Digital Comics and How to Use Them in the Classroom

One of the common questions I receive is, “How do I use Solution Squad in my classroom?”

That’s a fair question to which I have an unfair answer. I generally don’t use the physical book in my classroom. I have copies on hand for kids to read, but the physical book really isn’t meant for classroom instruction. It’s meant to be read and enjoyed by anyone and everyone.

Then what the heck, McClain?

Relax. Here’s how I use Solution Squad in the classroom:

This first story, “Primer”, teaches students how to identify prime and composite numbers, a fourth grade Common Core State Standard, and a seventh grade standard in my home state of Indiana. You can use it at any level from fourth on up, really. I think prime numbers are undervalued as a resource, which I will discuss in a later post.

First, I download this file: Solution Squad Primer Digital Comic with Sieve Activity, which I am offering to you free of charge. Before you run this PDF presentation for your students, I highly suggest you prepare by watching this YouTube video, in which I guide teachers through the most important aspects of the digital comic. It’s also embedded at the top of this post.

When you’re ready for class, open the PDF in whatever application you might choose, Adobe Acrobat or Reader, for example. Hit CTRL + L (CMD + L for the Apple folks) to make the file present itself in full screen, and then project it on your classroom screen for students to read together (if you have that capability). I run them through screens 1-12 to introduce the characters, and then I have the students choose parts to read aloud like a play. This is assuming, of course, that you have already taught them how to read comics. If you haven’t, here is a handy link for a free three-page guide for reading them that you can project ahead of time.

The coolest thing about this format is that you control the pace of the story. I use a computer remote when I’m teaching from it. That way I’m not chained to my computer and can walk the room. Since you will have previewed it, you will know where and when you can pause the story and ask pointed questions. You, of course, can come up with your own. I’m sure you can find some interesting things to ask that I didn’t already think of.

Class lengths vary widely, and I have never completed the story and lesson all in one period. That’s perfectly fine. You should do your best to get to the point where the Squad is trapped in the force field before you quit for the day. If you have time to begin, pass out copies of the activity printed on page 116 of the PDF file. The students will solve the same puzzle that the Squad is solving while La Calculadora is trapped outside the force field, either at screen 69 or screen 71. I typically stop at screen 71 to give the students a little preview of what the characters are going to do to solve the problem.  On the worksheet, Dora even breaks the fourth wall to talk to your kids directly. Why should Deadpool have all the fun?

After the students have solved the puzzle, you jump back into the story and watch how the Squad does it. Then, when La Calculadora writes a message in code on the ground (screen 91), give your kids a chance to solve the new code to reinforce what they just learned and to check understanding.  Then you finish the comic and discuss. There are follow up plans for sale, too, about 20 more pages, for this comic at Teachers Pay Teachers. I can’t give everything away, can I?

All of that said, you can use the book in the classroom. Putting the book under a document camera can accomplish much the same thing as the digital version, but it’s simply not as effective.

Now, for those students who are just not into comics, or worse, reading, let me share this little secret with you:

Young Justice is copyrighted property of Warner Bros. It is used here for educational purposes only. Artwork by Jerome K. Moore

Young Justice is a popular animated television series that was on Cartoon Network from 2010-2013. It was canceled after two seasons not because of poor ratings, but poor toy sales. Recently, it was available on Netflix and there was a campaign to bring the show back by its loyal viewers (of which I am one) by watching the show on the streaming service over and over again. It succeeded. There will be a third season on the upcoming DC Universe streaming service.

The best-kept secret about the show, available for relatively little money here, is that there was a comic book series that ran concurrently with it. It was written by the same team that ran the show. Those comics are available online at ComiXology, and the stories take place between and sometimes during the episodes! So, play a 22-minute episode or two (if you’re allowed to do so), and entice reluctant readers to join in on the fun by taking on a part in the readaloud just like I do with Solution Squad. At the end of season one, episode two, Batman says, “Give me three days.” Issue #0 of the comic book series details what happened in those three days! The entire series works like this, where the stories weave in and out of each other, from comic to episode and back again. It was really well done.

I have yet to see the middle grade student who did not relate to teen characters trying to set out on their own and prove themselves beyond being “sidekicks.” It’s a recurring theme in the show and most likely in your students’ lives as well.

ComiXology even has its own version of the PDF format, called Guided View. While you’re in the digital comic, click on the GV symbol and the individual panels will advance on your command, once again allowing you to control the pace of the story. It’s been my experience that this works better with a club than an actual classroom, but your mileage may vary.

I think you’ll find that digital comics have a life beyond what you can maintain in your classroom library if you use them effectively. I’ll have more digital stories from the Solution Squad book up shortly, and each will have its own set of lesson plans and activities. Be sure to watch this space for them!

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