In 2009, approximately 3 million U.S. 16- to 24-year-olds were not enrolled in high school or had failed to earn a high school diploma, concluded a National Center for Education Statistics study published this month.
But at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, site of the annual Comic Con trade fair, a slightly overweight Spiderman enthusiast and a manly looking Hello Kitty he was chatting with on Thursday morning seemed unfazed by the knowledge that their possible future “superhuman” children might not make it through high school.
Little did they know that just a flight of stairs below their feet, a well-established professor was making the case that comic books are an essential tool to lower dropout rates by spurring interest and literacy among high school students.
“With the preparation for standardized tests, arts have sadly fallen below the waistline,” began Michael Bitz, creator and executive director of the non profit Comic Book Project initiative, “but comic books can save your life.”
During his time at the Columbia Teacher’s College, in 2001 Bitz created the Comic Book Project initiative in order to combat low grades and success rates by helping struggling students develop their literary and analytical skills via creative methods. “As a former teacher I realized very quickly the simple formula that if kids are engaged in the content of their learning, they will learn it quicker and easier,” saidBitz, who was co hosting “The Future of Comics in the Classroom” panel alongside fellow comic nerds Charlie LaGreca, Jessica Abel, Josh Elder and Matt Madden. “There is a very strong connection between the creative art of story telling used in comic books and literacy improvements. Put a kid in front of a hard test and he gets demotivated, but not with comics. ”
At public schools around the country, the Comic Book project workshops all work the same way. Step one – according to the project website www.comicbookproject.org – is to “Get Creative” as children are given the freedom to brainstorm ideas for their comic books in small groups based on their choice of current events and/or favorite superheroes.
Steps two and three allow children to use a manuscript template and comic book canvas to plan and plot out their stories and sketches. “Doing so helps children conceptualize the final product, and it allows visual learners, struggling writers, and English language learners to rely on the pictorial aspect of comic books and to make a connection between what they write and what they draw,” reads the online guide to the project. The final step is displaying the final work online where “People all over the world appreciate the children.”
During the panel, Bitz illustrated this process and delighted the panel audience – 30 percent of which were teachers themselves – with a riveting comic book tale of an “atomic cockroach” with radioactive powers gone rogue in New York City, created by three fifth-grade boys from PS 214 in Flushing: Karmen Chong, Jeffrey Xu, and Louis Lo.
The students’ work was by no means a pristine example of shinning grammar and literary skills – the misspelt word “cockaroach” incited an especially sympathetic laughter from the crowd – but as Bitz proceeded to explain, “Eighty percent of the children we work with do not have English as their first language. The fact that they are able to produce such complex plots and structures in English is a impressive.”
“I remember working with a group of students from the former Martin Luther King Jr. High School [at 122 Amsterdam Ave.] when the project began,” Bitz said in an interview before the panel. “These students were misunderstood by their teachers, but their fascination for Manga comic books was so impressive and so deep that they developed masterful plots and analytical capabilities.”
“One of the most memorable moments for me throughout this whole project was when the manga high students went to a book signing at an actual book store and were treated as real published authors. Their faces lit up as they realized “whoa, we are famous!” Bitz added.
By its 10-year anniversary, the comic project has successfully been adopted by over 200 schools around the country. That said, a number of roadblocks to the project’s development still remain. “It is hard to convince teachers and principals to adopt something labeled as radical,” Bitz explained. “The challenge for more traditional teachers sometimes is also giving children the power to interpret stories in their own ways.”
At the end of the panel, Andrew 0’Connor, a U.S. history teacher at the Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, N.J, approached co panelist Charlie LaGreca to discuss his own experiences with the project, “I have been teaching since 1974 and 20 percent of what I do in class is comic related,” he said.
O’Connor’s methods involve assigning comic book illustrations of important events in history as homework for his students, he explained. “At one point, I had them read the Boy Commandos comics to illustrate WWI American propaganda at the time,” he said. “I am very happy with the results of my students.”
“People may choose to buy our model online but oftentimes they look it up and create their own versions of it themselves. And we love that too,” Bitz explained. “With our endeavor to develop a whole range of creative options for teachers and students, I really hope we can demonstrate that you can learn how to use a semicolon using creative methods, and that creative strategies are so much better than having a list of ten questions on a worksheet.
“The ultimate aim for us is to have this be a large part if the history curriculum, or the science curriculum, or the English curriculum!” he added.