High school teacher Nathan Fulcher talks about teaching English to teens

Nathan FulcherNathan Fulcher teaches African American literature, English, and English composition at Santa Monica High School in California. He is currently pursuing a master’s in educational technology at California State University–Fullerton.

Here at the Manual of Style, we have a natural curiosity about the future of English as a discipline, and you were recommended as someone who is passionate about English, about literacy, and about teaching. What interests you most right now about teaching?

I have always been drawn to African American studies. It’s been such a wonderful opportunity to teach African American lit to a diverse group of students about to enter the real world after high school. I’m also interested in the “achievement gap” that seems to be such a difficult thing to address or fix in education. One personal hobby that has recently made its way into my classroom is my love of reading comic books. Comics/graphic novels are a booming genre in the past ten years, and I’ve taken a few courses in learning strategies and then used graphic novels in both my Af-Am lit course and summer school credit-recovery classes to reach out to reluctant readers. It has been very successful and something I continue to research and teach.

Graphic novels and comics vary a lot in level of reading difficulty. Does that enter into your strategy?

Absolutely. I help students choose a graphic novel suitable to their interests and reading level. They begin to read, become engaged in the topic, and actually activate reading and inference skills without even realizing it. After they have finished that book and picked out relevant themes, I then help them choose a “traditional book” that is thematically linked. For example, a student who reads Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus about the Holocaust might transition into Elie Wiesel’s Night. Likewise a student who reads Persepolis might next read Funny in Farsi or go from V for Vendetta to Orwell’s 1984. With graphic novels now encompassing everything from historical fiction to the old-fashioned superhero trope, the possibilities and combinations are endless.

That must be what Art Spiegelman meant by “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy”—that comics are so attractive compared to other kinds of reading. And a student with extremely low reading skills might start with mostly pictures and little text and progress from there.

For me, it’s all about getting students to read; I don’t care what it is they start with as long as they continue. So many students come to me in the summer saying they’re “not readers,” and I just tell them they haven’t read the right thing yet. Most of them leave the summer school session as confident readers who have actively engaged in what they read. If I had unlimited resources, I would love to design an entire course around pairing graphic novels thematically with texts from the canon. I’ve compromised by working Mat Johnson’s Incognegro into my African American literature course when we look at the difficult topic of lynching in the 1930s. Students of all levels consistently say it’s the best book they read all year.

Do you get any pushback from parents, colleagues, or administrators who disapprove of “comic books”? We hear a lot about the Core Curriculum and national standards. How do graphic novels fit with that?

I’m fortunate to teach in an environment that encourages trying new things and to work alongside a librarian who fully supports the idea and is constantly stocking her shelves with new graphic novels. I will occasionally get the sideways glance from a parent or another teacher, but as soon as I start talking about what I’m doing and how it encourages struggling readers, helps students who are learning English, and supports literacy, they usually jump on board as well. On a few occasions, I have put a graphic novel in their hands and encouraged them to read it, and quite a few came back eager to talk about it themselves.

Regarding Common Core, I actually think that its language allows me even more leeway to use what many would consider unconventional texts. The literacy standards ask students to “build on themes” across texts and to “analyze multiple interpretations of a story.” That is exactly what graphic novels encourage readers to do. The Common Core standards have gotten a bad rap from many, but I think once you actually unwrap what they are asking, they are great for the English classroom.

Speaking of “bad raps,” do you think teenagers today are getting one?

I do think they’re getting a bad rap, and I think it’s an unfair one. For example, I was at a roundtable workshop at the recent National Council of Teachers of English conference, and another teacher said one of his current struggles with students is their lack of curiosity. I could not disagree more with this. I think that our students, because they are connected and networked in so many different ways, are curious about the world they live in more than ever before, but they don’t yet know how to access it or tap into it in an authentic way—that’s where our role as teachers comes into play. It is my job to find out what my students are curious about and to help them navigate and access information to dig deep into it. I will concede that many of my students lack the stamina to do in-depth research, but that’s mainly because they live in a world where the simple answer to almost any question is on a device in their pocket.

What about writing? Do students who don’t see themselves as readers also not see themselves as writers?

Naturally, the students who are the best writers are almost always very good readers; it’s no secret that reading and writing go hand in hand. However, I think it depends on what type of writing we are talking about. Because of social networking like Twitter and Instagram, our students are very comfortable and open to expressing themselves and putting it out there for an audience. But because of the nature of these types of expression, they often struggle with expanding on their ideas and pushing their thinking further. In regard to academic writing, they definitely need guided instruction and modeling. Again, that’s where my role becomes crucial. As any of my former students will (hopefully) tell you, the mantra I make them memorize before they leave my classroom is “Writing is a process.” If I can teach them that, I consider myself a success.

We know that the elders in every generation of recorded history have condemned young people as lazy and ignorant and as wanton destroyers of the language. You’re not yet among the “elders,” but you have worked with teens for more than a decade. Is the English language and its literature doomed by a generation that can’t read, can’t write, and doesn’t care?

Over the past ten years, I have seen teens’ reading habits evolve, but surprisingly, I think our students are actually reading more now than they ever have before. However, their reading habits have changed to digital media and short, succinct bursts of information that lack depth. We as teachers must push them to read and think critically about the plethora of texts (print, digital, visual, etc.) and dive deeper into issues they want to know more about.

The English language and its literature are not doomed, but they are definitely on the threshold of change, which, frankly, I’m quite excited about.

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