Last in a series of occasional articles highlighting the philosophies and techniques of innovative teachers.
Michael Bitz, a teacher and educational researcher, has long had an interest in comic books -- but not as entertainment. He sees them as the perfect teaching tool.
Bitz is the founder of the Comic Book Project, which allows children to use their storytelling skills -- through drawing and writing -- and create comic books based on educational themes.
A team of experts picks the most successful ones, and the students' works are published by Dark Horse Comics, one of the country's largest comic-book publishers, whose line includes "Shrek" and "Star Wars." They are distributed free to kids in schools across the country.
"It's my favorite project ever," said 11-year-old Marchanna Bentley, a fifth-grader at Scranton Elementary School in Cleveland, where she collaborated with two classmates on a comic strip story about the evils of racism. "I love to read comic books -- 'Archie' and others -- but I never thought I could do my own. I developed my artistic skills and learned where to put the [dialogue] bubbles. I learned how to write stories, too."
Bitz started the project in 2001 as a senior research assistant at the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University's Teachers College. He is also an adjunct education professor at Manhattanville College outside New York City.
He wanted to combine his research findings -- that learning through the arts can have academic and social value for children -- with a creative approach to get kids to combine skills such as reading, writing, brainstorming and conceptualizing ideas. Creating comic books, he said, would allow them to draw on their experiences and interests.
"There is no field where research is so far removed from practice than in education," he said. "I really wanted to try to take that knowledge [gained from research] and turn it into something that schools could really use as a way of bringing creativity back into children's lives and into the learning process."
A native of New York City, Bitz launched the project modestly, as a single after-school program in Queens, and later expanded it to after-school programs in other parts of the city. In the past year, he partnered with the After-School Corp. -- a nonprofit organization that provides grants, training and other resources to schools and community groups in New York -- to allow children in dozens of after-school programs to create comic books focused on environmental awareness. A collection of those comics was published in a book titled "Save Our City, Save Our Planet."
"It was more than fun for the kids," said Ganyu Young, a teacher at Public School 89 in the Bronx. "They practiced storytelling and used skills they normally wouldn't after school. But if they just had to write a story, they wouldn't have been so enthusiastic about it."
In the Cleveland public schools this year, art teachers teamed with English language arts teachers to help students create comic strips during class on conflict resolution. The result was a comic book titled "Peace in Our Schools."
Deron Leutenegger, an art teacher at Robert H. Jamison Elementary School in Cleveland, said it is hard to assess how much students learn from any single project. But this one lasted for about eight weeks, every day for 40 minutes, and helped keep the children focused on an important topic -- staying out of trouble.
Art teacher Denise Thomas, at Cleveland's Scranton Elementary, said her fifth-graders worked on comics project from December through April. The students had never devoted so much time to a project, Thomas said, and she was skeptical at first about whether they'd stick with it. But they were glued, she said.
"Now they know they have the ability to do long-term projects," she said.
What's more, said 10-year-old "Spider-Man" enthusiast Danielle Dunn, the students learned how to cooperate. "Teamwork," she said. "That's what I learned mostly."
With thousands of students now involved in the project, Bitz said he hopes to expand it beyond New York and Cleveland, despite school budget cuts across the country that are shrinking arts programs. Meanwhile, teachers at some schools in other cities use the comics project on their own, and some summer programs are using it, too. Arts teachers say the project is so inexpensive -- about $6 a student -- that it is accessible to programs on the tightest of budgets.
Bitz spends most of his time training teachers. The timing of the project couldn't be better, he said, with the surging popularity of comic books and movies based on comic book heroes, such as "Spider-Man."
"Kids are back into comic books like nobody's business," he said. "And we are giving them an opportunity to create their own and express themselves through art. I really think it can make a difference in some of the lives of kids who need it most."