Silver Chips Online

Drawing the future of education

Teachers turn to graphic novels like "Maus" to teach history

By Bridget Egan, Online Art Editor
March 30, 2006
While most students recall reading classic novels such as "Anne Frank" and "The Secret Garden" while in their 7th grade English class, junior Jessica Weaver remembers reading ... a comic book?

The comic book that Weaver read was Art Spiegelman's classic tale of the horrors of the Holocaust shown through the graphic novel "Maus I: A Survivors Tale." Slightly biographical, based partially on the life of Spiegelman's father, the comic won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992. This graphic novel is commonly used in an educational arena because it is a good teaching aid.

According to Learning Styles Online graphic novels are exceptionally good teachers because they appeal to the visual/spatial learning style, which thrives in the use of visual art, photography, architecture, pictures, films or visual media and can assist in helping the student remember topics and learn about them.

Life is pain, anybody who says otherwise…

Though Spiegelman was not even alive when the Holocaust occurred, it seriously affected his life. In 1968 his mother, a Holocaust survivor, committed suicide, which he used as a concept in his art. Published in 1986, "Maus" vividly retraces his parents' story as they survived the Holocaust and moved on with their lives. This biographical aspect of "Maus" may be one of many reasons why it is incorporated into the curriculum.
The graphic novel "Maus" is often used in the classroom to teach students about the Holocaust. <i>photo courtesy of www3.iath.virginia.edu</i>
The graphic novel "Maus" is often used in the classroom to teach students about the Holocaust. photo courtesy of www3.iath.virginia.edu

Deborah Pleasant, a 7th grade English teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, has never taught the graphic novel to her entire class, though it is one of many book options for the unit on World War II. "Students could read it on their own as part of the choice reading for the unit, as long as they had parental permission," Pleasant explains in an e-mail.

Pleasant finds that students who read "Maus I" and "Maus II" are often not mature enough to comprehend the novel's content. Originally, Pleasant allows only students who read "Maus I" to continue onto "Maus II."

Pleasant believes that the content it often to hard for some students to comprehend. "Other who tried to read it found the dialect too hard to decipher and gave up reading and simply looked at the pictures," she says.

According to Pleasant, teaching "Maus" is a good introduction to the Holocaust and other atrocities. "If I were allowed to teach this book to all my students, I would use it as another literary mode to convey the horrors of war and annihilation," she says. If all of her students were emotionally mature enough, she says that she would use the graphic material to discuss the Holocaust and other current ethical events in which man's inhumanity is evident.

Weaver, who read "Maus" while attending Takoma Park Middle School, recalls that the pictures and visuals made the subject more interesting and helped her better understand the situation. Weaver believes that she learned a lot from the graphic novel because of the art. "It's more stimulating to look at pictures than to looks at words," Weaver says.

Weaver's favorite aspect of the book's seemingly simplistic art is its depiction of the different nationalities as various animal species: Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats and the British as fish.

Because of the sensitive subject matter in the novel, parents had to give permission to allow their child to read the graphic novel.

Education will set you free

In recent years libraries have started carrying more graphic novels and comics, though usually popular titles like "Spiderman" and "Batman" according to media specialist, Lisa Hack. Even the Library of Congress has more than 5,000 titles and 100,000 issues of comics in its collection. The oldest comic that they have is Popular Comic from February 1936, according to Library of Congress. Since comics became popular, there have been many educational graphic novels as well as ones for pleasure reading.

The Blair library has a graphic novel section that is always expanding according to Hack. She feels that "kids should read whatever they want to read, as long as it is appropriate."

According to Hack, the media center staff chose to add to Blair's library graphic novels that students wanted and that public libraries had. While the majority of the collection is for pleasure reading, they do have various educational titles such as "Persepolis," "Age of Bronze, Story of the Trojan War" and many illustrated Shakespeare novels. Though their selection of educational graphic novels is slowly growing, they are not checked out as much. "The educational ones are not as popular," Hack explains. "They do not circulate as much," Hack explains.

While many librarians may not feel that it is necessary for graphic novels to be part of the library collection, Hack feels that it is very important to offer students alternative reading choices. "Whatever sparks a kid to read is a wonderful thing, whether it's in graphic novels or in fiction," Hack states.

Make mine Marvel

Alliance Comics, located in downtown Silver Spring, sells all types of comics, both for educational reading, like "Maus," and pleasure reading, like "Ultimate X-Men." Staff member David Dean, who has frequented Alliance since he was ten, says that there are many comics that end up teaching a lesson. "They are a lot of educational comics out there that aren't meant to be, but are," he says.

Dean believes that teenagers enjoy reading comics because it allows them to escape into a fictional world and relax. "It's a break from reality," Dean states. While the most popular comics sold at Alliance are based entirely on fiction, such as "All-Star Superman" and "Astonishing X-Men," they all teach lessons. For instance, some have compared the discrimination against mutants in "X-Men" to the discrimination blacks faced in the United States.

Marvel may always be more popular than "Maus" and DC comics will always be preferred over "Persepolis," but the stories told in these educational graphic novels will be remembered. They tell the story of real heroes, not immortal ones clad in spandex with super-human strength, but everyday heroes that readers can relate to.

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