by Joshua Bastean
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Josh Bastean, and I teach high school English in a low-income area of the US. The school I teach at has received extremely low marks on nearly every federal and state scorecard for the past several years. The graduation rate was below 60%, and the average GPA was below 1.9. This year they went through a changing of the guard and brought in a new administration as well as several teachers, including myself. We were brought in to try and turn the school around and were given three years in which to do it. Those of you who work in education know what a monumental undertaking this is.
The main problem we have discovered is that these students can’t read. I don’t mean they don’t like to read. I don’t mean they refuse to read. I mean they literally cannot read. I teach tenth and eleventh grade, and nearly all of my students read below a fourth grade level. I have nine who are pre-functional, which is a big word that means “can’t read at all.” It is normally used for students who don’t speak English and only know a handful of words and phrases. And if you can’t read, how in the world can you be expected to succeed? Therefore, we are focusing on improving reading and writing. Students are being made to read and write in every class, not just English.
However, I remembered when I was in high school, and I hated the things we were assigned. And I liked to read. These kids loathe reading, because they have never been given the skills they need to be successful at it, yet are expected to understand Macbeth. This is insanity. Therefore, I lobbied our curriculum specialist and convinced her to order some alternative texts so that I might be able to entice my students into reading by making it more fun: I got comic books.
Art Spiegelman said, “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.” And he is absolutely correct. My students have failed at reading for so long that they believe the entire concept of printed word is horrible. We have independent reading every single day for half an hour (something which I would have killed for in high school), and it’s like pulling teeth. They would rather sit and stare at the wall for thirty minutes than read Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or even Sports Illustrated. They can read anything they want, and they would rather sit and be bored. This speaks of a deeper problem than apathy. It’s not just that they can’t read, it’s that they have been forced to read things they don’t have the tools to understand for so long that they simply shut down when told to read. I thought that they needed to read something that would show them that there are good books out there, if you look for them.
So I got them Watchmen.
Yeah, for a comic book, it’s a somewhat difficult read. If I had complete control, I would have gone with something more entertaining, like Batman Adventures: Mad Love, or Y: The Last Man. However, I needed something critically acclaimed in order to give it literary weight, so I chose the Hamlet of graphic novels. I also requested Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Pride of Baghdad, but the school didn’t have the money.
What follows is a diary of sorts, detailing how the entire process went. Due to time constraints, I had to cram an entire chapter into one day. Fortunately we are on the block schedule, so I get ninety minutes, but it’s still difficult to cover even a portion of the material in an hour and a half. I had to skip a bunch of details that would have added much to the weight of the novel, but it was still worth it.