Thursday, June 11, 2009

Superman in the classroom

Columbus, Franklin, Beethoven, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wright, Ruth, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Siegel, Shuster, Parks, Armstrong, Obama.

Hold up—a couple of impostors snuck onto that list. All of those people are typically discussed (or at least touched upon) in history class. And all of those people (along with many more textbook names) have been the subjects of multiple picture books...except Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, widely considered to be the world's first superhero.

Teaching history is a process of ranking consequences. Teaching time is limited (more than ever these days, with increased emphasis on test preparation). Therefore, plenty of people who made significant contributions to society don't get classroom coverage—those contributions are not judged to be significant enough to bump any of the "validated" names above.

Luckily, however, we are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography. Part of what I mean by this is that we live in a time where writers are writing and editors are publishing picture books on people who are not textbook names but could be—and, arguably, should be.

Perhaps thanks to a picture book, some of these people eventually will be.

In other words, the Wright Brothers weren't famous before the public had heard of them. I am stating the obvious, but you smell what I'm cooking.

Imagine the time before the general public knew the name Philippe Petit. Some might have said, "Never heard of him. Can't be that great of a story." After the book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers came out in 2003, many probably said, "Can't believe I never heard of him. Really glad I have now."

What writer of illustrated nonfiction wouldn't want to be the first to publish the story of the first (and only) daredevil to string a cable between the World Trade Center towers and walk between them?

Is this achievement as significant as setting a home-run record or as refusing to move to the section of the bus designated for your race? To some, emphatically not. To others, enthusiastically yes. Yet if it is a riveting story with insight into the human condition, does this matter?

Declining to publish or read a book on a person you haven't heard of is counterproductive to the purpose of publishing. It is about bringing new stories to light, or illuminating new aspects to familiar stories.

Declining to mention such figures in the classroom is similarly regretful. I have had the fortune to meet many enlightened teachers who see the value in sharing a story like Siegel and Shuster's with their students, even though it is off-curriculum. One teacher I met even made a lesson plan (complete with a Venn diagram!) about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
. Actually, he made two: an 8-page version for students and a 15-page teacher's edition.

Here is a review of the book by the Graphic Classroom, which advocates using comics in teaching.

Christopher Columbus : terrestrial exploration :: Babe Ruth : baseball
Franklin Delano Roosevelt : crisis leadership :: Neil Armstrong : space exploration
Ludwig van Beethoven : classical music :: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster : ?

See also: Boys of Steel as a curriculum tie-in.

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