Chalk it up to Spidey-sense, but after the recent box-office success of superhero Spider-Man, Maryland's superintendent of schools has adopted a novel approach to motivate reluctant readers: using comic books and graphic novels to enhance reading lessons.
Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick created the nation's first state-sanctioned template of lesson plans featuring word balloons and bubbles and action-packed animated panels that teachers can use for a variety of optional lessons.
"I just think that it's an opportunity to do something that will supplement our more traditional reading and be highly motivating to students and will engage them in reading in a much more enthusiastic manner," Grasmick said.
She said the template would be consistent with curriculum standards. Individual school districts can use it on a voluntary basis and then can select comics to apply to the lessons for students in third through 12th grades.
Comics are an American invention that in recent years have had a resurgence with such movie money-makers as the Spider-Man and X-Men series. But comics aren't limited to superheroes and villains.
Illustrated adaptations of classical literature such as the Iliad, Beowulf and a collection of Mark Twain's stories sit on shelves next to graphic novels such as the Victorian-era detective stories in Ruse, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus and Dignifying Science, a collection of stories about famous female scientists.
The world's largest distributor of English language comics, Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors, and the Walt Disney Co. are joining with Maryland schools for the project.
Schools in Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties have begun pilot programs that incorporate comics into their reading, art and science curricula.
Teens have created their own comics in art history classes at Carroll's Century High School, while third-graders have pored over Mickey Mouse adventures and learned narrative basics at Summit Park Elementary in Pikesville.
Grasmick said studies that showed a 10 percent gap in reading between girls and boys in third, fifth, seventh and eighth grades prompted this initiative to reel students into reading.
Since the State Department of Education is also responsible for educating adult prison inmates, Grasmick is hoping that the initiative can be applied to prisoners to help them improve their reading.
She organized a group of teachers to formulate lesson plans that will be ready to start regionally next school year. Grasmick expects to package the project for using comics even sooner - in time to present it in June at an international reading conference in Texas.
Though reading was the original focus of Grasmick's plan, other teachers have shown her how useful comics can be as a tool for understanding art.
Jeff Sharp, a teacher at Century High School in Sykesville, uses comics in an art history survey course called Art Through the Ages, as well as in other art classes.
"It appeals to the visual learner so they can express themselves in a different way," Sharp said.
Sharp gave each of his students the assignment of creating a one-page comic from a field trip to Diamond Comic Distributors last year and has used the pages to produce comic booklets.
In a recent class before the holiday break, he had students knock out their weekly homework assignment: sketching an animal based on a photograph.
"This is mad, mad cow disease," said Danny Bose, 15, a Sykesville sophomore who had drawn irate eyebrows on a buffalo that resembled a cow.
Bose and his classmates have learned basic cartooning, which Sharp said improved their observational drawing and gave them another outlet of expression.
They have even started a Comics Club at the high school.
Kevin Kohri, 16, a junior from Sykesville, is a club member who has loved cartoons since he was a child. A fan of action adventure comics such as Batman, Hellboy and Bone, he said Sharp's classes helped him refine his cartooning skills, which he hopes to turn into a career.
Barry Lyga, marketing communications manager for Diamond Comic Distributors, said the familiarity of superpowered characters makes it more plausible that students will take to the medium faster.
"Once you've got him hooked on reading, he keeps reading," Lyga said. "One of the things we talk about a lot are reluctant readers. Reading's not cool to adolescent boys, but comic books are cool. The stigma of reading as not cool starts to go away.
"What a comic book does is it gives them visual cues to help them interpret what they read. It allows their mind to focus on two things at once - meaning and text," he said.
Lyga passed on his love of comics to his wife, Allyson, a media specialist at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster. A member of Grasmick's team, she even wrote a book of sample lesson plans called Graphic Novels In Your Media Center. She uses comics while working with two boys.
"They have trouble writing and expressing themselves, so we're working with a wordless graphic novel called L'il Santa," she said. "They're writing the story. They get to make it up looking at the pictures and interpreting the stories. The sentences they're coming up with are rich and descriptive."
At least one member of Grasmick's team was skeptical. Diane Richmond, principal of Summit Park Elementary School in Pikesville, didn't think that comics would fit at her school since it had higher-level readers, but she worked with a team of three third-grade teachers to create a one-week reading program using Disney comics.
Students learned the basics of how to read comics - bubbles mean thinking not speaking - and focused on how stories move through the different frames. Then they identified the pivotal elements of the story: the problem and the solution.
She's a convert now to using comics in the classroom.
"Once we started with the project it did help our struggling students, but even to our high-level readers, it was a whole different format and structure that was challenging and engaging for them," she said.
Richmond said that in the spring, pupils will get to write and draw their own three-frame comics.