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First Second

American Born Chinese Lesson Plan

Teaching History with American Born Chinese

Grade Level: 9 — 12


American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang
First Second Books
ISBN-10: 1-59643-152-2

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.


A number of the early comic book action heroes and superheroes (action heroes with unearthly powers) are still going strong. Superman (1938), Batman (1939), The Flash (1940) and Wonder Woman (1941), for example, continue their fight against the forces of evil and injustice everywhere. And unlike the rest of us mere mortals whose middles expand and tops thin with time, these guys (and gal) are looking good. In fact, most look better than they did over a half century ago. Many of the villains and super-villains, the characters comics fans love to hate, have also been around for years: The Joker and Catwoman (in Batman, 1940), Lex Luthor (in Superman, 1941), Two-Face (in Detective Comics, 1942) and Cheetah (in Wonder Woman, 1943), are still bad to the bone, as irrepressibly and deliciously wicked as ever. And thank heavens, since without them, our heroes and superheroes wouldn’t need to be nearly as heroic.

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.

Students research social issues using comic books from various eras.

Topics & Strategies:

comics as research materials
social issue change across time
lively talk for language development
vintage comics reprints


In Time Traveler, students work in small groups with two sets of comic books. Set one contains recently published titles, set two has comics anywhere from two to six decades older. Students read comics from one era, then “time travel” to another via the second set. As they move back and forth between eras, students compare and contrast the comics in terms of one or more key elements, including:

the big ideas (themes/issues), featured and ignored
gender roles and relationships
representation and treatment of minorities
stereotyping and scapegoating
type and amount of violence
type of justice (vigilante versus court)
hero’s personality traits
hero’s physical characteristics
type and use of technology
background (clothing, hair styles, furnishing, vehicles)
use of idioms, slang, colloquialisms, collocations
artistic style and storytelling craft

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.”

I recently recommended Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese to a group of middle schoolers investigating racial stereotypes. The group used Yang’s comic, which deals with a variety of Chinese American issues including stereotyping and racism, as a starting point, then looked at portrayals of Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans (when portrayed at all!) in several genres of comics back through the 1950s. A second group investigated gender roles and mother-daughter relationships using Robbins’ and Timmons’ GoGirl! comics and several romance comics of the 1940s and 50s.

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.