I dare you to ask your EFL learners “What comes with great power?” Chances are they will know the missing bit to one of the most famous quotes from the world of comics and superheroes. Do read on if you need to dust off your superhero knowledge!
With recent superhero movies taking over where comics started, a new canon has been years in the making, a canon which teachers would be wise to consider. When students struggle to find personal value in the ‘classic’ canon – that is important literary works, agreed on by people who are usually far older than the average EFL student in school – it might be time to utilise the canon students already bring to class. Numerous heroes nowadays follow archetypical stories of love, loss and self-sacrifice. And the best bit for teachers and learners alike: The original versions broadcast into the world are widely available in English. This is authentic language material waiting to be used, created already with a young audience in mind. Let me introduce you to two examples:
“With great power comes great responsibility” is the catchphrase from any story about Spiderman, a young man transformed after he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Yes, this transformation serves as an obvious symbol for puberty and its challenges, superpowers or not, but at the same time, it can be so much more. One of the latest instalments, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, passes the torch from well-known white protagonist Peter Parker to Miles, a young black boy, who in turn is trying hard to fill the shoes of his idol. The film’s message is as fresh as it is classic: Having superpowers surely help, yep, but for someone to be of service, to become a hero to their community, there is no alternative to facing the challenges posed to them. (For another example revolving around a heroine look no further than 2019’s Captain Marvel.) Isn’t this a message about responsibility for oneself and for others which we should be teaching to our students?
Another example of a brilliant start down your superhero-fuelled rabbit hole is Black Panther, the 2018 movie which shone a bright light on late actor Chadwick Boseman and fictional Wakanda. After decades of watching heroes the stereotypical white middle-class male could identify with, it is about time to look for diverse role models. Enter Black Panther, a black man who has to convince both his fellow citizens and the world that there is a future of peaceful co-existence for all of them. Stemming from a Peter-Parker generation myself, I cannot possibly put into words what it might mean to a child to see a person who looks like them succeed on the big screen. I do know, however, that we all profit from having a range of role models, and I will gladly suggest that superheroes like Miles or T’Challa (Black Panther’s real name) become role models for my students.
There are several advantages of working with cross-media material: Go back to the original comics and have their pictures trigger a discussion in class. Maybe edit out the speech from the speech bubbles and have your students write their version of the dialogues? Have them track down differences between the movies and the comics and how that influences a story – media literacy, anyone? These movies usually include speeches of manageable length addressing core values of human life: honesty, dedication, courage. And of course, superhero stories being movies, lend themselves nicely to the myriad of teaching sequences you can find when dealing with films. For some inspiration, why not start with these ideas covering Black Panther in the Classroom?
If you have a superhero story you would like to recommend to the EFL world, do share it with us, please. Growing up, your students will need all the super-charged, super-fast and super-reliable help they can get to navigate a challenging period. So let me double-dare you, fellow EFL teacher: Use your great power, and responsibly lead your students along the way towards a new canon: their canon.
Thank you for your time and feel free to get in touch!
Rico, on behalf of the Lit4School team