Open any children’s book—Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, take your pick—and you’ll experience rich visual imagery combined with literary text. We present these books to young children, knowing that they will adore the pictures, engage in the narratives, seek more books, eventually learn to read, and hopefully love to read. Yet as children get older and enter school systems, the pictures quickly fall by the wayside. We expect students to become “serious” readers, working toward paragraph-based chapter books and the accepted canon of classic literature. For those students, like me, who loved to read at an early age, this entrenched method was a non-issue. For countless others, however, reading was, and still is, a struggle and seemingly insurmountable barrier to success in school.
Yet pictures were not on my mind during my first teaching experience with an unwieldy class of thity-four New York City fifth-graders. I clearly remember a group of four boys in the back of the room who ignored everything I said and opted instead to draw Pokemon characters. More out of frustration than anything, I told the boys that if they would write words in cartoon balloons next to their drawings, I could evaluate their writing and give them a grade. I liken that statement to the starting gun of a race: BOOM!!
The boys were off creating comics—volume after volume of written, artistic narratives designed in class, during recess, after school, on the bus, and wherever else they could find a flat surface. It should come as no surprise that the boys’ writing improved dramatically. They became dedicated readers of comics and other books, and they went on to achieve great things in school.
And for me, the seed was planted for the Comic Book Project
, an initiative that I founded in 2001 to engage youths from high-poverty neighborhoods in the process of planning, writing, designing, and publishing original comic books. CBP has since grown to become an international model for literacy engagement and reinforcement, with tens of thousands of comic books created by students in grades K–12 from Florida to Hawaii, Mexico to Nigeria. The growth of CBP has been largely due to the partnerships that we have built with organizations and people who champion our cause of creativity as a crucial element of literacy learning.
I took the opportunity to reflect on the Comic Book Project in my book Manga High: Literacy, Identity, and Coming of Age in an Urban High School
(Harvard Education Press, 2009). This book is a thorough analysis of a high-school comic-book club in New York City. Throughout the book, I present the students’ adoration of and dedication to creating manga
—Japanese-style comic books. In particular, I aimed to highlight all the literacy skills and processes embedded into the student manga, and all the opportunities that were missed by classroom teachers to engage these same students in reading and writing.
We continue on with the Comic Book Project and other educational innovations under my nonprofit Center for Educational Pathways
. The mission is to transform how teachers teach and students learn in the classroom. Through creativity and entrepreneurship there are so many opportunities for students to get excited about content while reinforcing the nuts and bolts of writing: punctuation, grammar, spelling, and much more. This shift in classroom practice is the answer to addressing what I have been calling the “engagement gap” in our schools. It’s how we can transform education from inside classrooms rather than budget offices and boardrooms.
I hope you join us on our journey of creative learning. See you along the way.