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July 12, 2011

Feature Story: Voices from the Classroom: Chris Wilson


One of my favorite resources about teaching graphic novels is Chris Wilson’s The Graphic Classroom, so I was thrilled when Chris agreed to talk with me about comics and education for this month’s VFTC feature.

Chris came late to the teaching profession and his interest in comics in education began long before he considered teaching as a career. He worked as a newspaper editor for a few years then as the executive director of a nonprofit agency for persons with disabilities for nearly a decade before going back to college to become a teacher. Chris has studied comic literature in the classroom since 2006, when he began working on his graduate degree. He knew immediately that he wanted to write his graduate thesis on the effect of comics on reading motivation. In order to organize his research and share his comic literature experiences with other educators, administrators and families, he started his absolutely awesome blog The Graphic Classroom. Chris's master’s seminar paper was a causal-comparative study on comic literature in the elementary classroom, which is available for download from his blog.

Chris just finished his second year as a K-4 Technology Instructor at Helen Mathews Elementary school in Nixa, Missouri, the largest elementary school in his district, where he teaches a whopping 500 students every week. So how does a technology teacher foster a love of reading, teach science and math, and meet the ISTE standards? With comics, of course!
Although an avid fan now, Chris did not read comics as kid. As a matter of fact, he says, "I did not read for recreation at all which made my original choice of a college degree in English a strange choice." Despite being a reluctant reader himself, he says he always had a strong interest in story. Because reading was difficult for Chris, he says, "story came through as intense pretend-play as a child, TV and movies as a kid and teen, and writing fiction and poetry as a college student." Chris was uninterested in reading, with the exception of a few books he was exposed to in high school and college, namely Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. "Short stories and poetry were much more interesting," he says, because of his self-proclaimed inability to sustain long periods of concentration. When he reads, he says, "I tend to make up my own stories and forget about the book I’m reading."
Chris admits he bought into many of the stereotypes plaguing comics. His biggest problem with comics as a kid was the art, which he found simplistic and boring, and the coloring turned him off. But, he says, he's grown since then. The idea of the superhero—the monomyth, really—was very powerful for him, as he has always loved the heroic journey story and is a fantasy and science fiction lover.
In an effort to develop a strong relationship with his daughter, Chris asked a dedicated comic book reading friend to find him a fantasy or science fiction comic with realistic, detailed artwork that featured at least one non-sexualized, intelligent female character in the story. He found Sojourn by CrossGen comics, a now defunct comic publisher. (Incidentally, two of their titles, Ruse and Mystic, are now being published by Marvel.) Chris knew by the cover that this was the comic for him. Though not really intended for children, Chris found in this comic the bridge he needed to bring himself closer to his daughter.
Reading this comic changed Chris more than he ever thought it would. What he didn’t anticipate was the great reading awakening that happened deep inside of him. He finished that comic and wanted more. He "wanted to read more...wanted to know more...wanted to read every single word about this character and her world," and he could not stand to wait another month. He was hooked on reading! He soon found himself subscribing to more and more monthly comics as the summer went on, moving into superheroes, manga, horror, and nonfiction. For the first time in his life, he was choosing to read rather than watch television or movies. Comics changed his reading habits for the rest of his adult life. Chris notes that his love of reading did not stop at comics. He continues to read traditional texts for recreation. He says, "I now consider reading a novel an enjoyable and entertaining exercise, something I just didn’t do before comics came into my life."
Knowing how comics profoundly affected him, when Chris decided to become a teacher, he knew in his soul that he had discovered a way to help reluctant and struggling readers become lovers of reading—comics. He knows from personal experience that developing individual relationships with each of his students is the most important element in helping them become readers. Students trust his recommendations because Chris respects each child and therefore allows them to choose their own reading from a variety of titles and genres. And as many teachers are discovering, the reading choices within the comics medium are no longer limited to superhero comic books.

According to Chris, teaching with comics isn't much different than teaching traditional, print-only texts. Because of the visual aspects of comics, he teaches students to “read the pictures” and helps them learn to interpret images.  "Beyond that," he says, "all the elements of fiction are present." Graphic organizers might look different, but the approach is not strange or different than what he already does because it is a text. Rather than see education as “comics versus traditional novels” or “technology class versus science class," Chris uses an integrated, cross-curricular approach through projects because he believes it gives students a reason to learn and helps them connect their knowledge with real life. Chris won't call himself an either-or teacher. Though he focuses on comics because it is his niche area of expertise, he certainly believes in teaching all forms of reading: novels, short stories, poetry, news articles, academic reading, magazines, blogs, wikis, and comics.
Chris'sScience and Technology eFair, available from his classroom website Mr. Wilson’s Technology Lab, contains a sample lesson that educators might find useful. Chris also taught a lesson on sequence for first grade students where he used a two-page comic from Tiny Titans. Students read the comic, used a graphic organizer to put the main story elements in sequence, then wrote their own ending to the story. Chris recommends using the free comics at Toon Book Reader at, which he has used with his first and second grade students. Sometimes his students write about the stories or they make up their own. He also uses comics to teach inference to elementary students. Chris explains, “Inferencing skills are a mind-visual skill. That is to say, in order for students to get inference, they have to see the story in their mind in order to infer something from the story. If they can’t create those images by themselves, then they can’t infer very well. Comics are a great way to teach inference and visualization.” In addition to these lessons, the links on The Graphic Classroom to the textbooks on comics have a ton of lesson plan ideas. For more examples of student work using comics, Chris invites you to look at his Science and Technology eFair final projects on
When I asked Chris why teachers should teach comics, graphic novels, or promote visual literacy in school, he replied, "There simply are so many academic reasons to choose comics, that is really is not a question of 'why' but a question of 'when or how.' " He also provided the following reasons comics might be used in education:
•      We should teach a variety of literary forms.
•      The research demonstrating why we should use comics is overwhelming.
•      A teacher could choose comics because of choice.
•      Research suggests comics consistently rate in the top three choices of students.
•      Teachers could choose comics because of the high level of interest and engagement among students.
•      Once someone becomes a lover of reading, studies consistently suggest that they move on to other forms (novels).
•      Teachers could choose comics because of a need to differentiate instruction for a wider demographic.
•      Teachers could choose comics as a way to reach struggling or reluctant readers.
•      Teachers could choose comics as a way to re-engage gifted students and challenge them with text and art interpretation.
•      Teachers could choose comics as a way to re-energize themselves and stretch their own comfort level and bring new challenges to their own experience.
I am so glad I got the opportunity to talk to Chris Wilson and meet the man behind The Graphic Classroom. I admire his respect for his young students and his approach to meeting their individual needs. Chris's story about how he fell in love with reading and teaching with comics is unique, and he will surely guide future students to discover great stories as they learn to love reading just like he did. Lucky them!