Learning Through Comic Books

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Comic books are a rite of passage for most kids. But one local educator also thinks they have potential "superpowers" for learning. The Comic Book Project is an after school program that's trying to improve literacy by teaching kids to make their own comics. WNYC's Beth Fertig has more.

Some kids love comic books. Others are inspired by them. Those are the kids who have joined the Comic Book Club at Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan. Sixteen-year old Angel Terry is pretty typical.

JURY: I like to draw a lot and this place has a lot of funny people that like to draw, too.

Angel – or Jury as her friends call her – has notebooks filled with her own comic strips. Her friends pour through them, looking to find themselves.

SAYURI: She draws us as characters. For some reason she gave my character bangs.

That's 10th grader Lauren Garcia. She calls herself Sayuri, after the title character in her favorite novel "Memoirs of a Geisha." These kids love anything Japanese – largely because of the Japanese comics, or manga. They adore the luscious graphics and wide-eyed characters that morph into unworldly beings. Jury's comics have the same fluid look. But her stories are definitely hinged in her world.

JURY: This is one of them.

Her latest comic is about a slumber party with her friends.

JURY: That's me on my little backwards phone. See, that's Sayuri. That's Imani. She’s getting mad at us because we're ordering Chinese food and it's like one in the morning.

Most of the students, like Jury, came here to draw. But the Comic Book Project is also about encouraging them to write, says founder Michael Bitz.

BITZ: It's something they want to do because it's their media.

Bitz is a research associate at Teachers College at Columbia University. A few years ago he was studying the role of the arts in education.

BITZ: The arts content and the academic content had to be clearly tied together. And there’s no where else in the area of literacy where words and art are so naturally wedded as in a comic book.

Bitz started his first comic book club at a Queens elementary school in 2001. Since then his project has been adopted by 45 schools, with funding from the After School Corporation and community based organizations. Baltimore, Chicago, and Cleveland, among other cities, have adopted the program.

TEACHER: I really like what you’re doing here.

At Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, tenth grader Tenzin Kalden had more trouble writing than drawing when he joined the club last year. His teacher encouraged him write about something familiar: his parents’ native country, Tibet. Tenzin drew scenes of yaks and pandas and an invading Chinese army. After a lot of work he developed his narration.

TENZIN: They killed many Tibetan people. Some tried to fight back. But they failed due to sheer numbers.

"Free Tibet Now!" by Tenzin Kalden

Art teacher Phil Dejean says comics have always helped kids read and write – even if they’re not aware of it. As a child of Puerto Rican and Haitian parents, he says, epic battles between heroes and villains helped him expand his vocabulary.

DEJEAN: You don’t just throw out 'malignant' in the middle of something but you see that in a comic, you say what’s that? Or 'heinous,' 'this heinous crime' – what's that, look it up, check it out and you start using it. And you use it on people and they say 'whatchu using that on me for?'

The Comic Book project was originally intended for younger students who are still just learning to read. Most of the programs are in elementary or middle schools.

TEACHER: Read that for me. KID: Dry. TEACHER: Tear. KID: Drear?

TEACHER: What word are we doing? Take.

These fourth graders at PS 106 in Bushwick, Brooklyn use materials prepared by the program. Teacher Zoraida Richard helps a ten year old girl with chubby cheeks sound-out letters.

TEACHER: What makes the C sound?

Awilda Martinez is from the Dominican Republic. Most of the 22 students in the after school program have Spanish speaking parents. But these kids all know the language of comics. Awilda asks the boy across from her about his favorite.

AWILDA: (in Spanish, 'who’s your favorite') BOY: Superman

The students are given diagrams showing them how to draw a stick figure. The course book also asks them to come up with several characters and helps them develop a plot. These students are all working on the same theme: pollution.

TEACHER: Who’s this? KID: Those are children in my story that are going to help stop pollution. TEACHER: OK, where are they going to stop pollution at? KID First they’re going to start here and then go, like all over the world cleaning it up.

Teachers say students in the comic book clubs also get to improve their writing and reading skills by refining and editing one project over a long period of time. But success is hard to measure. Founder Michael Bitz acknowledges there’s no direct correlation between the arts and academics.

BITZ: As much as people like to kind of quote the Mozart effect, which is if you send a kid to a symphony concert all of a sudden he becomes a better math student, it just doesn’t work that way.

Instead, he says, art and academics can sometimes go together. Just as comic books combine words and pictures. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.