Article

February 21st, 2020

Educator Voice: Why “There is no better superhero – fictional or not” than John Lewis

Arts & CultureEducationELAEnglishSocial StudiesU.S. history
Photo courtesy: Top Shelf Productions

 

by Tim Smyth, social studies teacher, Wissahickon High School, Ambler, Pennsylvania

As someone who travels the country giving professional development workshops about how to use comic books, I’m often asked, who is your favorite superhero and what is your favorite comic?

The answer is easy – Congressman John Lewis and the March graphic novel trilogy. March is based on Lewis’ inspiring efforts in the civil rights movement through his work today, and his fight to achieve social justice for all.

There is no better superhero – fictional or not. I am moved to tears each time he speaks about the love and forgiveness in his heart, despite what he suffered through. My own kids were lucky enough to have shaken his hand during a signing at San Diego Comic Con.

Photo courtesy: Top Shelf Productions

I pattern many of my decisions on Lewis’ life and message – that of getting into trouble, good trouble. Necessary trouble. His message for students is, we need to get involved and not idly watch bad things happen. Like the students in SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), young people can be a meaningful force for change in this world.

We have signs in our classroom with the words “What Would John Do” to constantly inspire us to read deeply. To care about our country and fellow humans. To be civically engaged and to hold those in power accountable when we disagree.

I pattern many of my decisions on Lewis’ life and message – that of getting into trouble, good trouble. Necessary trouble.

News broke of the Congressman’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer as we were reading March book 1. We were shaken, and soon former students contacted me to share their concerns – young adults who feel a powerful personal connection to this man and history because they read his story. Mr. Lewis is not “just” a civil rights leader from all those years ago – he continues to fight for all of us today – even leading a recent sit-in in Congress. There can be no more powerful lesson of civic engagement for our students – no matter your personal politics. We are all praying and hoping for yet another successful fight in the Congressman’s life.

This is the power of March, but also of comics in general. They are cool, different and an excellent hook, yes. But this medium has a much deeper reach in our students. Comics force us to become emotionally involved with the characters, because we literally see them and their struggles. The writing of Andrew Aydin and John Lewis makes these books as captivating as any fictional story. The artwork of Nate Powell immediately pulls the reader in and adds so much to the prose.

Photo courtesy: Top Shelf Productions

The true events of March make for a depressing and yet hopeful telling of our history. They weave current events and those of the 50s and 60s – reminding us that history is not static and that the movement is not yet over.

When I started using the March books, I created guided reading packets to hold my students accountable to the text. However, I quickly found that I did not need the packets. Students often stop reading because they need to discuss what they’ve SEEN in the books. To ask questions. Now, we just use sticky notes and discuss details that stick out to us, questions that we have – often running out of sticky notes! I don’t have to tell students to pull out their books – they ask to read them when coming into class. Some have told me that this is the first book they have ever really read all the way through.

Whether my students and I are having conversations about Miles Morales becoming Spider-Man or Thor being a woman, our conversations reflect our changing society. What happens in the world is reflected in pop culture and comics make the perfect societal artifacts. However, the March Trilogy has become my most engaging, exciting and instructive tool.

Mr. Lewis, we wish you all the best, as do students around the country who have been lucky enough to have read about your vital contributions to make this country, and this world a better place.

Mr. Lewis, we wish you all the best, as do students around the country who have been lucky enough to have read about your vital contributions to make this country, and this world a better place. Your legacy will always be with us. Thank you just doesn’t seem to be enough, but thank- you all the same.

Photo courtesy: Top Shelf Productions


Tim Smyth teaches 10th and 11th grade social studies at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Smyth has spoken about how he uses comics in his classroom at numerous conferences including Comic Cons in San Diego, New York and Chicago as well as at the Pennsylvania and National Council for the Social Studies conferences. He has also guest lectured at multiple universities and travels the country giving professional development on comics as engaging literature. Additionally, he also writes curriculum and teacher guides for multiple publishers. Smyth maintains a comprehensive website and blog on all things comics in education at www.historycomics.net.


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