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Otakon 09: Manga, Literacy & Children

Some of Erin Ptah's art for the Create A Comic Project

Though it started a little late due to Light Rail issues, this panel proved wonderful to anyone who’s ever noticed that a frighteningly large percent of high-school students can’t read something as simple as Dr. Seuss. Even the panelists were surprised to see people there, ready to absorb whatever it was the discussion would entail. What that was turned out to be the details behind a couple of projects, centered around manga, for the benefits of literacy (for children as well as others).

The panel was comprised of John Baird, Erin Ptah , and Kate (Kitty) Hawk. Respectively, the first two work on the Create A Comic Project, while the latter works on Learn to Draw Manga program.

Create A Comic is the brain-child of Baird, who concocted a new means of practicing language by using English inside a visual medium. Predominately used for Elementary Education and English as a Second Language students, the program (at its barest of bones) requires students to fill in the word bubbles of comics that have had their original text erased. In reality, though, the project is much more.

It was originally implemented in 2005 by Baird while teaching English in Taiwan, where he integrated comics with vocabulary lessons. He then brought the program home to Yale, where he reached out to children in the nearby urban community. Through originally contributed artwork as well as artwork licensed from other artists, Baird and his loyal team focus learning on free-form associative writing, which helps students retain the knowledge imbued by their experiences within the project via expansion of application.

Experiments/instructions have been performed with as little as 5 and as many as 200 kids at a time, ranging from age 6 and up. While most effective on students from 10-12 years old, the program offers benefits to participants of every age (and possibly degree of mental health). The most difficult group, however, tends to be teenagers, for reasons of internal hormone rage and a sense of distance with regard to maturity from the material. Children aged 6-8 can reap the benefits as a class discussion/language exercise, while children aged 8-10 will evolve in accuracy and grammar but with what will usually be very simplistic sentences.

No matter the age range, the left-to-right vs. right-to-left issue is generally inconsequential; most kids pick up the flow of the story/panels with little deviation. Even when purposefully misled, the children (and teacher) still find value in reading their stories backwards. Interestingly noted by Baird: if Create A Comic was implemented as one of the recommended 15 minute writing exercises at the beginning of each scholastic year, it could possibly prove to be just as much a leveling device as other programs when it comes to bridging the gap between the writing skills of minorities and Caucasians.

Although young, the Create A Comic project already has proven success stories. At least 2 of its disciples have created Web-comics of their own and landed interviews with Nick (Nickelodeon) News. The website offers templates (with and without blank bubbles, but always age-appropriate) for download and free distribution under a creative license designed for educational use to encourage more students to do the same. And if you, reader, decide to use any of the material or techniques involved in this program, be sure to drop Mr. Baird a line and include your thanks as well as a copy of the results yielded from the experience. The man’s on a mission of promoting literacy. And judging from what goes on in some classrooms today, we need all the techniques and help we can get to make sure future generations can continue to enjoy all life has to offer.

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