Graphic Novels 101: A Guide For Implementing Comics In An Elementary Classroom
Jordan Kerkhoff

Even before I started building up my comic book classroom library, I recognized that there would be key difference between having them in my classroom and actually using them.

While researching, I came across numerous examples of implementation at the secondary level. Many of those ideas were beyond my reach at the elementary level, because either the content was too mature or it didn’t align with grade level standards. Initially, this was frustrating, Actually, it still is frustrating, because there are so many great ideas that are being shared. But nurturing an appreciation for reading is an important goal for teachers at the elementary level, and comics will help you achieve that in your classroom.

This “playbook” describes the 4 phases that I moved through to integrate comics into my 5th grade classroom over the course of two years. Now, I would imagine anyone that is coming into this as an active comic book reader would feel more comfortable diving in with both feet. I myself was not a comic book reader prior to starting this in my class, so a “non-true believer” should not feel too intimidated to put this into practice.

Phase 1 – Build Your Super Team

If you are fortunate enough to have a comic book shop in your area, then start a relationship with them. Express your interest in not only having comics in your classroom, but also in having them guide you with book suggestions. Be their project, and they’ll be your ally. The relationship that I established with my local comic shop (AwYeah Comics - Muncie) before that first year began continues to benefit me today.

Within the comic shop, there are options to get a quick start on building your library. Every year, comic book shops participate in a few events, Free Comic Book Day and Halloween Comic Fest, that allows them to make several titles available to their customers for free. If you ask, I’m confident you’ll find that they still carry leftover copies from the event and that they’d be willing to donate them to your cause. Many shops also carry dollar issue books, which would be another inexpensive way for you to gather multiple copies of different books for your class to sample.

So now you find yourself with free engaging classroom materials. Use them and report back to the shop on how it went and ask where they would suggest that you should go next. Show them that you're invested in this and they should invest you, because you are providing them with the new customer base of you and your school.

For those that do not have the luxury of having a comic book shop in their area, take the initiative to strike up a social media relationship with the nearest one you can find. Many comic book shops are willing to send books to their customers, and they’re sure to appreciate a teacher who shares with them how their product is being used in the classroom via social media. It’s important to make sure the shop knows that while they support you with books and advice, you can support them as an advocate. 

Phase 2 – Develop Powers in the Danger Room

With your new books in hand, you might think the next step is to dive right in with your class for a small, or whole, group reading. This is a mistake. Reading comics is not like reading your typical novel, and as eager as your students might be to read it, you need to take the time to model for them how to approach this different type of text with a read aloud.

When it comes to a comic book read aloud, I’m not suggesting that you read a book cover to cover to the students. The images are an integral part of the story, and it’s not going to be an efficient use of your time to read each page and then bring the book in for close-ups for all the students. Instead, select a specific page, or two, that you feel that you can best demonstrate to them how to move through a page interpreting the text, the image, and the implied passing of time between panels. Display the pages on your projector, if you have one, and provide the students copies of the pages to help them follow along. They don’t need the whole story right then there. Each page is filled with enough context that they’ll be able to put together a general idea of what is happening. Model visual literacy, model critical thinking, and model your excitement for how the comic is helping you develop ideas. The idea of reading comics in the classroom should sound engaging to the students, but you still need be able to sell them on how impactful they can be.

Once you’ve given them a tutorial, make the transition into small group reading with the sets of books that you’ve collected from the shop. Again, I’m not suggesting a traditional read aloud or group read through. A comic book reader needs time to digest what is happening on the page, and you don’t want to rush that by having them follow along closely with whoever is reading or while they are reading aloud themselves. I would recommend this same approach for your emergent readers and early fluent readers. Allow them to establish some context from the page first before you guide them through the text. This should lend itself to a greater level of comprehension.

The industry standard for a single issue of a comic book is about 22 pages of actual content. So, it’s reasonable to assume that you could finish the text in one sitting with your small group. Depending on how your language arts time is blocked, you may be able to move through it with multiple groups. The pace that you can move through comics is great when you think about the volume of material that your students can be exposed to. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stop to smell the roses.

