Comic Book Project Helps Teach Literacy to NYC Students
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.
Do comic books belong in the classroom? If you listen to Dr. Michael Bitz, an educational researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College who founded and now runs The Comic Book Project— an after school enrichment program in 52 NYC schools where kids develop, illustrate, and publish their own comic books—they most certainly do…provided they are used as a carefully designed tool to spark a child’s creativity and promote literacy skills.
“The Comic Book Project is very much student-driven in the sense that the students are deciding who the characters are in their comic books, and they’re deciding what the stories are about,” explains Bitz, who in 2001 started the now nationwide project at an elementary school in Queens. “All along the way, they’re honing reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. We’re really trying to get away from a textbook model of education…When you spark a creative idea, kids can run with that,” he adds passionately.
One doesn’t have to look far to see evidence of creativity and burgeoning talent among the student comic book writers. Brightly colored student galleries on the project website (www.comicbookproject.org) boast vibrant illustrations of student work on such subjects as Peace in our Schools (a conflict resolution comic book out of Cleveland), Save our City, Save our Planet (a NYC environmental action comic book), and The Art of Money (a NYC financial education comic book). The Comic Book Project is thriving not just in NYC, but in over 800 urban and rural schools in all 50 states, not to mention newly initiated projects in Nigeria, South Africa, and Australia. (The Australian project has taken an unusual tack as a distance learning initiative, with students creating their comic books using on-line software, a very different model from the majority of US projects which use “blank paper and colored pencil…we’re mostly unplugged,” according to Bitz.) But even within the US, the projects are as varied as their sponsors: “In some cities, the project is an in-school [as opposed to after-school] initiative,” explains Bitz. “For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, English teachers are partnered with art teachers. The students write the comic book manuscripts in English class and then they design the actual comic books in art class…It’s become a really amazing partnership between disciplines that may not have communicated with each other if it weren’t for this bridge that allowed them to do that,” he adds.
Ironically, Bitz was not a comic book fan as a child, though he describes himself as a voracious reader. An avowed musician, he played the double bass in jazz bands and orchestras (“I used to truck that big thing in and out of the subway,” he laughs.) Although Bitz originally planned to be a music teacher, Teachers College mentors Hal Abeles and Judith Burton encouraged him to use his creativity and talent in the broader area of educational curriculum design. “They both helped me to think about the arts in a really integrated and out of the box kind of way, to think about what it means to be creative, why that’s important, and why schools are not embracing that in more ways,” reflects Bitz.
Bitz has capitalized on his passion for music by recently launching, along with urban anthropologist Bill McKinney, a brand new initiative called Youth Music Exchange (www.youthmusicexchange.org), whereby children in eight NYC after-school programs write and record their own music, develop marketing strategies, design the artwork, and sustain their company by selling their music CDs to the community as a self-sustaining fundraising tool. “As technology changes, our opportunities for engaging children change too,” muses Bitz. “Now with a laptop, a microphone, and a simple audio interface, we are able to establish a little recording studio right there in a school without a lot of money.”
One suspects that Bitz will continue to find new methods to spark student creativity through the arts. “These are some of the only arts experiences that students are getting,” he laments, noting that cutbacks in arts curricula within the city’s public schools have drastically reduced in-class art and music offerings. “I think we’ve demonstrated with The Comic Book Project how children can become better learners, better readers and better writers through a creative process. I don’t think that being creative and learning how to punctuate a sentence are mutually exclusive. I think that there are opportunities to do them at the same time. In fact, it’s easier to engage children when they’re invested in a creative activity,” he sums up simply.#