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Urban Students Create Superheroes to Battle Real-Life Ills

By Colin Morris


Photo courtesy of Michael Bitz

Some lucky urban school children are finding creative new ways to address day-to-day issues facing their neighborhood through a familiar and engaging format -- comic books.

Using superheroes created by kids in urban schools, the Comic Book Project, a new initiative at Teachers College, is giving students the chance to speak to other children on common issues of an urban setting. Teachers College has teamed up with Dark Horse Comics and the After-School Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that works towards sustaining after-school programs, to help students produce and publish comics, which they conceive, write and initially draw. The goal of the project is to promote literacy, creativity, the arts and awareness about issues that affect their world.

"Kids from urban areas are telling the stories," said Michael Bitz, CC'94, TC'98, senior research assistant and the Comic Book Project founder and director, "and they are very adult themes like gangs and substance abuse."

This year the project has 3,000 students in grades four through eight in New York City and Cleveland working to develop two separate comic books, which will ultimately be distributed to more than 30,000 students. In New York City , children will focus on "energy conservation and pollution prevention," with help from a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. In Cleveland , the theme for the books will be "conflict resolution."

Last year, the Comic Book Project was piloted with more than 700 children at 33 after-school programs in New York City . The project was administered by three advocates for after-school education in NYC: the After-School Corporation, the Partnership of After School Education and the Youth Development Institute at the Fund for the City of New York .

The yearlong process of creating the comic book begins with teacher training, during which teachers familiarize themselves with project tools and goals. The first step for the students is writing a manuscript, using a planning tool called the "manuscript starter," developed by Dark Horse Comics.

The manuscript starter helps students formulate the basis for their story through character creation and basic plot. Children develop the plot, write out their stories, sketch characters and visualize the overall look of their story. Students brainstorm their ideas with the assistance of questions and commentary in the manual aimed to help develop the motion and plot devices of their story. Past themes have included substance abuse prevention, ending gang violence, tobacco awareness, cultural tolerance, current events, neighborhood environments and peer relationships.

"It was nice to work on something that wasn't produced purely for entertainment value for a change," said Dark Horse editor Dave Land. "Everyone involved in this project had a sense of pride in contributing to a program aimed at teaching kids to read."

In the next stage, the children are given comic book canvas sheets on which they illustrate and pen their stories in the framework of comic book panels. Students focus on working in the panels previously envisioned through the manuscript starter. In this stage the title and cover design are conceived. The only rule for students is that every panel must contain some text.

"Getting to see the work that students do with our manuscript starter and comic book canvas is completely inspiring," said Dark Horse Project manager Leigh Stone. "Whether it's middle school students working on comics based on an anti-violence theme, or high school students creating comics illustrating pivotal events of the 1920s, all of the examples I see clearly show that the students put effort and care into their work. I love working on an educational program that kids actually enjoy."

A group of judges reviews the comic books and decides which stories will be published in the print edition. One story from each participating school is chosen and drawn by a professional comic book artist. A panel of each child's work, selected by that child, will be displayed on the project's Web site.

This year, the comic books will use both the children's art and the artist's work side by side, so that readers can experience the entire creative process.

"I think it's a motivating approach to literacy. The kids seem really engaged -- it's interesting how the project is able to work with a variety of disciplines," said Harold Abeles, Teachers College professor and co-director of Center for Arts Education Research.

"The kids are responding positively because the comic books give them a chance to do an artistic project that helps them express who they are," said Bitz. "Kids in inner city schools don't always get the chance to do these types of projects because often arts education goes by the wayside."

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Published: Feb 11, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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