The Gutters by Jordan Kerkhoff
A collection of metallic tubes that surround a roof with the purpose of channeling rain away from the foundation of a home or building. They also serve as a term used to describe the gaps found between the panels in a comic book or graphic novel. Finally, they represent the metaphor I’m so “cleverly” trying to establish by the end of this post.
Full disclosure, I’ve never been much of a reader. Don’t get me wrong. I have several fond memories with books. Memories such as the Berenstain Bears with my mother, The BFG with Mrs. Sudbeck in third grade, and a small handful of basketball books that, while enjoyable, often took me more than a year at a time to read. It’s never been a matter of disliking books or a lack of confidence in my reading ability. It simply comes down to not being able to sit still long enough, and consistently enough, to read much of anything with volume.
Fast forward to present day, where I’m just getting reading to begin my third year of teaching at the elementary level. There have been plenty of things that have stressed me out about teaching, but being a non-reader hasn’t been one of them. Last year, I made the decision to incorporate comic books in my curriculum. Not because I was avid reader of them, but because I thought it would be a good idea. I’d read some of the research that supports the approach, and I was impressed by its potential to engage the students and to grow them as readers.
At that point, I saw no reason not to try it, but I didn’t have any idea how to make it work. The one foresight that I did have was that I knew that there would be a difference between having them in my classroom and using them in my classroom. Even in the teaching game, it’s not always what you know but, more so, who you know. I needed to find some nerds, a term I now use with the outmost respect, to help me make my use of comics more impactful.
With two local comic book shops on my radar, I decided to go see if I could forge an alliance. Note how I ended that last sentence. The “forge an alliance” line felt such like such a comic book thing to say, and that just goes to show how they have corrupted me, or how my comic compadre Christy would put it, evolved me. The first shop I walked into seemed to meet a number of the stereotypes that the general public often has about comic shops. A little dark and cramped, with just a touch of those “you don’t belong here” vibes. I left disappointed, because after my preliminary research, they seemed like that they would be the best fit.
As I moved onto the next store, I was already feeling defeated. With this initial visit to the shops, I think I was looking for more than just information. I was looking for a reaction. A reaction that sparked to the idea of using comic books in the classroom. That reaction came from Muncie’s AwYeah Comics. Not only did they spark to the idea, but they were familiar with it. This was not an entirely new concept that I was selling. There is plenty of research that supports the idea of using comic books in school, and you can find a handful of examples of teachers actually employing this approach.
I left the store that day fully charged with great information. They loaned me research materials that were meant for educators. They also game me numerous book recommendations, and it was because of those recommendations that I began to make my reading transformation. I started with small group sets of various titles such as the Avengers and the new Ms. Marvel. As the year went on, I read more and more comic books, which led to a rapid growth of my class library. While I read them, I recognized that I was reading them with two different sets of lenses. One set meant for determining if the book is appropriate for my classroom and how I will use it, while the other set is meant for personal enjoyment. My classroom collection has certainly grown over the past year, but that second set of lenses made it happen at home too.
I had tremendous success using comic books in my classroom, and I’m measuring that based on my students’ engagement with the books and how they interacted with them. These books were not lower level reading. They were just more approachable.
Admittedly, I was feeling proud of what had been accomplished in that year and I was eager to share idea with anyone who would listen. I attended the Nerd Camp conference in Michigan this summer, where I actually had the opportunity to share my story and ideals in a small session. After the camp, I left with plenty of great classroom ideas. However, the most important thing that I left with was a realization. I realized that this project wasn’t successful just because I decided to use comic books in the classroom. What made it successful was how I’d become a reader. That is what the students were picking up on, because there is nothing more infectious then true passion. The staff at AwYeah Comics had tremendous passion about comic books. A passion that they instilled in me, which I then demonstrated to my students.
This brings me back to my metaphor about gutters. What happens when you don’t clean out your gutters? They fill up with clutter and make it difficult for the water to flow through them. Prior to comic books my gutters will full excuses for why I didn’t want to read and why I didn’t have the time. Comic books must have been my reading Drano, because the words and ideas are now flowing.
Jordan Kerkhoff is a former milkman turned 5th grade teacher at Yorktown Elementary in Yorktown, Indiana. He leads a comic book club for grades 3-5, and is hoping to expand into the middle school.