Kids can learn through comic relief

Creating a teaching program that children see as play and not work is difficult, but a new literacy program aims to tackle this challenge by commandeering a favorite childhood entertainment: comic books.

Created by John Baird EPH ’07 and held free of charge at the New Haven Free Public Library, the Create a Comic Project uses Internet-based comics to improve children’s creative writing skills — an approach that encourages creative expression but is simple enough so that students at various levels of proficiency in English can benefit. Local elementary school students participating in the program are given comic templates with the text blanked out and then write a story by filling the empty speech or thought bubbles.

The New Haven Free Public Library’s new Create a Comic Project aims to instruct schoolchildren in creative writing using templates made from Web comics.
Ming-Yee Lin
The New Haven Free Public Library’s new Create a Comic Project aims to instruct schoolchildren in creative writing using templates made from Web comics.

Baird said he originally developed the approach while teaching English in Taiwan for the Hess Educational Organization in summer 2005. He taught English as a second language, which made creative writing exercises involving prose too difficult for first and second-year students, he said.

“The breakthrough occurred when I came across [a comic] … with the text blanked out,” he said. “Students then filled in the blank comics in English using whatever language skills they possessed.”

Idea in hand, he used a similar Web comic to make templates for his students to fill out. It proved so successful, he said, that the Hess Educational Organization began publishing the comics as part of its official curriculum in August 2005, and eventually began using it to teach students across the Republic of China and Singapore. In November 2006, he initiated the program at the New Haven Free Public Library as a stand-alone after-school activity, providing children with a productive way to occupy their time, he said.

Although it has only been a few months since the program began, Baird said, he has noticed his students’ writing skills improve significantly. He encourages students to observe cues in the pictures when writing in dialogue — a method he feels teaches them how to creates scenes that are situation-appropriate. If the students see an angry person in the comic, he said, they learn not to use words that connote happiness. With time, they are also encouraged to draw their own comics.

Barbara Hendrix, a staff member at the library, called the program “wonderful,” saying it is often difficult to get children interested in reading and art. The program provides an appealing alternative for children who are bored by doing academic work after sitting in school all day, Hendrix said. The ease of using the comics to improve their writing also boosts their self-confidence, she said.

“I think if they did this for a long time, it could make a deep impact on at least a few kids,” she said.

Kate Cosgrove, another staff member at the library, said the unique program has encouraged children to willingly express their creativity — an accomplishment she called commendable. Comics have always been popular with children, she said, and although it is difficult to measure direct improvement, the fact that kids return on a regular basis indicates they truly enjoy the program.

“It is wonderful, the work John is doing as a volunteer,” she said.

Currently, the program is only conducted at the main branch of the library, but Baird hopes to pitch the program to public schools as an optional activity once he has perfected it. Cosgrove said the library may eventually expand the program to its other branches.

The classes are held on Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the children’s room of the public library, located at 133 Elm St.

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