Schools Embrace Graphic Novels as Learning ToolIn honors English class at Alan B. Shepard High School, sophomores are analyzing Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" with the help of another book filled with drawings and dialogue that appears in bubbles above characters' heads.
"Capote in Kansas" is what generations of kids would recognize as a comic book, though it has a fancier name—a graphic novel.
That honors students at the Palos Heights high school are using it illustrates how far the controversial comic-strip novels have come in gaining acceptance in the school curriculum, educators say.
Once aimed at helping struggling readers, English language learners and disabled students, graphic novels are moving into honors and college-level Advanced Placement classrooms and attracting students at all levels.
They're listed as reading material for students in the new "common core" standards being adopted across the country, even though some naysayers still question their value in the classroom.
There's no data on precisely how many schools nationwide use graphic novels. But no one disputes that in other markets the popularity of the comic-style books—adapted to classic literature, biographies, science, math and other subjects—is on the rise.
Karen Gavigan, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina who has focused her research on graphic novels, points out that their sales have increased by nearly 40 percent over the past 10 years. And public libraries have seen significant increases in circulation after adding such material to their collections.
"A whole range of kids just love these," Gavigan said.
Fans abound in English teacher Eric Kallenborn's sophomore honors class at Shepard.
"It perfectly complemented 'In Cold Blood,' " sophomore Kyle Longfield said of "Capote in Kansas." He believes the story helped him better understand Capote's groundbreaking book about two killers and their brutal murders in Kansas.
On a recent day, Kyle, 16, led his fellow honors students through a discussion that compared the depiction of Capote in the comic-book novel to the author's voice and literary style in "In Cold Blood."
That discussion would have been considered unusual in the past.
Just ask Daniel Argentar, a communication arts instructor at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Along with a colleague, he introduced the graphic novel "Maus" to some struggling freshman readers about eight years ago.
"People thought we were crazy," Argentar said.
The Holocaust-related book won a special Pulitzer Prize award in 1992, the first graphic novel to do so.
At the time, many Stevenson students already had read Elie Wiesel's Holocaust book "Night," so Argentar was looking for an alternative that would appeal to students more attuned to the visual. Some colleagues didn't think the comic-book format of "Maus" was rigorous enough, Argentar said, but students liked it.
A website he and his colleague created to help educators teach "Maus" still generates calls and emails from around the country, Argentar said.
"You're always going to have the traditionalists say comic books aren't real literature, and I guess to a certain extent they have a point," he said. "But my point is that it is different literature. It is visual literature, and I'd be failing my kids if I didn't train them for all the visual reading they do today."
Professor Gavigan said graphic novels help students develop language skills, reinforce vocabulary and develop critical thinking skills, among other benefits.
The comic book-style format goes back decades or even centuries, depending on scholars' interpretations. In the 1970s, the term graphic novel emerged when Will Eisner's "A Contract with God" stories were published, Gavigan said.
"Then 'Maus' won the Pulitzer, and I think that changed everything," she said. "I think that gave a lot of credibility to the format."
More recently, graphic novels moved further into the mainstream when most states began adopting the new common core learning standards that guide schools on what students should learn.
Illinois adopted the rigorous standards in 2010, and the state's public school students are scheduled to be tested on them beginning in 2014-15.
"Graphic novels are specifically addressed in the common core standards," said Michelle Ryan, president of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English.
The standards refer to "texts" as the medium through which literature and reading skills are taught, Ryan said, and can include picture books used in kindergarten or the graphic novels available in high school.
"Graphic novels ... are specifically identified in the expected reading materials for students," she said in an email.
That might surprise some parents who may not be familiar with graphic novels in the classroom or who may be wary of this modern twist on literature.
Jennifer Williams' son Larry Lesniak is in Kallenborn's sophomore honors course at Shepard. She admitted to being "a little opposed" when Larry and his younger brother began reading graphic novels.
"This is not a book," Williams recalled saying when the boys picked out graphic novels at the library.
She remembers reading classics by authors Edgar Allan Poe and John Steinbeck when she was a high school honors student. She also recalls not liking some of the material she had to read.
So if a graphic novel can hold her sons' interest, "I'm all for it," Williams said.
Whether districts will increase their use of graphic novels is unclear and likely will depend on a buy-in from teachers and curriculum officials, experts said.
"I don't teach a lot of graphic novels only because there are certain hoops to jump through," said Brian Curtin, an English teacher at Schaumburg High School and the 2013 Illinois Teacher of the Year.
In most districts, an approval process determines which textbooks and other books are used. In his district, very few graphic novels get a green light, he said.
Curtin said he loved the graphic novels he read in his master's classes and believes they can help build comprehension and engage unmotivated readers. But "I think you'd be on a slippery slope to look at graphic novels as a substitute for the real thing," he said.
In Oak Lawn-based Community High School District 218, which includes Shepard High, English department curriculum director Mike Jacobson said he "grew up on comic books."
He has embraced graphic novels as a teaching tool, he said, giving teachers leeway to use them.
English teacher Kallenborn has used graphic novels ranging from a version of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to "Maus" and "Ultimate Spider-Man."
He joined Jacobson and another teacher last month in a presentation at a National Council of Teachers of English conference. Their discussion included Kallenborn's experiment with senior Advanced Placement and honors students who were studying the epic Old English poem "Beowulf."
Half the students spent nearly six hours on average reading the full traditional text. The other half, who read a "Beowulf" graphic novel, spent about two hours.
Both groups took the same 25-question multiple-choice test. Students who read the traditional text scored 81 percent on average compared with 75 percent for those who read the graphic novel.
The teachers' presentation raised the question: Is the score difference worth the additional time spent by kids who read the traditional poem or "would that time be better spent doing other things?"
Though the audience didn't respond, Kallenborn believes the score difference of 6 percentage points isn't worth the extra reading time.
James Bucky Carter, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, wrote a book that guides teachers in pairing graphic novels with traditional texts.
"I think we live in an age where we should not study text in isolation," he said. "Every text should be put in relation to something else," such as graphic novels as supplements to traditional literature.
Carter works to dispel notions that such material is just for kids or struggling readers.
"Comics," he said, "are for everybody."