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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Comics Make for Colorful Learning

Teachers have begun to accept comic books as a tool for teaching literacy through group projects.
By Ed Finkel

First graders in the after-school program at the Bronx's PS 90 spent part of last school year working collaboratively to create a comic book called The Bionic Butterfly. The title character, infected with pollutants, turned into a very strong, intelligent superhero butterfly with a mission to warn insects -- and humans -- about the dangers facing Earth's environment.

Critical Drawing:

This high school textbook treats comics like literature.

Credit: © 2006, Courtesy of McFarland & Company

This year, groups of kindergartners, first graders, and fourth graders are writing and drawing comics on the topic of bullying. "The kids get to color and draw, which they love to do anyway," says Claudia Bostick, after-school coordinator at the school, whose program is funded by the After School Corporation and the Bronx's Citizens Advice Bureau. "We can sneak in other art lessons in that context. And for literacy, it's great. This encourages them to tell stories, to write stories, and to listen better."

The program receives some help. The Comic Book Project, hosted by Columbia University's Teachers College, supports the kids in their efforts. And according to Bostick, the project has increased the desire of her students at this low-performing school to learn reading.

But that's nothing new. Educators have used comic books to teach reading for decades, says Michael Bitz, founder and director of the Comic Book Project, which began in 2001 and this year is reaching 850 schools and 12,000 children across the United States. However, he says there is one major difference now: "What's new is the wider scale." More than 50,000 kids have been involved since the project's inception.

According to Bitz, the project and its peer programs "engage children on another level to create something that comes from them, reflects on literature, and reflects on characters and story lines." He adds that the rise of graphic novels, in particular the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Holocaust-themed Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman, has paved the way for wider acceptance of comic books as literature. "All of those graphic novels represent a real, viable component of literature."

The Comic Book Project consists primarily of a curriculum designed to put tools in educators' hands, although the project and its staff answer questions and provide support as needed. The project even publishes some of the children's finished products.

Drawing Out Project Learning

Bitz notes that the Comic Book Project, as its name implies, focuses on project learning. "Those kinds of collaborations have been fascinating," he says. "Schools will often partner a strong writer with a strong artist. Sometimes, the student collaborations have been larger, with teams of four or five kids. I encourage educators to find a role for every child in the project."

Bostick agrees and believes the project nature of the work provides the usual benefits gained from such an approach: deeper and more comprehensive learning, an appreciation of the collaborative process, and improved social skills. She says her students determine among themselves who should play what role in the project. "They decide Mike is going to draw the characters, and Tanya colors well, so she's going to do the coloring," she adds. "They work it out so there are individual jobs that come together for one purpose." That's not always easy, of course, especially with young children, but she adds, "It helps them listen better. It also helps them develop their own ideas."

The interplay among various children's ideas lends richness to a topic such as bullying, Bitz notes. "In the comic books, we see kids thinking much more critically about why bullying happens," he says. "They're really starting to delve into the issues, rather than creating your typical superhero-villain comic book."

Classics Become Comics

At the School of Arts and Enterprise, a charter high school in Pomona, California, students learn a multitude of subjects through comic books (and other media). Teacher David Baldizon draws from the book Caped Crusaders 101: Composition Through Comic Books, which explores the literary features of comics and leads students from Batman to Hamlet and from Captain America to the Cold War.

"Students get the whole concept and read Hamlet more easily and with more excitement than they have before," Baldizon says. "It's really used to stimulate further knowledge and exploration in academics."

The School of Arts and Enterprise gives students the option to create comics in groups or go solo, Baldizon notes, but he believes those who work together gain additional benefits. "In order for an artist and a writer to get a good story going, they have to communicate. They have to shop their ideas to each other," he explains. "That's something we've seen grow out of this, a confidence in approaching and discussing ideas."

One group of female students already has been invited to have its work published, and many other students have attended comic book conventions in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego to promote their work, according to Baldizon. "The goal is for them to get excited and to learn outside as well as inside the classroom," he says.

