Comic Differentiation

NPR reported today on something that’s been on my mind for a few days, an often overlooked tool for teaching and encouraging literacy.

One of the challenges in special education is this ubiquitous, vague term we call “differentiation.” (It’s funny think back to myself in Peace Corps teaching two whole Saturday seminars for the Jerash Directorate of Education on the term, and today feeling like I haven’t a clue what it means.) Essentially this means varying your instruction to play to the strengths to as many students in the classroom as possible. This could be playing to the strengths of visual, aural, kinesthetic and interpersonal learners. It could mean providing support to weak readers, children who struggle to concentrate and self-regulate, students with processing disorders, as well as high-achieving students.

In our public schools, especially in high need schools like the ones where we as Teaching Fellows will be teaching, one of the biggest problems is with reading. Students in NYC schools tend to be at least 3 grade levels behind in reading. A surprisingly high number of high school students are still reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level. Add to that the significant population of English Language Learners, and you have a serious problem across the curriculum.

But more daunting than students’ inability to read is their disinterest and resentment of reading. This is where I think the graphic novel could be a high quality tool, and I know that my friend Nicole Bailey and other researchers are really pushing the literary and literacy value of the graphic novel. They’re not just superhero stories.

There’s Maus by Art Spiegelman about his father’s journey to and survival of Auschwitz, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. There’s Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Iran during and after the Iranian Revolution. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by legendary comic book artist R. Crumb generated lots of headlines in the past year for its absolutely faithful but surprisingly unique adaptation of the first book of the Bible. In short, comic books aren’t just for kids and nerds anymore, and I’d like to incorporate them into my classroom in the fall as part of that all-powerful, pervasive imperative to differentiate instruction.

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