Comics in the Classroom

By Adam Umak

Halfway through third period, teacher Mike Pampinella directs his seventh-grade students to get a book for silent sustained reading time. Next to the pencil sharpener, the worn bookcase is smattered with a humbling amount of adolescent literature. The obligatory teenage canon of The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harry Potter books are all represented well in number; multiple copies of each book are strewn along the shelves. Most of the students have read these already or at least heard enough of Pampinella's book talks to know that they are not interested in them at all. A worn copy of The Odyssey stares out at the class, privately daring each one of the students to read such a challenging book. However, Odysseus and his men will not be sailing this day; the students dismiss it quickly and move down the cluttered line. By now, the students are becoming chatty and agitated by indecision. All of a sudden something magical happens: a fight breaks out over a comic book.

Pampinella's students range in age from eleven to fourteen years old. They enjoy skateboarding, they have iPods, and they have MySpace, YouTube, and Flickr accounts. But, gadgets and fads aside, their educational experience has been decidedly different from that of other American teenagers across the nation. They attend West 40 Middle School in Lyons, Illinois, a building that houses an alternative education program for students who have been expelled from middle school. Pampinella's students are considered "at-risk." A loaded term in education, "at-risk" could signify a life involving violence, absolute poverty, or sexual abuse. Statistically, these students run high risks of becoming dependent on drugs or dropping out of secondary school altogether.

"Our kids come to us through a variety of different avenues mostly because of drug use or possession. This year many of our students came to us for bringing weapons to school because they felt their lives were being threatened," said Pampinella. "Their initial schools can refuse to send the students to us, but those schools tend to forget that even good kids can get caught up in bad things. Very few of our students are malicious kids. They just have poor decision-making capabilities."

While his students are arguing over a copy of Marvel Age: Spider-Man, Pampinella cannot help but smile. To increase student achievement and tackle the problem of grade-level literacy, teachers like Pampinella are turning their attention to the inclusion of comics and graphic novels in daily lesson plans and overarching units of study. In a few days, the seventh-grade class at West 40 will take a reading test using Accelerated Reader, a computer program that asks guided questions about Marvel Age: Spider-Man, assessing the students' comprehension of what they have read. Although it is considered easier to read because of the sequential art that accompanies the narrative text, Accelerated Reader allows this and other Marvel digest books to be used for student progress testing.

"Hopefully, the comics act as a gateway so that other types of books can become a reality to students once they've gotten a number of comics under their belts," said Pampinella. "I'd like them to mature as readers and tackle challenging pieces as well as continue to enjoy comics."

Like any school, the population of West 40 is alarmingly diverse in its students' needs. The program receives student referrals from many underdeveloped cities and towns in Illinois. Students who are admitted into the program have missed large amounts of school or simply have not felt any true level of achievement in school. According to Pampinella, due to these experiences and a combination of behavioral, social, or economic factors, many of the students' reading levels are those of an elementary-aged student upon entrance into the program. A classroom of students at West 40 could contain what can only be described as a vast array of learning gaps.

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