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When my Ahma came over she couldn’t read English. To manage, she devised a system for identifying objects by shape, size, color, and label art. This system was not foolproof like when our local supermarket started selling liquid soap (she thought it was lotion). But it served her needs 90% of the time. Family and friends filled the remaining 10%.

I was reminded of this at the Asian American Comic Con when a panelist at The New Villains session commented on the universality of comic books and their appeal to immigrants without an English language background.

Despite growing mainstream acceptance, comic books remain in an area of education I like to call “outsider” or “outlaw instruction,”  a controversial teaching vehicle frowned upon by educational power brokers and their social elite who believe that Shakespeare is the only way to learn English and rote memorization the only way to learn math. I include the use of texting and social media as other forms of outsider instruction.

While I do believe students of English should read Shakespeare and that rote memorization is a necessary part of math learning, they are not the whole of learning. They should not be the foundation of English or math teaching.  I maintain my belief that students (young and old alike) learn more deeply and effectively when they see meaning and value in what they are learning.

As a language arts tool, comic books not only teach emergent readers sequence and prediction skills, they provide more experienced readers with opportunities to practice interpretive and visual decoding skills. As a writing tool, they teach composition and organizational skills (especially to visual learners).

James Bucky Carter, in his “Going Graphic” article in the March 2009 issue of the ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, notes the use of graphic novels and comic books as authentic composing activities; exercises that have the student “build crafting, composing, viewing and visualizing skills.”

As a social studies tool, I agree with The New Villains panel that heroes are a reaction to a society’s fears. Heroes and villains have also evolved to address deep social questions. The panel mentioned, Light, the questionable main character in the manga and anime, Death Note. He has the power to eradicate “evil” as he sees it. The dilemma is: What is the criteria for evil? And does the punishment suit the crime?

The idea of the “registration” of a particular peoples deemed risks to national security is one is portrayed often in comic books. In the early pages of the Uncanny X-men and recently in Civil War, a “registration act” (an act of law that required members of a single group to give up their Constitutional rights) was the catalyst to conflict.

The social studies connection is the Internment camps and the Nazi Death Camps of World War II.  Our history of slave ownership and women’s suffrage can also be taught through the comic book story convention of a registration act. In current events, this could be applied to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (some of who have spent upwards of five years incarcerated on the suspicion of terrorism).

Secret Identities, the anthology of Asian American “superhero stories” that inspired the Asian American Comic Con, is a unique language arts and social studies teaching opportunity. In addition to its potential immediate appeal among Asian ESL and Asian mainstream students, the themes of betrayal, estrangement, and identity are universal especially among young middle school readers who begin feeling the pressures and responsibilities of peer groups and broader social expectations.

It is important for Secret Identities to be used as a tool in the core language arts and social studies curriculum. It’s potency is that it is more than just a collection of stories only bonded by race to be referenced in the weeks prior to Asian American Heritage Month. While it does feature all Asian writers and artists, race does not tether the broad emotional reach or imagination of the stories.

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