The first book that I tried this with was Ms. Marvel #1 (978-0785190219, $15.99) by G. Willow Wilson, which is a story about a Muslim-American teenage girl who becomes a superhero. The plan was to get through the book with 2 groups that first day. That first group didn’t even get past the first couple pages. Not because we were struggling, but because we couldn’t stop talking about what we were seeing. So much conflict of identity right out of the gate for this character, and the students were finding the ways it related to them and the ways that it didn’t.

All of that happened organically, which is really just a trendy way for me to say that I was not as well planned as I should have been. With that being said, I’d never seen my students so engaged with a text. I knew then that this was a direction that I needed to take.

Phase 3 – Load Up the Utility Belt

Once you’ve established a role for comics in your classroom, it’s time to build up your library. Funding anything in the classroom can always be a challenge, but perhaps you work at a school that is interested in assisting you in financing this project. If not, or even if so, there are plenty of “fund me” websites. The site that I used, and it’s one that I’ve seen several teachers use, is www.DonorsChoose.org. Whichever “fund me” site that you use, the key is to lean on social media to spread the word about your project. Your school district may not be able to support you financially, but they can also use their social media presence to spread their word as well.

The Tea Dragon Society
9781620104415, $17.99

I’d rather focus this phase on the type of books that you could put in your classroom. Comics are so much more than the generalizations and stigmas that the naysayers place on them. The comics medium now houses all genres, giving you plenty of options for your classroom. Use illustrated classics to introduce challenging stories to a younger audience. Lean on historical fiction comics to supplement your Social Studies instruction. Find relatable characters for your students through young adult fiction. Superheroes no longer rule the medium. They share it.

I don’t want that to sound disparaging towards superheroes, because if I were to have you walk away from this with just one tip, it would be to not be afraid of superheroes. Their comic book stories should have as much of a place in your library as any other piece of fiction. Whether its single issues or trades, these stories will lead to what I like to call “binge reading”. Just like the Netflix series that you keeping hitting the next button for, these are serial stories that the students will want to continue reading. When building the superhero portion of your library, it is important to have continuity with books. It can be frustrating to the reader to be missing key parts of the storyline, just as it would be frustrating to missing episodes 5, 6, and 7 of your favorite TV series. Trade books can help with that, because they package consecutive issues together. You can maintain continuity with single issues as well. They can also be great for creating a library of diverse characters for the students to sample.

With the elementary classroom in mind, you’ll have to be careful with the content in your books. I’ve found that most books with a Teen rating are perfectly safe for an elementary classroom, and I’ve found some Teen + books that were also appropriate. I read through everything that I put in my classroom to make sure it is safe. This is where having a solid relationship with the comic shop can come in handy, because you can coach them up to know what is suitable for your students. These books will engage both your high readers and your reluctant readers, so don’t let a few explicit words get in the way of that. That’s what Sharpies are for.

Phase 4 – Become One with the Force

Don’t become a bystander and watch this powerful culture of literacy that you’ve established. Join in! Read what they’re reading, so that you can conference with them about it. I think that you’ll find your students will be more than willing to share their insights. It will also lighten the work load for you. If you have bunch students reading different novels, there is probably a good chance that you have not read some of the books. Comics do not take that long to read, so you can be up to speed and ready to discuss with them whatever they’re enjoying. And let them know what you’re reading. We model reading skills all the time, but it’s also important to model our passion for reading.  

Having comics in your classroom is an excellent idea. Just like how establishing a blended learning environment, personalizing education, encouraging critical thinking with literacy, providing collaborative opportunities, making use of data, and STEM are also excellent ideas for education. The ideas for improving classrooms are out there, and they’re not hard to find. The hard part is figuring out how it works in our classroom, or even more so, having the courage to try something new.

My playbook is here for you to use, but I’m not going to pretend my way is the only way. It may not even be exactly the right way for your classroom. However, I do believe that comics in the classroom is a “way” that is meant for education. 

About Jordan Kerkhoff 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.