My first teaching position was as a mid-year replacement for a literature teacher who left to lead an ESL / ELL program in another school district. This teacher left a stack of comic book versions of Romeo and Juliet along with a note like “these might help your reluctant readers.” She was right!
What I learned from using these comic book versions of Romeo and Juliet was that comics can help new readers understand the key points of fiction and non-fiction stories. Of equal importance, these comics helped me make children happy to learn more about the story and ask questions about the details of the story. Eventually, I went from having students read comics to getting students to make comics about fictional and real-life events.
Just as reading comics can get a reluctant reader interested in a story, creating comics can be a great way to get reluctant writers to put pencil on paper (or digital ink for digital paper). Over the years, I have had history students make comics to tell stories from the Lewis & Clark expedition, to illustrate letters written by American Civil War soldiers, to create modernized dialogues between historical people, and to try their hands at making political cartoons.
Let’s take a look at some ideas and tools for making comics in history classrooms.
Biographies and dialogues
Make short biographies of historical figures. Have students choose a key moment from a person’s life. Then ask your students to illustrate that moment. For example, students studying John F. Kennedy could make comics to illustrate a conversation between JFK and Bobby Kennedy during the Cuba crisis.
If you want students to make comics to illustrate conversations in languages other than English, Make Beliefs Comix is a good choice because it supports six languages in addition to English.
Modern communication between historical characters
How could history have been different if the communication technology we have today was available 200, 300 or 500 years ago? Ask your students to think about this question and then illustrate the result. Students can use SMS Generator from ClassTools.net or wireframes in StoryboardThat.com to simulate text messages and / or email exchanges between historical characters such as George Washington and Ben Franklin.
Make political cartoons
Make political comics. This is the obvious need for cartoons in social studies classes. Cartoons for the classroom offer excellent, free lesson plans for using political cartoons. Tools for creating single-image comics like ToonyTool are great for making political cartoons.
Illustrate a sequence of events
Illustrate a timeline for an event or series of events. Instead of simply writing summaries of important events, students make illustrations of the events. Canva is a great tool for making comics to illustrate a variety of events. Canva not only provides cartoon templates, it also provides timeline templates. And you can mix elements from both templates. A demonstration of how to make a cartoon with Canva is available here.
Comics in the courtroom
Whether it’s a modern case where cameras were not allowed, or a historical case, making comics is a great way for students to summarize the key arguments in a case. StoryboardThat.com offers ready-made works of art to create scenes in the courtroom. Canva also has lots of ready-made works of art that can be used to create scenes in the courtroom. Students can use Google Scholar to find state and federal lawsuits and rulings that they can use as references when creating their summative comics. Here’s an overview of how to use Google Scholar to find state and federal lawsuits.
A comic chart
Have students make a cartoon diagram to explain how a bill turns into a law. Creating a cartoon chart is a great way for students to show what they know about all the powers and responsibilities of each branch of government. Within each branch of the chart, students can include comics to illustrate the types of conversations and debates that politicians have with each other and lobby groups as a bill continues through the process of becoming a law. You can get students to do this in Google Slides or PowerPoint by following the model in this video.
As I mentioned in the introductory section, years ago I got some of my students to illustrate letters written by Civil War veterans. As I did so, I got my students to choose from a selection of materials that I found through the Maine Memory Network. Students then used StoryboardThat.com to illustrate parts of the letters they chose.
Many state and local historic communities have collections of letters that you can access online and share with your students. The Library of Congress has a program called By The People that offers thousands of primary source documents that students can access.