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
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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

K Propeck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I did a small lesson using the makebeliefscomix site and the kids loved it. In fact when my next group came in and saw the 3 frame comic strip the others had made, they were all begging to do one too. It was easy for the kids and I plan on using this site more before we launch out with drawing and designing our own comics. Using it for vocabulary-building and comprehension activities is a great idea.

Larry Marder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm old enough to have been busted by one of my favorite teachers in third grade for liking comic books. She was quite certain that I was spiraling into a life of crime. It got me in trouble at home. Comics were banned there for a long, long time.

Well, it was the late 1950s and that was the status that comics had in the school system.

Now it is half a century later, and for better or worse, I'm a cartoonist.

My comic book "Beanworld" takes place in a weird fantasy dimension that operates under its own rules and laws. All the characters, whether they are friends or adversaries, understand that ultimately they depend on each other for survival.

Beanworld been used periodically over the last two decades by teachers to teach the idea of ecological interdependence between species.

It's been out of print for a while, as I've been busy on the business side of both the comics and the toy businesses.

But now, I'm returning to Beanworld and the books will soon be back in print. Plus, I will be publishing new material. I look forward to forging relationships with educators and librarians.

The comics medium has emerged from the fog of disrespect imposed upon it long ago!

Alex Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This project is similar to the Create a Comic Project (, which is also a youth program that uses comics to teach literacy. It's interesting just how many different people are involved in this kind of volunteer educational work.

M. David Lopez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've read "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luan Yang for a few years now. It's a great story on its own, as well as a great intro to using comics and teaching comics as Lit. Students might want to buy the books on their own, like we do at our school, or maybe purchase a class set to loan the books out. Activities include discussions on stereotypes, racial conflict, cultural pride and identities, as well as reflections on what it means to be American. Finally, we've made podcasts on stereotypes and students have made their own comics.

All of this from one novel that is about $8.99 and does not include profanity.

Good luck to you!

Bill McGRATH, Ph.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sorry to come late to the chat-- I work with Juvenile Offenders in San Diego and for the past two years we have been using the SCRAPYARD DETECTIVES in our class-- promotes literacy-- and DIVERSITY-- Well put together by Bill Galvan and can be found on the web
A good spot for resources is

Michael J Fusco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How can I get a copy?

Ksmith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Larry,

I work at a charter school in OKC. My advanced art class created images and stories using primative ideas and modern ones. Using their own pigments they created a frog that mutated based on bad biotechnology, dragonflies representing the story similar to the Rainbow fish idea of the diversity of life. Some created landscapes with residences
that were ugly on the outside with beautiful family life inside. Each student wrote a story to work with their images and then chose a peers to write about, before they knew the actualy story written by the artist. The results were interesting, especially on the image of the mutated frog. Would you be interested in hearing the actual stories and possibly using the images and students names in your strip?

Let me know I would also like for you to send some sample strips for us. We would like to see them.

Thanks for your time,

Kathy Smith
Art Educator
Santa Fe South H.S.
301 SE 38th Street
OKC OK 73129
405 417-3885 (cell)
405 631-6100 office

Emma Kaye's picture

As a parent of 5 children and 6 grandbabies, I found that ANY tools I can find to help my family learn to read and learn are great assets to my family. Comic book making is a wonderful idea. Maybe you could find some more helpful and interesting things here, child book publishing company

Emma Kaye's picture

As a parent/grandparent, of 5 children and 6 grandbabies, I have found that ANY tool I can find is an asset to my family and their learning process. Comic book creating is a wonderful and imaginative tool. You may also find useful information here, child book publishing company

KellyAnn Bonnell's picture
KellyAnn Bonnell
STEAM Integration Manager

Comic books and Graphic Novels are such a rich source for educators. I'm glad to see its getting serious attention and discussion. I've even featured this article at . Thanks for a great resource.

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