Review of Manga High—Literacy, Identity And Coming Of Age In An Urban High School
Manga High—literacy, Identity And Coming Of Age In An Urban High School
by Michael Bitz, Foreword by Francoise Mouly
Published by Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA, May 2009. (196 pp)
Figuring out how to reach hard-to-reach kids is quite possibly the Holy Grail of dedicated inner-city teachers who are confronted daily by challenges unimaginable to those working in more secluded precincts.
For Michael Bitz, an educator who brought the Comic Book Project as an after-school activity to Martin Luther King Jr. High School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2004, the students’ enthusiastic embrace of the initiative was, simply, astounding.
What was even more striking was that when these students were presented with the project—to write and illustrate comic books around the theme of environmental awareness and protection—the designs and narratives produced echoed Japanese manga, rather than traditional American comic book styles. An off-shoot of 12th century Japanese pictorial scrolls, manga captivated Japanese imagination after World War II, when American soldiers shared their own culture’s comics.
“These high-schoolers were passionate about the manga stories and the characters contained therein,” Bitz wrote.
What was it about manga that resonated so deeply with these students? Unlike traditional comics, with their somewhat remote superheroes, “manga’s commitment to the mundane and the ordinary that spoke to the students in the club at MLKHS,” said Bitz
He added, “This was not a convenient escape from reality—it was authentic engagement in language and literature. From an educator’s perspective, this is extraordinary. As we struggle to engage children in reading, the youths at MLKHS were engrossed in books. They were reading on their own time and of their own volition, and they were doing so at an insatiable pace…It was uncanny how much the students loved to read, especially considering the poor grades that most of them received in their English language arts classes.”
Through manga, and the Comic Book Project, these students gained other benefits. They forged stronger social relationships with one another, enhanced their skills at crafting compelling narratives in storyboard form and learned how to use Adobe Photoshop to produce visually sophisticated manga books.
As Bitz said, “The students were as amazed as anyone at what they had created. They were proud of themselves, and pleased that other people were so impressed by their work. For many of the club participants, this was the first time that they were celebrated for their accomplishments in school.”
How poignant—that it took an after-school club, centered on comic books, to provide these students with a sense of pride in their work. Reading through the individual student narratives that Bitz shares here is humbling, and inspiring. No wonder the MLKHS students have become a model for other students around the country. This project is certainly worth replicating.#