Interview: Eric Kallenborn on Graphic Novels in the Classroom
I spoke to Eric Kallenborn when I was researching The People’s Comics: Using the Graphic Format to Teach About Current Events, which is the cover story of this month’s School Library Journal. Eric is an English teacher at Alan B. Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Illinois, and he has a lot to say about graphic novels in the classroom, so today I’m running our interview in full.
First of all, which graphic novels do you use, and in what classes? How old are your students?
I teach a senior graphic novel elective that’s completely comics and graphic novels. However, in the past, I’ve used graphic novels and comics at every level in the high school setting. I’ve used a ton of books, but my most commonly used books include the following titles: Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf; Pride of Baghdad; March Book One; Scott Pilgrim; Hawkeye: My life as a Weapon; A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge; I Kill Giants; Harbinger; Superman American Alien.
How do you integrate graphic novels into your instruction?
As any other book. Graphic novels allow for the teaching of all things that regular texts do, but we can now add new vocabulary such as graphic weight, bleed, gutter, frame, etc. It elevates the level of analysis and discussion.
Where do you find them? What resources do you use?
I read a lot of comics and graphic novels. I also have a lot of friends that read a lot of them as well. I’m actually on a group chat with six other people, and we just share great new titles that we read. I read a good number of reviews as well; I’m connected with a lot of comics review organizations on Twitter. If a book I read is good, I’ll add it to my classroom library, and if it’s really good, I’ll consider requesting a class set from my department chair.
Are graphic novels dealing with current events available in your school library?
I do not know the total extent of our library’s catalog, but I’d for sure say yes. I know we carry the March series, A.D., the Miles Morales Spider-Man, just to name a few.
What has your students’ reaction been?
Nothing but positive, especially to the books with a social lean. Kids are hungry and eager to engage in analysis and discussion of topics that they may not get a chance to chat about with family or friends. Sometimes we search for people to have deeper conversations with, and I try to make my classroom a place where those things can happen.
Do you use online comic sites such as The Nib?
I have never been an online comics guy. Not that I’m against the medium, I’m just not well versed in it. I do know a lot of people that are all about The Nib though.
I would say that March is the best example. I taught March in the pre and post election craziness. Many of our kids had a difficult time with the election, and the book allowed me to demonstrate the power of a movement in the face of tumultuous times. I was also lucky to hear Rep. John Lewis speak last August, so I was able to speak to his inspirational nature and his ability to enact change through social action.
Most of the graphic novels that I have been reading have a liberal slant. Has this been your experience, and if so, do you try to balance it with other resources?
Let’s be honest, most artists are liberal, so it’s not that surprising that most socially conscious graphic novels lean in that direction; however, with a book like March, do we need to balance that topic to show the other side? I don’t think so. The Civil Rights Movement as well as most “liberal” topics covered in the graphic novel/comics medium are not portrayed in a way that would anger most non-liberals. It’s hard to argue against fair and unbiased treatment of people, and I would say that’s where most of these books land. Most of the time, they tell a story of a person or a time that was going through an injustice. When push comes to shove, I hope people can put away their differences and care for people. With that being said, if there is a controversial image, scene, topic, or statement made in a book that may cause distress, we discuss it. I’ve discussed rhetorical flaws in liberal works as well as conservative works. I try to keep my classroom a place of intelligent discussion because I constantly try to see all sides of an argument, when they exist.
Do you have any concerns about the accuracy of the information presented in these graphic novels?
I have found most of the materials that I have read to be fair and accurate. I have not fact-checked every book that I have read, but a discussion of information accuracy has never come up.
What sort of reactions have you gotten from your student’s parents and from your colleagues?
For the most part, it’s been all positive. My kids love the medium; I’ve had parents thank me time and time again for giving their student something that they finally enjoy reading; and my colleagues have been nothing but supportive and inquisitive. I’ve actually helped a number of teachers in my district get started with the medium, and a few of my colleagues and I were even asked to speak at a school board meeting to discuss the success we have found with the medium.
Are there any graphic novels or comic sites you would particularly like to recommend?
Later this week, I’m going to be reviewing 365 graphic novels/comics in 365 days on my blog: theothercomicbookteacher.com so that should be cool and informative…and tiring for me.
Also, I’m now part of a non-profit: Pop Culture Classroom. Our group is called The Comics Education Outreach, a program of PCC. We work to get teachers help with comics and graphic novels. We do this in a number of ways, but the coolest is by far our lending library! As we traveled the country discussing the use of graphic novels in the classroom, we found that a lot of school could not afford class sets of books. That gave us an idea. We founded the CEO to primarily assemble class sets of socially conscious graphic novels and lend them out to schools in need…with lesson planning materials. And with the help and support of Pop Culture Classroom, we are starting with three sets of six books this coming fall. The list and more information on the program can be found at popcultureclassroom.org/ceo, and people can contact me at email@example.com if they would like to help or donate to this awesome program!
About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor, a newspaper reporter, and assistant to the mayor of a small city. In addition to editing GC4K, she is a regular columnist for SLJ, a contributing editor at ICv2, an editor at Smash Pages, and a writer for Publishers Weekly. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
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