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Otakon 2009: Manga, Literacy, and Children

Otakon 2009

Media Conventions
Genre Event
Publisher Otakorp, Inc.
Release Date 07/18/09
Website Otakon

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July 21, 2009

by: Jeremy Shepherd

As manga fans become educators, a new generation of readers and creators is born.

Otakon's first day started early with the usual troubles acquiring breakfast and getting organized before running to the "Manga, Literacy, and Children" fan panel at 10:15 a.m. And Shine Heaven Now's Erin "Ptah" and Sparkling Generation Valkyrie Yuuki's "Kittyhawk" introduced the panel while Strange Candy's John Baird, known on his site as "Xuanwu," wrangled Baltimore's public transit system. At the center of the panel's topics was the Create a Comic Project, a youth literacy program started by Mr. Baird and hosted by Comic Genesis.

It all began when Mr. Baird traveled to Taiwan as part of an English as a Second Language (ESL) abroad program. By his description, the three primary East Asian countries to sponsor these programs are China, Japan, and Taiwan, with China offering the least expense for the lowest standards of the three, Japan having the highest standards but also the great expenses, and Taiwan falling into a kind of happy medium. Taiwan's middle of the road nature is made more attractive, he admits, by the locally produced anime merchandise available at a quarter of the U.S. import price.

While teaching English to young students in Taiwan, Mr. Baird took note of their interest in manga and had a bit of an epiphany. With minimal equipment available, he began editing comic panels in Microsoft Paint to clear the text from speech bubbles. Bulk printing these textless strips as black and white drafts on a personal printer, he gave them to his students and instructed them to create their own stories by writing in the empty bubbles. Immersion being one of the most important aspects of language acquisition, getting learners to write original texts in their secondary language is a great method to embed the words, spelling, and grammar into their minds, while premade comics provide a simple and accessible medium for tapping the students' creativity.

After some success with his students in Taiwan, Mr. Baird and his friends in Web comics, Erin "Ptah" and "Kittyhawk," began collaborating to make the Create a Comic Project and bring these English teaching methods to more schools and more countries, including impoverished U.S. towns where literacy is low. The title of the project, Mr. Baird confesses, is a bit of a joke. The acronym being CCP doesn't resonate with the students, but his fellow teachers in Taiwan groaned at the pun: he was getting Taiwanese children to use an acronym also associated with the Chinese Communist Party.

Since its inception, the Create a Comic Project has flourished thanks to the broader Web comics community. Some comics already held under Creative Commons Education licenses were made available, and those who weren't began adopting these policies or donating their strips to the cause. Technically speaking, within certain boundaries, these comics can already be borrowed for educational purposes under Fair Use policies, but being comic creators themselves, the CCP team chooses to gain explicit permission first. They've garnered a lot of submissions since then, from popular strips such as Dinosaur Comics, Dr. McNinja, Evil Diva, Little Dee, Octopus Pie, Penny Arcade, Questionable Content, Spamusement! and XKCD, as well as their own comics, just to name a few. Even Ghastly's Ghastly Comic provided a few kid-friendly strips (unlinked for its more frequent, extremely mature content).

At the heart of the project, though, is the manga that helped get things started. Series from VIZ Kids and Yen Press, such as the prolific and comical Yotsuba&!, have proven important tools for getting kids into the game. Manga such as Naruto and One Piece are not only more popular with children than Web comics, the CCP team has encountered more students who read these manga than North American comics such as Iron Man. Though many of these comics contain what some might consider more mature material than the average American comic, they've encountered no significant issues with parents objecting to the material their children read or adapt into their own manga, nor have they had problems with children adapting between the English left-to-right and the Japanese right-to-left standards. It's only with their own Web comics that they've occasionally had to remove mature content for their younger pupils.

In a sense, this sort of project was already growing organically on the Web. Forums such as 4chan have long had games where users can fill in the blanks of a comic template to create their own story. In its natural form, however, this is more a tool for humor than education, and younger children are out of the loop. What the Create a Comic Project does is bring this to children who aren't on the Web and use it to help them learn, but they're also interested in developing these Web games as an educational tool. Mr. Baird himself has used the project to teach groups of anywhere from five to two hundred students, as well as one-on-one tutelage.

One thing this process has highlighted is children's unfamiliarity with Web comics. The vast majority of students taught with these methods don't even know what Web comics are, and according to the CCP team, most of those who learn about them want to create their own. That inspiration alone would make these sessions worth every effort, but the direct benefits to children's understanding and literacy are plentiful. While there have been no controlled studies yet — something Mr. Baird expressed an interest in conducting after acquiring his graduate degree — he's seen a lot of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of his work. A fifteen minute writing project during each class, he says, does wonders to eliminate the disparities of literacy rates among the undereducated poor and the middle-class students.

While the primary age group targeted by the project is around ten to twelve years old, the team found no reason to limit the ages at which students can enjoy and learn from these activities. Teenagers and adults with low English literacy can have as much fun and learn just as well, though the higher the age, the more reluctance they found toward actively participating, highlighting the importance of getting people to be as creative as possible while young and to encourage creative endeavors at all ages. While the occasional six-year-old student can prove more skilled than even some of the twelve-year-olds, many from the ages of six to nine need additional assistance. In those cases of students more oral than literate, Mr. Baird found it helpful to use an overhead projector and ask the students what they wanted the comics to say while writing it for them.

Though the Create a Comic Project is still relatively small compared to other education initiatives, they're receiving enough submissions of strips written by children to publish two a day for the next several years at least. What comes next? Increased awareness of the project and its benefits will be crucial to truly engaging students in literate education. Plenty of artists have already offered their material for educational use, but when it comes to education, the more material available the more students will find things that interest them. The project itself adopts a Creative Commons philosophy. While Baird, "Ptah," and "Kittyhawk" have worked to establish this initiative, they're not holding it as their own, and educators from all walks of life are welcomed to adopt their practices without contacting them for permission or using the CCP name. They encourage artists to leave their material open for educational use without claiming it for themselves.

What one can't help but wonder is what sort of things can be done to help programs like this get established. What local teachers and education officials might people contact about adopting these ideas? In what ways can more material be provided for those teachers to use? While it's tempting to wish the CCP team luck, I'd rather take some initiative myself and contact the libraries and schools down the street.

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