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Wham! Zoom! Comic Book Project Improves Literacy in New York Schools

Many youngsters have a fascination with comic books depicting the adventures of superheroes. But a New York City educator believes the illustrated stories also have potential "superpowers" of their own - to improve literacy by getting kids to create comics of their own.

Michael Bitz started his first comic book club at an elementary school in 2001. Since then his Comic Book Project has been adopted by 45 other New York schools, and by schools in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities across the country.

"I like to draw a lot and this place has a lot of funny people that like to draw, too," says Angel Terry, 16. Angel - or Jury, as her friends call her -- is a member of the comic book club that meets after school at Manhattan's Martin Luther King High. She has notebooks filled with her own comic strips, to the delight of her friends.

"She draws us as characters," says 10th grader Lauren Garcia. "For some reason, she gave my character bangs." Lauren 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 based in her world. "This is one of them," she says, pointing to her latest comic about a slumber party with her friends. "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, joined the Club because they like to draw. But the Comic Book Project is also about encouraging them to write. "It's something they want to do because it's their media," explains project founder Michael Bitz, who is on the faculty at Columbia University's Teachers College. A few years ago, he was studying the role of the arts in education. "The arts content and the academic content had to be clearly tied together," he says. "And there's nowhere else in the area of literacy where words and art are so naturally wedded as in a comic book."

At Martin Luther King High School, 10th 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' homeland, Tibet. Tenzin drew scenes of yaks and pandas and an invading Chinese army. After a lot of work, he developed the narration of his story about the invasion. "They killed many Tibetan people," says Tenzin. "Some tried to fight back. But they failed due to sheer numbers. Tibet had only six million people -- versus China, which had like 700 million people."

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

"You don't just throw out 'malignant' in the middle of something," he explains. "But [when] you see that in a comic, you say 'what's that?' Or 'heinous,' [as in] '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 'what are you using that on me for?'"

The Comic Book Project was originally intended for youngsters just learning to read. But it expanded to encompass students throughout elementary school and into middle school. Fourth graders at PS106 in Brooklyn use materials prepared by the program. On a recent visit, teacher Zoraida Richard was helping Awilda Martinez sound out letters. The 10-year-old girl with chubby cheeks 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. When Awilda asks the boy across from her for his favorite, he answers, "Superman!"

The students are learning how to draw a stick figure from a booklet prepared by the Comic Book Project. The lesson also asks them to come up with several characters and helps them develop a plot. Awilda and the rest of the club are all working on the same theme…pollution. A teacher asks one boy what he is drawing. "Those are children in my story that are going to help stop pollution," he answers. "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 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 that there is no direct correlation between the arts and academic achievement. "As much as people like to kind of quote 'the Mozart effect' -- which is [that] 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," he says. Instead, art and academics can complement each other…just as comic books combine words and pictures.