Monday, July 12, 2010

Author Guest Post: James Rourke on Comics in the Classroom

James Rourke, history teacher and author of The Comic Book Curriculum, shares the importance of using comic books in the classroom and explains his motivation for writing his book.

Welcome readers! I suppose this book is a merger of two enthusiasms; my love for comic books that I developed in my childhood and the love for teaching and learning I developed as an adult. As someone who owes his love for reading to comics it made perfect sense that, in the never-ending quest to motivate my students to become engaged readers, I reached out to comics to enhance my classroom.

Initially, I used the work of Matt Morris (co-editor of Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, Open Court, 2005) – who uses Batman to illustrate Aristotle’s levels of friendship – but I quickly found myself making my own comic references consistently, and effectively, in class. The recent popularity of superhero movies made the references even more effective and powerful. Of course, the problem with such references is that not everyone has watched those movies. It always helps a teacher to create a shared experience in class that everyone can draw from – whether it is through showing a movie or having a shared reading. Comics, therefore, became an unexpected but welcome tool to bring certain curriculum points to life.

A great example of an effective comic book reference occurred just this year. While teaching a unit on Taoism some of my students struggled with the concept of wu-wei. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, emphasized that when someone embraces wu-wei everything gets done. The students struggled with this thought. If you do nothing, how can anything, let alone everything, get done? Thankfully, the superhero Wolverine came to the rescue.

I shared with my students an episode in Wolverine’s career when he was training a younger hero, Kitty Pryde. Kitty was attempting to free herself from the psychic manipulations of a super villain. Wolverine felt a strong body would help strengthen her spirit so the two went on an extended jog. While running through the snow, Kitty twisted her ankle and fell. She asked Wolverine for help and he refused, stating she had the strength to rise on her own. When she claimed she couldn’t, he offered the cold consolation that freezing to death in the wilderness would solve her problem and jogged off. Kitty regained her feet and finished the jog home. By Wolverine taking no action, everything was completed.

The students, thanks to Wolverine, realized that there is a level of discernment in wu-wei. They found meaning in the idea that we often take action for others when they don’t need us to, or we sometimes request others to help us when we can actually do for ourselves. This simple episode only reinforced for me the value comics can bring to classroom discussions. The Comic Book Curriculum is teeming with such practical applications for anyone seeking to find just a little more enthusiasm in any pages that they read.

-- James Rourke, author of  The Comic Book Curriculum: Using Comics to Enhance Learning and Life (Libraries Unlimited, 5/2010) 

JAMES ROURKE teaches history at the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut. He earned his M.A.T. from Sacred Heart University and holds an Ed.D from Johnson and Wales University. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Shannon, and their four children, Juliana, Logan, Alice-Ann, and Ray. Also in the house are two cats, two dogs, two guinea pigs, and a degu. You can learn more about James and his work at

CONTEST! Leave a comment and tell us how you use comics in your classroom. One winner will receive a free copy of The Comic Book Curriculum. Be sure to include an email address so we can contact the winner!

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