Following is the full transcript of cartoonist Gene Luen Yang’s TED Talk: Comics Belong in the Classroom. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
When I was in the fifth grade, I bought an issue of “DC Comics Presents #57” off of a spinner rack at my local bookstore, and that comic book changed my life. The combination of words and pictures did something inside my head that had never been done before, and I immediately fell in love with the medium of comics.
I became a voracious comic book reader, but I never brought them to school. Instinctively, I knew that comic books didn’t belong in the classroom. My parents definitely were not fans, and I was certain that my teachers wouldn’t be either. After all, they never used them to teach, comic books and graphic novels were never allowed during silent sustained reading, and they were never sold at our annual book fair. Even so, I kept reading comics, and I even started making them.
Eventually I became a published cartoonist, writing and drawing comic books for a living. I also became a high school teacher. This is where I taught: Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California. I taught a little bit of math and a little bit of art, but mostly computer science, and I was there for 17 years.
When I was a brand new teacher, I tried bringing comic books into my classroom. I remember telling my students on the first day of every class that I was also a cartoonist. It wasn’t so much that I was planning to teach them with comics, it was more that I was hoping comics would make them think that I was cool. I was wrong. This was the ’90s, so comic books didn’t have the cultural cachet that they do today. My students didn’t think I was cool. They thought I was kind of a dork.
And even worse, when stuff got hard in my class, they would use comic books as a way of distracting me. They would raise their hands and ask me questions like, “Mr Yang, who do you think would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk?” I very quickly realized I had to keep my teaching and my cartooning separate. It seemed like my instincts in fifth grade were correct. Comic books didn’t belong in the classroom.
But again, I was wrong. A few years into my teaching career, I learned firsthand the educational potential of comics. One semester, I was asked to sub for this Algebra 2 class. I was asked to long-term sub it, and I said yes, but there was a problem. At the time, I was also the school’s educational technologist, which meant every couple of weeks I had to miss one or two periods of this Algebra 2 class because I was in another classroom helping another teacher with a computer-related activity.
For these Algebra 2 students, that was terrible. I mean, having a long-term sub is bad enough, but having a sub for your sub? That’s the worst. In an effort to provide some sort of consistency for my students, I began videotaping myself giving lectures. I’d then give these videos to my sub to play for my students. I tried to make these videos as engaging as possible. I even included these little special effects. For instance, after I finished a problem on the board, I’d clap my hands, and the board would magically erase. I thought it was pretty awesome. I was pretty certain that my students would love it, but I was wrong. These video lectures were a disaster.
I had students coming up to me and saying things like, “Mr Yang, we thought you were boring in person, but on video, you are just unbearable.”
So as a desperate second attempt, I began drawing these lectures as comics. I’d do these very quickly with very little planning. I’d just take a sharpie, draw one panel after the other, figuring out what I wanted to say as I went. These comics lectures would come out to anywhere between four and six pages long, I’d xerox these, give them to my sub to hand to my students.
And much to my surprise, these comics lectures were a hit. My students would ask me to make these for them even when I could be there in person. It was like they liked cartoon me more than actual me.
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 comics lectures so much, I began to understand the educational potential of comics.
First, unlike their math textbooks, these comics lectures taught visually. Our students grow up in a visual culture, so they’re used to taking in information that way. But unlike other visual narratives, like film or television or animation or video, comics are what I call permanent.