Gene Luen Yang: Comics Belong in Classrooms

In a recent TEDx talk, acclaimed comics creator and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang explained why comics belong in the classrooms.

From continual attempts to ban comics and graphic novels from classrooms to contending with decades-old negative stereotypes that comics don’t serve any educational purpose, incorporating comics and graphic novels in school curriculum is a continual battle. As Yang himself recounts, when he was a budding math teacher, what he thought would lead his students to engage better with him—the fact that he was also a cartoonist—instead became a distraction.

But Yang knew the value of comics from first-hand experience. Since picking up his first comic book, DC Comics Presents #57, “the combination of words and pictures inside my head had done something that had never been done before,” he recalls. “I immediately fell in love with the medium of comics.” His new passion would lead him to develop a very successful publishing career, but as a teacher, he would never let go of the belief that comics could serve a larger educational purpose.

That belief was validated when he needed to find a way to teach his students algebra even when he could not attend classes. His solution: it wasn’t to video record his lectures in advance, but to produce short, 4- to 6-page comics that presented the algebra lessons. “Much to my surprise, these comics lectures were a hit,” Yang exclaims, adding:

This surprised me because my students are part of a generation that was raised on screens. So, I thought for sure they would like learning from a screen better than learning from a page. But when I talked to my students about why they liked these comic lectures so much, I began to understand the educational potential of comics.

From tapping into a young generation’s visual culture, to creating a “permanent” form of information exposure that automatically adjusted itself based on individuals’ own reading pace, Yang realized that his comics brought the algebra lessons to students in a wholly unique way—“it was like I was giving them a remote control over my lectures.”

Since that realization, Yang, like many other educators and librarians, has become an outspoken advocate for incorporating comics and graphic novels into classrooms and libraries. Moreover, he has used his appointed position as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature to spread the word that comics are not only fantastic educational tools, but also present the opportunity for young readers to “read without walls,” making them more empathetic human beings in a diverse world.

“America is finally waking up to the fact that comic books do not cause juvenile delinquency,” Yang jokes about the damaging impact that Dr. Fredric Wertham’s research had on the medium, adding:

That they really do belong in every educator’s tool kit. There’s no good reason to keep comic books and graphic novels out of K-12 education. They teach visually. They give our students that remote control. The educational potential is there, just waiting to be tapped by creative people like you.

Watch the full TEDx video below, and check out CBLDF’s Library and Educator’s Tools to learn how you can incorporate comics and graphic novels into your classrooms and libraries.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!