Teaching History with American Born Chinese
The following lesson plan by second language learner specialist Dr. Stephen Cary can be found in the Heinemann-published Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom.
Yet despite the consistency of some characters and core elements — the superhuman powers, the skintight costumes, the dual identities, the mix of science fact and fiction and our hero's one fatal flaw, green kryptonite for Superman and the bracelets of submission for Wonder Woman — superhero comics have changed on numerous fronts over the decades. So have other genres of comics. Both the similarities and differences across eras provide students with a mountain of interesting material for small-group research and discussion.
Topics & Strategies:
Depending on the type of discussion you're after — wide-ranging or narrowly focused — each group can tackle a different element, or all groups can investigate the same element, say hero/heroine body shape or the depiction of scientists, teachers or business owners.
How far back in time students travel and how many stops they make along the way also varies. One group may want to tally and compare the amount of violence used by the Dark Knight (Batman) in only two time zones, now and in the stories from the 1950s. Another group may want to race alongside the Scarlet Speedster (The Flash) through each decade beginning in the 1940s, contrasting the ethnicity of "bad guys" and "good guys."
Groups present their Time Traveler investigations orally or in writing. Oral reports generate lots of cross-talk — and vigorous debate. Be prepared to mediate, moderate and just plain "keep a lid on" as students share findings and feelings related to sexism, racial discrimination, class warfare, crime and punishment, acculturation versus assimilation and a host of superhero-moral relationship issues. This is not a quiet activity; students talk up a storm, which is exactly what we want for language development. With little to no teacher encouragement, students typically broaden their investigations and discussions to included other non-comic material they're reading at school and at home.
Finally, a note on materials. Without a good selection of comics going back at least two decades (at a minimum), your time traveling students may return to the present without the data they need to create strong, meaty reports. Two sets of Spider-Man comics a few years apart will differ only slightly on hero traits, language, themes and social issues. Increasing the time range between sets increases differences and gives students more material for comparing and contrasting key elements.
Fortunately, you can still buy lots of twenty- to thirty-year-old (non-collectible) comics for a song, usually twenty-five cents to a couple dollars a piece at your local comics shop. Older and collectible comics, though perfect for the Time Traveler activity, cost more. A lot more. Stick with the non-collectibles, or better yet, use reprints of the collectibles. Your local comic shop will have several volumes of reasonably priced vintage reprints. Also check your public library.
For a change of pace from the SLAM-BAM! of the action heroes, students can research five decades of teenage life in one of comics' favorite cities, Riverdale. The seven-volume Archie Americana Series (Archie Comic Publications, Inc.) offers reprints from the 1940s through the 1980s. Archie, Veronica and Betty go from the jitterbug and sock hops to beatniks, surfing, miniskirts, sit-ins and roller disco.
Expect some heated discussion and lots of passionate writing as students move beyond the Archie comics and compare and contrast the simple and generally danger-free life in Riverdale with the far more complicated and hazardous life of students living in Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Munich, Addis Ababa, Tehran, San Francisco, Atlanta or Joplin, Missouri.