Maryland's top education official is recommending that Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse start sharing the limelight with classic fiction in classrooms throughout the state.
Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, an Archie fan in her youth, tried out comics in third-grade classrooms in eight elementary schools across the state last year. The experiment was so well-received that she will announce today that she wants to expand the use of graphic novels and comic strips to middle schools.
"We never said this program would supplant ... our regular basic reading program," Grasmick said, "but it could provide a huge motivation for some of our students."
Teachers have long seen comic books peeking out from a backpack or the corner of a desk or tucked between the pages of a textbook. Bringing them into the light, Grasmick hopes, will grab the imagination of boys and give teachers another way of enticing reluctant readers into good literature.
The state has worked with Disney Publishing Worldwide and Diamond Comic Distributors to put together kits for 200 classrooms in the state. Maryland teachers looked through dozens of comic books and picked those that were not violent and did not contain inappropriate language.
Supporters of the concept say that comics can attract students of any age or ability, and work particularly well with those who do not enjoy reading and would rather be out playing basketball in the driveway or sitting at a computer with a video game.
But experts disagree on whether using comic books to teach is a good idea.
"I don't think that is where I want my 9- or 10-year-old child spending their time in school," said Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association.
Young students need practice in reading, he noted, and comic books have fewer words.
"It might be a choice of reading 1,000 words versus 300 words," Shanahan said. "You don't want it to replace more substantial reading."
Others see comics as just another genre, like poetry or nonfiction.
"I wouldn't want to replace books with comic books, but why is it either or?" said Susan Sonnenschein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who studied the use of comics in the eight schools.
For the pilot project, Disney took the state's standards for reading in third grade and created comics-based lesson plans that incorporated skills already being taught, such as how to understand plot and character.
So when Logan Walker, 8, a third-grader at Clarksville Elementary, read comic books this month, he learned onomatopoeia and identified the traits of characters just as he had with other literature this year.
But the part of the lesson that was most fun, according to Clarksville students, was creating their own comic books. They drew the pictures and wrote the text, then pasted them into a book.
"I liked thinking of the characters, like how they would act," said Natalie Ryan, 9.
Many of the students' comic books tell a story that ends with a lesson. In Katie Rozier's, one girl tries to tease another, but learns a lesson when a book she placed above a door falls on the principal's head. "Oops," her comic reads.
Another Howard County student wrote a comic about a pupil who doesn't do his homework and - surprise - gets bad grades.
Jeremy Kaplan, 8, said that long before the comics lessons, he loved reading Calvin and Hobbs.
"It impressed me that they let me read comics in school," he said.
This "new approach" to teaching reading is not really new, said Philip Lanasa, a professor of education and multimedia at Cameron University in Oklahoma. Comics were used in classrooms in the 1970s and have seen a resurgence in recent years. Children have seen their comic book heroes turned into movies such as Spider-Man, and graphic novels, essentially long comic books, have become popular, Lanasa said.
"Teachers are rediscovering how to use them," he said.
Perhaps it is the time we live in, Lanasa said, but students like comics because they have heroes that readers can cheer for and who they can see triumph over foes.
But should comic books be used instead of finer works of literature?
"If the teacher handles it correctly, it may be the way to promote further engagement in other types of literature," said Stephen G. Mogge, an assistant professor in the graduate reading program at Towson University. "If it is treated as a study in genre, it is entirely appropriate."
Shanahan fears that students who are poor readers might use the pictures in comics as a crutch and not read the words at all. Schools, he said, should be providing more demanding material.
Alberta C. Porter, a teaching specialist who uses the program in Harford County schools, says comic books are just one element in a larger curriculum.
"The same strategies that I use with the Island of the Blue Dolphins can be used when teaching comics," she said.