By Teachers, For Teachers
One day in 5th grade, we were doing our independent reading. We were supposed to have selected a book from our school’s media center, and then sit comfortably at our desk reading it. I wasn’t usually a rebellious kid, but that day I purposely selected the largest book I could find – this one happened to be about dinosaurs – just so I could hide my Calvin and Hobbes comic compilation book behind it. I thought the teacher would never catch me.
Unfortunately, just a few minutes into our reading, the teacher caught me. Then she said, “Reading Calvin and Hobbes? Cool! One of my favorites.” I immediately grew suspicious. Why wasn’t I in trouble? Why didn’t she tell me to put that childish comic book away? I kept reading it, of course, but was confused why this wasn’t just permitted, but encouraged.
It took a few years, but I finally was able to look back on the experience and recognize why my teacher approved of Calvin and Hobbes. If you’re not familiar with the comic strip series, it was written by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995. The strip features a young boy named Calvin and his best friend, a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, that “Comes to life” when Calvin is alone.
Here are some lessons for the teaching profession we could learn from Calvin and Hobbes, and why I would approve of it for my own students’ reading as well.
Calvin and Hobbes is rife with illustrations about a child’s impression of school. Calvin isn’t your model student, ready to comply with every request. He frequently finds himself bored, cutting corners, or in the principal’s office. But why? We know that Calvin is intelligent and imaginative, but these characteristics seem to conflict with his school environment.
Calvin is lazy and stubborn when it comes to academics. This is what makes his clashes with his teacher, Mrs. Wormwood, or his overachieving neighbor Susie so comical. Calvin expends more effort finding a way around his academic work than he does on it. Sound like any students you know?
This isn’t to say that school is depicted as a harsh or outdated system unsuitable for modern needs. But it cries out loud and clear that Calvin is talented in ways that school overlooks. Mrs. Wormwood – named after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” – reminds Calvin, “I suggest working harder. What you get out of school depends on what you put into it.” Calvin refuses to put much into school. In Watterson’s words, he is a “Lazy 6-year-old.” On one occasion he puts a professional-looking, clear plastic binder on his “Research paper” and believes that he will receive an A, even though he did no research. On another occasion he forgets about a massive bug collection project, and attempts to do the entire thing on his way to school the day it’s due.
So Calvin fails academically, but at the same time we anguish as readers over his overlooked strengths. He offers extremely witty responses to quiz questions he doesn’t know the answer to. His imagination wildly wanders during the slow school hours. And outside of school – while riding a wagon or building a snowman – he philosophically expresses complex perspectives on life. The lesson here? A raw academic focus in the classroom can punish students who having more colorful, imaginative characteristics.
Who are the Calvins of your classroom?
Calvin and Hobbes features childhood in a beautiful and nostalgic way. At center stage throughout the series is not just Calvin’s external experiences as a kid, but his internal imagination. Calvin imagines himself in the prehistoric era, transmogrified into an owl, floating around in an anti-gravity room, an octopus crawling on the floor, a victim of aggressive snowmen, a heroic space adventurer. A sandbox becomes a dinosaur dig; a cardboard box becomes a duplicator; a babysitter becomes an alien villain.
And of course, the iconic metaphor for Calvin’s imagination manifests in his imaginary tiger friend, Hobbes.
Columnist Mark Tweedale remarks that, “Calvin and Hobbes remains the only story I’ve ever read that seems to genuinely respect a child’s imagination … Calvin is totally invested and so are we as readers.” There’s a sincerity to Calvin’s imagination that adults must confront. Few adults can recall when they last imagined an army of deranged snowmen tried to get them, or when they saw themselves as gods over the little toys and towns they built. One of the most rewarding motifs throughout the series is how Calvin’s imaginary world bumps into the real world of his parents, or when the grownups surrounding Calvin demand that he come back and join them in reality.
The strip can remind us teachers that imagination is one of the most natural and abundant characteristics in children. While it’s not wrong to expect children to operate in reality, Calvin and Hobbes displays for us the sometimes-painful contrast between Calvin’s enriching creative experiences and the black-and-white doldrums of the world-as-it-is.
“Your simian countenance suggests a heritage unusually rich in species diversity.” This is how Calvin says, “You look like a monkey” to a bully in hopes of confusing him. As a child, I had no idea what Calvin was saying, so my response was to look up the words to figure it out. Without being assigned to do so – for fun – I used a dictionary and context clues to decipher meaning.
Calvin and Hobbes is full of rich vocabulary that kept me running to the dictionary. Without realizing it, I was exposing myself to both a deeper way of thinking and a more complex way of expressing it. No other grade-level reading used phrases like “Pair of pathetic peripatetics” or when speaking of his snowman art sculpture, “This sculpture is about transience. It invites the viewer to contemplate the evanescence of life. This piece speaks to the horror of our own mortality!”
As a young reader, I could understand the majority of Calvin, but I also found myself using dictionaries and grownups as resources to better ascertain meaning. This is a pretty powerful result difficult to replicate through other reading material. The humor and joy offered through Calvin and Hobbes causes young readers to inadvertently expose themselves to rich vocabulary and thinking.
Bill Watterson is a talented artist, and he consciously considered how he could tell better stories and make better art with his comic series. After redesigning his Sunday strip, he observed, “I think I’ve been able to make Calvin’s world more vivid, and I think I’ve made the space more exciting to look at. These are not esoteric concerns; these are what make a comic strip fun to read.”
As a student, I figured my teacher wanted me to read straight prose stories and that comic strips would be considered childish. While many teachers probably do think of graphic novels and comic strips as childish, thankfully my teacher understood differently. Graphic novels and comics tell stories, just like rich prose texts, only their stories are both textual and visual. Books like Scott McCloud’s classic “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” help us understand these visual genres as enriching forms of art rather than mere low-brow entertainment.
Bill Watterson said, “I wouldn’t want Calvin in my house, but on paper, he helps me sort through my life and understand it.” Isn’t that what all reading is about? We don’t necessarily want to personally live through the experiences we read about, but storytelling is ultimately about helping us come to a higher understanding of life. Calvin and Hobbes possesses many virtues that our students (and ourselves) can benefit from, but the lessons go beyond this one classic series.
As I look back at my attempt to secretly read the series in my class, I realize the value of letting students independently select their reading. We should attempt to guide students towards enriching works, but at the same time we must allow them the autonomy to choose something of their own liking. If you have the opportunity in your classroom to facilitate independent reading or student-selected works, let students know you support their reading choices. Their self-driven interest in the text will ensure they continue with the reading and, when their reading offers them nuggets of knowledge, they will be more likely to embrace them.
Also, let’s not overlook how visual mediums like comics books and graphic novels can be appreciable works of art. These types of texts are often relegated the periphery of our literacy instruction. Reconsider how visual mediums can play a role in your classroom’s approach to reading.
Have you read Calvin and Hobbes? In what ways can this comic series – or other series you’re familiar with – impact you in the teaching profession or your students? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.