New York, N.Y.
Objective: Use visual arts to build literacy and social awareness.
In a Nutshell: Youth plan, write and design comic books, focusing on a theme, such as environmental preservation or nonviolence. The books are published and distributed to other children in the community as learning and motivational tools.
Where it Happens: During the last school year, the project was implemented through after-school programs in New York City and through school programs in Cleveland. Expansion to 10 more cities is planned over the next two years.
How it Began: Michael Bitz, a senior research associate at Teachers College of Columbia University, founded the project as a summer program in 2001. The Teachers College adopted it, starting in 2003.
Who Runs It: The program is implemented by the teachers and other instructors at the sites, with training by Bitz, the project director. Dark Horse Comics designs, prints and distributes the project material and publications.
Obstacles: “The biggest problem we faced at the beginning,” Bitz says, “was developing a process that was simple enough for educators to implement but that also addressed the complexities of learning in general, and learning through the arts specifically.” Another challenge was convincing children without a background in art that they could be creative and succeed in the project.
Overcoming Obstacles: Running a pilot program provided a framework for the project and highlighted areas that needed improvement. Grouping youth into production teams, with each member responsible for a different aspect of the comic book construction process, helped those who were self-conscious about their artistic abilities.
Cost: The annual budget is $125,000. The base funder in Cleveland for last year and the coming school year is the Cleveland Foundation, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded the project in New York. The After-School Corp. in New York and the Cleveland Municipal School District provide other help, such as project coordination and space for training.
Youth Served: Disadvantaged youth in grades four through 12. Nearly half of the participating youth have limited English proficiency. Almost all are eligible for free lunch, and about 75 percent read and write at least one level below their grades when they enter the program.
Youth Turn-On: “Creating an original comic book from start to finish has been an incredible tool for intrinsic and extrinsic motivation,” Bitz says. “Many of them are very attached to their work.” Every youth who completes a comic book is featured in the website art galleries, and many of the books are featured at exhibits and award ceremonies, and are read by children across the country.
Youth Turn Off: “Making a comic book is not easy. It takes a lot of thought, planning and dedication,” Bitz says. “Making a comic book also involves a lot of writing, which can be frustrating for struggling students” and is “especially challenging to children with limited English proficiency.”
Research Shows: In internal evaluations during the pilot 2002-03 school year, 76 percent of the children said the program helped them improve in reading and writing, and 73 percent of the staff agreed. In the same year, using a scoring system developed by the New York State Board of Regents, three independent judges rated the children’s writing at or above a score of three out of four on three of the state’s four learning standards for English.