Comics belong in the classroom | Gene Luen Yang
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Comics belong in the classroom | Gene Luen Yang

When I was in the fifth grade, I bought an issue
of “DC Comics Presents #57” off of a spinner rack
at my local bookstore, and that comic book changed my life. The combination of words and pictures
did something inside my head that had never been done before, and I immediately fell in love
with the medium of comics. I became a voracious comic book reader, but I never brought them to school. Instinctively, I knew that comic books
didn’t belong in the classroom. My parents definitely were not fans, and I was certain that my teachers
wouldn’t be either. After all, they never used them to teach, comic books and graphic novels were never
allowed during silent sustained reading, and they were never sold
at our annual book fair. Even so, I kept reading comics, and I even started making them. Eventually I became
a published cartoonist, writing and drawing
comic books for a living. I also became a high school teacher. This is where I taught: Bishop O’Dowd High School
in Oakland, California. I taught a little bit of math
and a little bit of art, but mostly computer science, and I was there for 17 years. When I was a brand new teacher, I tried bringing comic books
into my classroom. I remember telling my students
on the first day of every class that I was also a cartoonist. It wasn’t so much that I was planning
to teach them with comics, it was more that I was hoping comics
would make them think that I was cool. (Laughter) I was wrong. This was the ’90s, so comic books didn’t have
the cultural cachet that they do today. My students didn’t think I was cool.
They thought I was kind of a dork. And even worse,
when stuff got hard in my class, they would use comic books
as a way of distracting me. They would raise their hands
and ask me questions like, “Mr. Yang, who do you think
would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk?” (Laughter) I very quickly realized I had to keep
my teaching and my cartooning separate. It seemed like my instincts
in fifth grade were correct. Comic books didn’t belong
in the classroom. But again, I was wrong. A few years into my teaching career, I learned firsthand
the educational potential of comics. One semester, I was asked to sub
for this Algebra 2 class. I was asked to long-term sub it,
and I said yes, but there was a problem. At the time, I was also
the school’s educational technologist, which meant every couple of weeks I had to miss one or two periods
of this Algebra 2 class because I was in another classroom
helping another teacher with a computer-related activity. For these Algebra 2 students,
that was terrible. I mean, having a long-term
sub is bad enough, but having a sub for your sub?
That’s the worst. In an effort to provide some sort
of consistency for my students, I began videotaping
myself giving lectures. I’d then give these videos to my sub
to play for my students. I tried to make these videos
as engaging as possible. I even included
these little special effects. For instance, after I finished
a problem on the board, I’d clap my hands, and the board would magically erase. (Laughter) I thought it was pretty awesome. I was pretty certain
that my students would love it, but I was wrong. (Laughter) These video lectures were a disaster. I had students coming up to me
and saying things like, “Mr. Yang, we thought
you were boring in person, but on video, you are just unbearable.” (Laughter) So as a desperate second attempt,
I began drawing these lectures as comics. I’d do these very quickly
with very little planning. I’d just take a sharpie,
draw one panel after the other, figuring out what I wanted
to say as I went. These comics lectures would come out to anywhere between
four and six pages long, I’d xerox these, give them to my sub
to hand to my students. And much to my surprise, these comics lectures were a hit. My students would ask me
to make these for them even when I could be there in person. It was like they liked cartoon me
more than actual me. (Laughter) This surprised me, because my students
are part of a generation that was raised on screens, so I thought for sure they would like
learning from a screen better than learning from a page. But when I talked to my students about why they liked
these comics lectures so much, I began to understand
the educational potential of comics. First, unlike their math textbooks, these comics lectures taught visually. Our students grow up in a visual culture, so they’re used to taking in
information that way. But unlike other visual narratives, like film or television
or animation or video, comics are what I call permanent. In a comic, past, present and future
all sit side by side on the same page. This means that the rate
