by Paolo Martin
For some reason, this past holiday season was filled with more dinner parties and holiday activities than I can remember. It was great. A casino-style party which benefited a local homeless charity; an ice-skating event supporting the George Mark House, a home for children with terminal illnesses; and traditional neighborhood parties with way too many mini-quiches, spanakopitas, sugar cookies, and egg nog (not that it really matters, since I am told that everything is zero points, zero calories over the holidays). My friends, the Fisher-Paulsons, throw a "Misfit Ornament" party every year, too. At this party they have a tree set out on their front porch where guests deposit the ugliest ornament they have and in exchange take another ornament they might find attractive. You give your bad ornament; you take another's trashy one. That's how it goes. However, every year a few guests misread the invitation, or sample a little too much of the mulled wine, and find themselves leaving their misfit ornaments on one of the two showcase Christmas trees inside the house as they walk off with a glamorous Waterford crystal snowflake or a collectible limited-edition, Marvel Comic Christmas gem. That's right: my friends have one lacey Christmas tree covered with snowflakes and unicorns and another tree with blue lights and superheroes.
I'm not too sure about the origins of Brian's unicorn tree, but Kevin Fisher-Paulson has been reading comic books all his life and has amassed thousands of comic books over the years in addition to hundreds of collectible comic book art objects, figurines, ornaments, and outfits for himself, his partner, and their two boys. Kevin not only reads comic books and collects comic book items; he's also a lieutenant at a local maximum security facility, holds an M.B.A., is a published author, and has appeared in PBS documentaries and produced radio commentaries for National Public Radio (NPR). Why are his credentials significant? Well, because as educators we often brush off children's interests in non-traditional texts like rap songs, magazines, and comic books as "non-educational" or in some cases even "detrimental" to their personal and academic success. So, we judge others' intellectual worth by the books they read and expect that only children who read "enriching" novels and other forms of literature on personally approved lists will be whole and experience successful lives. NCLB only exacerbates this way of thinking - in which children's individual differences and ways of learning are overshadowed by a strong drive to create citizens who look and sound the same way and value the same things.
Granted, most kinds of text genres contain a handful of pieces that are over-saturated with gratuitous violence or have thin story lines. But there are also some that are generally of worth. My friend Kevin acknowledges that some comic books sell gratuitous violence but claims that other comic books have real-life themes worth exploring in a safe, accessible, and digestible format. Batman's human fight against evil, he argues, is not unlike what he himself does for a living as a lieutenant in the sheriff's department. He says that he even learned to read with comic books. According to a New York Times article, "Superman Finds New Fans Among Reading Instructors," the Maryland State Department of Education is planning on expanding a literacy program which employs comic books as part of its curriculum after seeing positive results in a pilot program. Also, educators from Columbia University plan on opening a high school with comic books at the heart of its curriculum and even naming the school after the creators of Superman. Some skeptics are worried that a curriculum centered around comic books would water down already over-simplified lessons. However, some proponents argue that the Comic Book Project could really engage students in learning important concepts, especially reading and writing. I don't know how I feel about a school centered around comic books and named after the creators of Superman, but I can appreciate a curriculum that honors the things that really engage children in authentic learning, be it Shakespeare or Marvel Comics. And if comic books can teach kids reading, writing, science, math, and history and help produce successful, thoughtful individuals like my friend Lt. Fisher-Paulson, then more power to them!
Tags: reading instruction, comic books, super heroes, reading curriculum