Vickroy: Classic literature in comic form has broader reach, teachers say
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy June 11, 2014 5:20PM
Eric Kallenborn (left) and Ronell Whitaker will present the merits of using graphic novels in the classroom to teachers attending the Denver Comic Con on Friday. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 13, 2014 4:25PM
A dragon-slaying hero.
A ginormous insect.
A kingdom besieged by betrayal and revenge.
Ah, the stuff that great stories are made of, right? Not if prospective readers are too intimidated to crack their covers.
Sure there always will be high school students who can muddle through “Beowulf,” “The Metamorphosis” and “Hamlet,” but for many more, those classic works of literature will seem too daunting to approach.
For many, the medium will compel them to take a pass on the message.
There is a movement afoot to change that, though, to broaden the accessibility of Shakespeare, Kafka and even earlier English writers.
It’s called the graphic novel in academic circles but you know it as the comic book. Eric Kallenborn and Ronell Whitaker consider it the great equalizer.
Both Kallenborn, who teaches at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, and Whitaker, who teaches at Eisenhower in Blue Island, are at the forefront of incorporating graphic texts – literature presented in comic book form – into their classrooms. They also encourage other teachers, across all disciplines, to do the same.
Kallenborn and Whitaker will present their message to other educators at the Denver Comic Con Friday. With Gareth Hinds, renowned graphic novel illustrator and writer, the two District 218 teachers are presenting a panel called “Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Characterization and Inference.”
“We’re going to teach teachers how to use these books,” Kallenborn said.
“And we’ll do a little proselytizing,” Whitaker said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, comic books aren’t scary. You can use them in the classroom effectively and in the same way you’d use any other work of literature.’”
It is the local teachers’ fourth time presenting on the topic and their third time doing it with Hinds, who has transformed many classic novels and characters into comic form.
They also review comic books on their websites.
Though the popularity of graphic novels has exploded in recent years, thanks in part to comic-driven movies and teachers who are determined to provide multiple access points to their students, there are still misconceptions among the reading public, Kallenborn said. “Some still think this is Sunday funnies-kids-stuff.”
Whitaker said some criticism stems from the “comic book culture.”
“It is married to geek culture and geek culture is often simultaneously intimidating and awkward,” he said.
And then there is the elitist point of view, Kallenborn said.
“There is this thinking that the classics should only be for the top students,” he said. “Why do we have to think that you must read it from the original text or it’s not important?”
Kallenborn recently gave students in one of his English classes a choice to read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in traditional form or as a graphic novel.
“On average the students who read the comic book spent one hour less reading and scored seven points higher on comprehension quizzes,” Kallenborn said.
“People don’t realize how literary these books are. As far as literary elements are concerned — character, tone — they’re just as good as any piece of literature you could give a kid,” he said.
Similarly, this past semester Whitaker taught Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as a graphic novel to lower level sophomores. “When you read Kafka’s prose, there’s a lot of unpacking to do. The graphic novel version keeps his voice but lets kids pick up what’s going with (protagonist) Gregor a lot quicker than if I had them read the normal text.”
Though some longer texts are adapted to fit the graphic form, the language remains the same, Kallenborn said.
“Yeah, a graphic novel kind of tells you what the characters look like whereas with a traditional book you must use your imagination a bit more, but there’s just something about being able to take your time, like you would with a movie, and analyze every single frame,” Kallenborn said.
Not only do graphic novels enable teachers to offer choices, something students tend to appreciate, they provide an entry point into the classics for those kids who might otherwise shy away from them.
In addition, Whitaker said, the medium acknowledges the world in which kids live today.
“Look at the explosion of infographics and the way kids have to be visually literate today,” Whitaker said.
But that literacy shouldn’t come at the expense of classic literary ideas, he said.
And that old argument that comic books are just for boys? Kallenborn points out that author Stephenie Meyer recently worked with a publisher to create a graphic novel of “Twilight,” with a 300,000 copy release.
The medium is also being embraced by other disciplines. Kallenborn said chemistry, history, even genetics texts are being presented in graphic form.
“It’s the same information, only it’s accompanied by images,” he said.
Kallenborn said the texts teach the same, and at times more, skills than a regular novel can, especially to the reluctant reader.
“While I would never suggest a replacement of classic texts, when we incorporate the discussion of visual literacy elements on top of the classic literary discussions, we can see that, especially as supplemental materials, these graphic texts open doors that might have remained closed to some students,” he said.
Still, Whitaker acknowledged, “There’s this elitist feeling that if kids are not doing something the exact same way their parents did that it’s a) not fair and b) not work.”
Once that way of thinking is tackled, he said, the market for graphic texts will explode.
The thing about comics, he said, “Is they give access to everybody, everyone.”
To learn more about their work with graphic novels, visit Ronell Whitaker’s website at www.thecomicbookteacher.com and Eric Kallenborn’s at www.theothercomicbookteacher.com,