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Using comics to teach literacy has Marvel-ous results

By Ryan Wolstat, Toronto Sun

Peter Kmet guides his Grade 5 class through his comic book reading class at Strathcona Elementary School in Hamilton in September 2013. Kmet promotes literacy by teaching lessons using Marvel comics characters. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun)

Peter Kmet guides his Grade 5 class through his comic book reading class at Strathcona Elementary School in Hamilton in September 2013. Kmet promotes literacy by teaching lessons using Marvel comics characters. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun)

TORONTO - 

Peter Kmet has seen the near-instantaneous impact his innovative teaching lessons can have on children.

Most recently, while doing a guest literacy lesson at Hamilton’s Strathcona Elementary this fall, Kmet observed a class of fifth grade youngsters go from shying away from reading nervously out loud, to getting actively involved either by reading a script in a booming, in-character voice, or listening in intently as others read to them. The transformation is rapid and fascinating, he said..

Even though it was the final period of the school day, the class of 18 students sat engrossed and engaged as they or their friends took on the roles of Marvel characters like Spider Man, the SubMariner, J. Jonah Jameson and the Punisher.

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We asked the Grade 5 class at Hamilton’s Strathcona Elementary what superhero they would like to be and why. Scroll over the image below and to watch their video responses:


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Kmet, 27, graduated from teacher’s college at Charles Sturt University in 2010, shortly after developing his first script for his program.

He has done supply work for schools as well as for local libraries presenting his lessons and knows first-hand how difficult it often is to keep children engaged and excited about pretty much any school subject. The Stoney Creek native figured out a way to help in that regard. He combined his lifelong love of comics and his desire to get kids interested in reading and writing.

He has developed over 30 lessons — and counting — that incorporate characters like the X-Men, Dracula, zombies, the Avengers and many more.

But this isn’t mere fluff with no point.

At the end of the lessons he makes sure, through questions and answers, that the children understand what they have read and acted out and that they have picked up on the theme being conveyed. At Strathcona, the story was about the evil KingPin and his criminal associates severely polluting the SubMariner’s underwater homeland. Others tout the value of teamwork as opposed to going at it alone (something the X-Men’s Wolverine enjoys) and oppose racism and prejudice. A lesson for older kids — Kmet has taught lessons to a Grade 8 class and has even adapted some that would work with high school students — involves Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark’s battle with alcohol.

“My lessons consist of reading over comics that have moral undertones and then converting the comic into a script for the students to read in a ‘Reader’s Theatre’ format,” Kmet explained. “The students love reading my scripts because they are not only reading about the characters but they are reading as the characters in the script. I always tell the students to change the tone of their voice to reflect and make the audience believe that they are that character.”

It’s not surprising that Kmet uses comics so substantially in his lessons. He’s been hooked on them since he was four years old and used to devour them in libraries.

At that time though, he said elementary schools were very “anti-comic.” When he would ask librarians if they had any comics, the reply would be, “Of course not, I would never let this in the library.”

Times have changed. Now, graphic novels and comics for children of all ages are staples and Kmet’s lessons are winning over skeptics.

“Usually schools are a little bit reluctant when they hear about superheroes because they think it will just be them punching each other but I pick appropriate comics from the 1960s and ‘70s that have mostly a dialogue between the villains and the heroes so that the conclusion isn’t just a big brawl, there’s actually morals, because I’m always worried about bullying, that they might go into the nutrition break or recess and beat each other up,” Kmet explained.

“At least here they’re seeing that Captain America uses his words instead of just throwing his shield at everybody — he’s actually talking and the bad guy is actually listening.

“I choose the ones that have morals, so that the students can see that even big, strong people like the Hulk and Captain America can reason with people instead of just fighting with them.”

Kmet is currently doing part-time and volunteer lessons, but is hoping, given the positive reception, that it catches on and he is approved to teach either full-time at one school, or with him going school-to-school in the Hamilton-Wentworth region.

Marvel Comics support his endeavours. Next up throughout October: A spooky Halloween/horror unit that adapts many public domain horror stories.

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Peter Kmet knew kids responded well to his comics-based literacy program, but wasn’t sure if the authors and illustrators would feel the same way.

Kmet asked permission to use characters and stories in his lessons and, to his surprise, received many replies of support and encouragement.

“As an ex-teacher as well as someone who’s written many comics for educational book companies, I of course agree with your concept. I think this project is wonderful and needed within all schools. I support the notion of what you’re doing and I really hope it succeeds,” wrote Marv Wolfman, a legendary American comic book writer.

Wolfman has written for Marvel and DC Comics and co-created Blade, the character later played by Wesley Snipes in a series of movies.

In February of 2012, Arune Singh, a Toronto native and, at the time, the director of communications for Marvel Entertainment told Kmet: “We at Marvel applaud you pushing literacy and wish you the best! It sounds great and the students will surely love your lessons.”

Kevin Vanhook, a filmmaker who previously was a comic book writer and artist with DC told Kmet: “Yes, you absolutely have my permission to use my Batman stories in your classroom and to modify it as you need to. Sounds like a wonderful program — the schools and the students are lucky to have someone like you!”


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