of information flow is firmly in the hands of the reader. When my students didn’t understand
something in my comics lecture, they could just reread that passage
as quickly or as slowly as they needed. It was like I was giving them
a remote control over the information. The same was not true
of my video lectures, and it wasn’t even true
of my in-person lectures. When I speak, I deliver the information
as quickly or slowly as I want. So for certain students
and certain kinds of information, these two aspects of the comics medium,
its visual nature and its permanence, make it an incredibly powerful
educational tool. When I was teaching this Algebra 2 class, I was also working on my master’s
in education at Cal State East Bay. And I was so intrigued by this experience
that I had with these comics lectures that I decided to focus
my final master’s project on comics. I wanted to figure out
why American educators have historically been so reluctant
to use comic books in their classrooms. Here’s what I discovered. Comic books first became
a mass medium in the 1940s, with millions of copies
selling every month, and educators back then took notice. A lot of innovative teachers began
bringing comics into their classrooms to experiment. In 1944, the “Journal
of Educational Sociology” even devoted an entire issue
to this topic. Things seemed to be progressing. Teachers were starting
to figure things out. But then along comes this guy. This is child psychologist
Dr. Fredric Wertham, and in 1954, he wrote a book
called “Seduction of the Innocent,” where he argues that comic books
cause juvenile delinquency. (Laughter) He was wrong. Now, Dr. Wertham was actually
a pretty decent guy. He spent most of his career
working with juvenile delinquents, and in his work he noticed
that most of his clients read comic books. What Dr. Wertham failed to realize
was in the 1940s and ’50s, almost every kid in America
read comic books. Dr. Wertham does a pretty
dubious job of proving his case, but his book does inspire
the Senate of the United States to hold a series of hearings to see if in fact comic books
caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted
for almost two months. They ended inconclusively,
but not before doing tremendous damage to the reputation of comic books
in the eyes of the American public. After this, respectable American
educators all backed away, and they stayed away for decades. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a few brave souls
started making their way back in. And it really wasn’t
until pretty recently, maybe the last decade or so, that comics have seen
more widespread acceptance among American educators. Comic books and graphic novels
are now finally making their way back into American classrooms and this is even happening
at Bishop O’Dowd, where I used to teach. Mr. Smith, one of my former colleagues, uses Scott McCloud’s
“Understanding Comics” in his literature and film class,
because that book gives his students the language with which to discuss
the relationship between words and images. Mr. Burns assigns a comics essay
to his students every year. By asking his students
to process a prose novel using images, Mr. Burns asks them to think deeply not just about the story but also about how that story is told. And Ms. Murrock uses
my own “American Born Chinese” with her English 1 students. For her, graphic novels are a great way of fulfilling
a Common Core Standard. The Standard states that students
ought to be able to analyze how visual elements contribute
to the meaning, tone and beauty of a text. Over in the library, Ms. Counts
has built a pretty impressive graphic novel collection
for Bishop O’Dowd. Now, Ms. Counts and all
of her librarian colleagues have really been at the forefront
of comics advocacy, really since the early ’80s,
when a school library journal article stated that the mere presence
of graphic novels in the library increased usage by about 80 percent and increased the circulation
of noncomics material by about 30 percent. Inspired by this renewed interest
from American educators, American cartoonists are now producing
more explicitly educational content for the K-12 market than ever before. A lot of this is directed
at language arts, but more and more comics
and graphic novels are starting to tackle
math and science topics. STEM comics graphics novels
really are like this uncharted territory, ready to be explored. America is finally waking up to the fact that comic books
do not cause juvenile delinquency. (Laughter) That they really do belong
in every educator’s toolkit. There’s no good reason
to keep comic books and graphic novels out of K-12 education. They teach visually, they give our students
that remote control. The educational potential is there just waiting to be tapped by creative people like you. Thank you. (Applause)

