By: Jason Nisavic (@Teaching_Humans)

I was lucky enough to jump a plane over to New York for the 2015 Comic Con and help give a few presentations with friends  about using graphic novels in the classroom!

NYCC1Because of this mid-lecture picture, now everyone will forever remember that I forgot to pack a razor.  Thanks, @comics_teacher!

One of the most interesting statements of the day came from a Boston-area teacher that I was delighted to meet after my first presentation.

One of the things I tell myself is that, as a second-year teacher, all of the cool stuff that I will try to do with my classes will start out bad.  Then, I’ll make it better later.

I’m paraphrasing him here, but I was struck with admiration for his bravery.  I respect and support his willingness to possibly fall flat on his face in the pursuit of more adventurous activities and approaches.  Indeed, that’s why all of us were there that day (Well, I also bought a copy of the Superfight card game.  It WAS a comic con, after all.)  We were looking for ways to take comics and use them for the good of our students.  With a rising tide of authors and illustrators breaking from the Superhero cliché to bring us AMAZING books on educational topics, the time is now to explore the benefits of this new approach to literacy!

My first attempt to use graphic novels to transform my senior-level government classroom came with the arrival of my class set of Jonathon Hennessey‘s The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.



The sobering moment when I realized that I’m not above taking a selfie.  My integrity lasted as long as it could.

At first glance, it may seem that breaking down a heavy primary source like the Constitutution would be less appealing than the adaptations of novels and works of literature available to our friends in the English department. In actuality, Hennessey’s work divides into very intuitive chapters; it progresses just like the document itself with portions devoted to the Preamble, Articles, and Amendments respectfully.  In addition, each section is accompanied by relevant details, illustrations (duh!) and entertaining stories!

Why it’s Awesome:

Call up friend that doesn’t vote.  They shouldn’t be hard to find.  Statistically, 40% of them don’t.  Grrr.

Anyway, ring up that friend and explain the 9th Amendment in detail to them.  I’ll wait.

9th Am

Once you’re done holding them hostage, you might feel the pain that comes along with trying to teach the less “sexy” portions of the constitution to classes that may not care about them as much as you’d hope.

This graphic novel takes that amendment and explains it clearly in 2 1/2 illustrated pages.  Among the relevant details of the Amendment, no less than SIX supreme court cases are referenced with cool nonchalance.  There’s also the clarifying use of a superhero of the author’s design called The Penumbra.  Immediately, The Penumbra provides a concrete retrieval cue in the minds of students that will make this otherwise painful moment of learning into a highlight!

Mr. Hennessey’s novel gives this treatment to every part of the document, with an almost frenetic shift in imagery between each one to help keep students interested.

What it Needs:

This novel, as entertaining as it can be, still covers a document full of high aspirations and complex language.  I’ve found that students at lower reading levels (e.g., younger, special education, or ESL) may have trouble grasping even something as visually helpful as this.  I have allowed these students access to the Ninja Words online dictionary so that they can interpret the trickier ideas more easily.  I’ve also written definitions on the board as we’ve covered sections.

In addition, familiarity with the images is beneficial because some of the metaphors can lead to excellent discussions with the students.  On pages 18-20, the topics of Separation of Powers and Checks & Balances are illustrated by images of a crown being broken.  The pieces eventually become a quill, a hammer, and a scale.  These pages by themselves can be used in a lesson plan interpreting the choices made by the author and what the images are meant to portray.  Framing the inquiry correctly and with the appropriate scaffolding for your grade level will wring the most value out of this book.

How You Might Use It:

Unlike my good friends @comics_teacher and @MisterWhitaker, who take comics and tend to adapt them to the English class almost as units unto themselves, I’ve found that Social Studies comics tend to be most useful when divided into smaller pieces.  I personally would never have students read this dense and intimidating graphic novel from start to finish.  It is NOT a beginner’s book; it’s better suited to being read a few pages at a time followed by an opportunity to digest and discuss.

In one team-taught classroom, we enjoyed success in organizing a jigsaw of the Bill of Rights.  We assigned very small groups of students to analyze the pages of one specific amendment.  This is followed by a creation of their OWN illustration accompanied by a short explanation for their classmates.  I’ve tried this activity using other methods (e.g., guided internet research) and Hennessey’s book has proven to be the fastest, most easily accessible resource for it.

As I experiment further with The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, my goal will be to post up specific lesson plans.  I’ve also used other graphic novels and comics, but I’ll save those for a future post.  I’ll also expand upon my fun time at NYCC as well as ways to help get your hands on educational comic books despite opposition from less, let’s shall we say, “open-minded” educators and administrators.

In the meantime, support Jonathon Hennessey by buying all of his excellent books like I did!