Ed Finkel, a writer in Evanston, Illinois, covers education and public policy.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

K Propeck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How do you divide up the responsibilites for the comic books among your students? What type of subjects have you taught with comic books? I want to get ideas to use next school year with my students. Thanks for any help you can give.

Paul's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a technology teacher and recently took up the baton for doing an instructional unit for 6th - 8th grade classes. We did a number of activities and learning processes on bullying in the traditional sense but as a capstone had them produce a comic on a bullying situation that had a positive outcome.

The project allowed them to draw on technology skills that I had taught them this year with Adobe Photoshop. The integration of technology and language arts has been a great thing to see, along with the student creativity. Engagemnet was at a real high and now I have added the last piece which has them give the comics with a covering letter to students in another school in our district. The students at the recipient schools will then (as part of a language arts lesson) write a letter of thanks with a critique of the comics back to the students in my school.

This has been a wonderful project and crosses some many areas at so many levels.

Project based learning is the Holy Grail!

A Smart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great way to teach comprehensive learning. I can just picture that boy in a classroom that has no real interest in reading but loves to draw. What a great way for him to get involved and learn. It sounds like a terrific way to spark interest!

Nicole A. (5th grade teacher)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is something that is a new idea for me, and I am so glad that I came across this article and have read some of the posts! I teach on an inclusion team in a low socioeconomic school district and have trouble sometimes encouraging my special education along with my mainstream students to read. I think this is a great idea to increase literacy and tie writing into it as well!

K Propeck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I went on the site,MakeBeliefsComix.com listed in the article, A New Literary Hero:Comics Make for Colorful Learning. The site was an awesome starting place for me. I made up a little 3 frame comic strip to show my students. I brought it to show them today and they are so excited to start their own. On this site you don't have to draw your own pictures etc. I am going to have the kids decide on what they will put in their three frames and write it out first. Then we will go on the site and type the words in and do the pictures. Has anyone else tried this site yet? Let me know what you think, or what you have done? Thanks.

S White's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Has anyone done projects using graphic novels or comic books with middle school Reading/Literature classes? I would like to get ideas for next year. Thanks.

Bob Ballentine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For two years, I have used Morris and Morris's Superheroes and Philosophy, from the Popular Culture and Philosophy series published by Open Court Press, for one of the summer readings in my AP English Language and Composition class. The readings and the assignments related to it have been met with enthusiastic approval by my students--who demand only the most imaginative, intellectually rigorous assignments. Their superhero studies were truly inspiring to them as thinking writers who learned, through this study, that great things can be accomplished by people who tap their potential to the utmost.

K Propeck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you gone on the Comic Book Project web site yet to see what they offer? Maybe it is only for certain areas of the U.S. I'm not sure, but their site may have some ideas! I have seen a few graphic novels for older students and they were great. You could try a google search on them and see what you find. Wish I knew more too.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an incredible hands-on learning project. I can't wait to visit the sites listed to see how I can use this in my 6th grade reading and English class next year. The best part about all of it is the fact that the students get to use many of their senses to create these comic books. It also gives them responsibility and ownership along the way.
It is also important that, while learning, students like what they are doing. If they like to read comics and not novels, who cares, as long as they are reading. If they like to draw and create they may be more interested in writing if the creative picture and story line are attached to it. Thanks for an incredible tool.

S White's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, I went to the Comic Project site and they had a lot of information about how to participate but it seems to be used more as an after-school or community project than a classroom project. I might look into the Comic Project further and see if any other teachers in my school (a Technology magnet) would be interested in helping some of our students participate next year as a "club" activity, however, because it looks like a wonderful learning experience for kids.

I also visited the MakeBeliefsComics website and I liked the ideas they gave for stories and the simplicity of the site. I made a short comic strip and it was easy and fun. I think that my students would enjoy this site and that I could use it for vocabulary-building and comprehension activities in my Reading classes. This site could be used by almost any teacher in any subject. My son, who is in 5th grade, thought it was great so I think it would be a hit with most middle school students.

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