About James Carlton

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64 thoughts on “Comics belong in the classroom | Gene Luen Yang

  1. Oh boy he thought comics would make him look cool. Yeah I made the same mistake with my velcro shoes in 5th grade. Good thing the what are those meme wasn’t a thing.

  2. Too much social justice warrior theme in Marvel comic books is hurting its sales. A little bit of SJW is fine. But too much forced down on us and taking over original characters seems a bit much.

  3. Real history stories belong in the classroom, but they still not there, and talking about comics… Hope is lost…

  4. I am so excited to see a fellow comic lover who can explain what I believe is where the world of comics are going and can benefit our young generation to express themselves in a creative and innovative way. I myself am looking to be an advocate for change in this area. Keep up the amazing work. Great TedTalk!

  5. They do, as soon as this sjw fad has passed. Kids don't need ridiculous agendas forced down their throats.

  6. I collect comics Seduction Of The Innocent 1st printing can bring 1000$ USD. Almost bought a copy a few weeks back 6:56 and the whole book is technobabble.

  7. Hey, with my last girlfriend. She had a hard time reading but when I showed her comic books, she found out that she loved reading and started to read more traditional books after that.

  8. No Starch Press has a whole series of Science Manga I own The Manga guide to Molecular Biology and The Manga guide to Electricity. I would have love to have learned through this medium.

  9. School doesn't work, it's a fact. So teachers need to be more innovative and this one guy is doing a pretty fine job. My respects, sir!

  10. As an adolescent, interested in learning, I love educational graphic novels, and I would really love more of them! This is a great idea, and making learning fun with graphic novels can make great strides in reaching unengaged kids. GREAT TED talk!

  11. V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Boxers and saints (which gene lien yang wrote) and Maus belong. But like, Infinity War and Dc Rebirth dont.

  12. Ted talks are so valuable. I’ve been able to find value in everything even if it’s not directly related to my business or channel 🙌🏼 …. big marvel fan here Btw 😁

  13. It really is a shame that comics aren’t in k-12 cause my college art teacher actually taught his class with comics as a perfect example (granted it was art and story telling but it’s still a good example)

  14. i disagree. i think this guy is biased because he's been a cartoonist for so long. "if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail" comes to mind. this should be something that a few slides with good diagrams and text can fix. slides can even be printed out with a similar format. the problem with comics is that it has to be a story. which takes away from the clarity of purely the information. it's hard to use a story as a reference afterwards. from adding spatial effects to his video lectures (distractions) and bored students, i get the feeling he needs to focus on the clarity of his lectures and that their too long. let students be blown away bow short a simple they are

  15. Not sure I agree with taking down the Elizabeth Holmes talk. Sure you guys are embarrassed you didn't do your homework on her, but now you can turn that into a lesson about doing your homework before holding someone up as a positive example.

  16. I've been obsessed with comics lately, so this is great! Personally, I like the indie publishers and particularly the horror and sci-fi stuff better than Marvel or DC though.

  17. excellent points, and overall I'd agree with most everything — except the over-reach and exaggeration on what is otherwise true to some degree about the differences between lecture and video and comics — the actual reality (especially in a day of varying media and modes of live presentation where all 3 can begin to blur and merge into one another) is that it's about doing whichever one, or all three, well — he's obviously good at comics craft, can do it quickly even and still do it well — that's why he did that mode best — he obviously can do presentations well and not boringly (as this video shows) but not quickly because that's not his craft — some teachers can, and maybe if he focused on that another 3 years as a sideline (for 20 years total), or for 5-10 years as a main thing, he could become one of those — and lastly, he's not a video maker, so doing those well and quickly are above his paygrade — that's the conclusions I'd draw from his otherwise clear and accurate anecdotal evidence — and also, aren't em-dashes the greatest punctuation ever invented?

  18. Hey i read your comic books! I actually recognized your faces then check the title to make sure it was you. ^_^

  19. There's a set of computer science textbooks called Head First that agrees with this idea, combining visual and textual elements to get the idea of the lesson across.

  20. It would be special to have a teacher make me a comic and a great visual way to be able to re trace an equation or train of thought should I get lost . You never know what will click for a student so it's important for teachers to tap into their many talents that may be outside of the curriculum and think outside of the box !

  21. Gene Luen Yang is an excellent graphic novelist. I love how, when he talks about things like race and religion, he's very nuanced. Personally, I recommend Boxers & Saints, The Shadow Hero, and, of course, American Born Chinese.

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