Kids’ comics teach tolerance

Kids’ comics teach tolerance

PARAMUS – Kids and comic books: perfect together.

So went the thinking behind the decision by Elaine Weisfeld, associate principal for general studies at Yavneh Academy here, to bring in The Comic Book Project to augment the fourth grade’s character-education curriculum.

Getting the first look at their finished product are, from left, Ariella Yomtobian, Diba Yomtobian, and Leora Steinhart. Photo by Debbie Abramowitz

Yavneh is one of some 500 schools nationwide to sample the six-year-old project, begun by Columbia Teachers’ College graduate Michael Bitz as a creative alternative to traditional modes of instruction.

"I’d heard about Michael, who is Wyckoff-born," said Weisfeld. "He had this project that sounded appropriate for our school and I thought, ‘Let’s do it in English and Hebrew,’ which would make it unique."

After securing a grant from Teaching Tolerance magazine, Weisfeld arranged for Bitz to present his seminar to the fourth-grade teaching staff, as well as the art and computer teachers.

Rachel Frazer, a longtime fourth-grade teacher and Judaic studies curriculum coordinator for the school’s elementary grades, was enthusiastic about using The Comic Book Project to bring a new dimension to Yavneh’s annual theme, which this year was "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"The first step was learning how comic books work," said Frazer. "Michael Bitz provided sample exercises for the children, such as making faces with different expressions and putting story into dialogue form." Each of the four fourth grades was divided into groups of four or five children, who brainstormed story ideas to illustrate the concepts of tolerance and accepting differences. In each class, two groups were assigned to do a comic in Hebrew, with the help of their teachers and Yavneh’s two National Service volunteers from Israel. The other three groups did theirs in English with the help of their secular-studies teachers.

Over the course of the five-month project, the kids had to learn about working together and pooling talents — an appropriate lesson given the theme, noted Frazer.

"There was some bickering and they had to work out disagreements. That in itself was instructive," she said.

Once each group settled on a plotline, they created characters and figured out how to make them visually consistent from one frame to the next. Dialogue was prepared in the computer room, and printed on labels to glue onto the drawings. "They learned the power of simple pictures to convey emotion," said Frazer. "You don’t have to be the greatest artist to be expressive."

Many of the comics revolve around children feeling left out on the sports field, or the struggles of new kids in town. One story, "Trouble in Candy Paradise," depicts a lollipop and Sour Stick arguing over which one kids like to eat best. They are sentenced by Judge Mint to wallow in chocolate mud, where they help each other through. In the final frame, they are seen happily jumping together into a goody bag.

The comic books, titled "For Goodness Sake" on the English side and "Tovim Hashnayim min ha Echad" ("Two are Better Than One") on the Hebrew side, were printed courtesy of Sandy Alexander Inc., a printing firm owned by Yavneh parent Neil Alexander. Last week, the fourth-graders got a tour of the printing plant.

"We were left feeling that comics are a medium that really engages kids," said Frazer. "When we handed out the finished books, some of the students sat down on the floor in the library and started reading them right away. I even saw one girl reading it while shopping with her mom in Glatt Express!"

On June 6 at 7 p.m., the young artists and writers will have a chance to explain their collaborative effort to the greater community, during a Yavneh-sponsored book fair at Barnes & Noble on Route 17 south here.

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