised to see that students reading the graphic novel version of Hamlet ended up scoring higher on assessments than those who read the original play. In a statement from In Depth, Kallenborn says the results of the sophomore class "make sense" because the play was meant to be analyzed visually, emphasizing that "Shakespeare didn’t write his plays for us to read in high school classrooms."

Along with Kallenborn, a fellow English teacher, Ronell Whitaker, decided to introduce graphic novels to his class of at-risk high school students to see if he would have similar success. Incorporating 35 issues of "The Amazing Spider-man," Whitaker immediately noticed a shift in his students' desire to read and soon had them engaging in classic texts by the end of the year. 

“I took those groups of kids from Spider-Man to (August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play) ‘Fences’ to Shakespeare within months because, once the kids had gotten into books they loved, they trusted I’d put something good in front of them,” Whitaker said.

Together, the two took their successes and launched a Comics Education Outreach, a program that gives teachers a starting point to use comics and graphic novels in the classroom. The program is set to launch sometime in the next year and will be offering a classroom lending library of eight titles, reviews, lesson plans, and professional development resources from Kallenborn and Whitaker in order to help teachers make the most of class time and better engage students in the classroom.