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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

Greg Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've blogged about this several times before. I think it is a great way to teach writing. It helps the students in so many ways. Thanks for the post!

M Gleason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Physics of Superheros is a good example. This book is used in introductory college physics, and my kids found it interesting in small doses. We also created comic books to explain atomic theory to younger students. Ok, it was to trick my kids into remembering the information.

Margo Wixsom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After the 1954 Congressional hearings to blame comics for the moral decay of American life (no wait, now it's baseball and steroids, right?!)we have watched the realization of that graphic arts form as a powerful teaching tool. The entire series of "______For Dummies" accesses the power of visual images and humor to convey important information accessibly on any topic - while the comic illustrations makes information memorable and relevant (the two killer apps of ALL education).

Since 1998 I have included a Comics Project in my Art classes to help students to understand the literary concepts of character, plot, and setting that often elude (or bore) them in Literature classes. Students in my Art Spectrum class start the Drawing unit with a Comics Project: they select a concept they are studying from any other class and illustrate it through a comic strip. The large comic strip drawings are put on exhibition in our school library to invite students to better understand (and remember!)concepts like mitosis, the laws of transfer of energy, algebraic formulas, chemistry principles, and historical events (to name a few that students selected this year).

The win-win thing about starting a Drawing unit with comics is that students see the relevancy and power of comics, while the high success (and engagement) of every student dissipates the belief of some students that "they can't draw." When they realize how easy it is to draw a comic, they suddenly have newfound confidence in their drawing abilities.

Bravo to the wisdom of Columbia University and the Bronx Citizen's Advice Bureau for funding and promoting such a powerful (and underappreciated) learning tool.

Richard Sheehy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of students creating comic books as a project is great. Students working in groups where each student participates and is responsible for contributing to part of the project.

Almost any subject can be taught using graphic stories.

K Propeck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am inspired to try using comics to reach some of my students. I work with students in Kindergarten through third grade who are struggling with their reading skills. By third grade many of them are beginning to feel like becoming a fluent reader is too much work and they want to give up. I am excited to learn more about using comic books to inspire and encourage all my students. I went on the link for makebeliefscomix.com and in just a few minutes created my own simple comic strip. I will show it to my students tomorrow and hopefully pique their interest. I would appreciate any ideas, resources, etc., that anyone can offer? How are others using comic books as a resource in their classrooms?

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