Comics in the Classroom

Jesse Brown, a BoingBoing guest blogger, is the host of TVO's Search Engine podcast.

When I was a kid I was often reprimanded and sometimes even kicked out of class for drawing comics in school. Now, research has shown that comics are a great way to turbo-charge literacy in reluctant readers (especially in boys), and comics are suddenly being welcomed into classrooms all over the world.

With this in mind, my partners at Bitstrips and I have developed Bitstrips for Schools, an educational comic-making service. We piloted it last spring in a handful of Ontario classrooms, and the kids went crazy for it, creating almost 3000 comic strips in six weeks time (see video). Their creativity has astounded me, as have the incredibly cool and dedicated teachers I've had the chance to work with (link).

Bitstrips for Schools has since been licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Education, which means that 2 million kids now have at their fingertips the tools to make their own comics.

We also just introduced a "self-serve" option that lets teachers outside of Ontario buy cheap one-classroom licenses.

So yes, in interests of full disclosure, this is a plug for a website I have an interest in. But it's also a website I'm super proud to be a part of!

Bitstrips for Schools.


  1. I remember in about Grade 5 in Ottawa I was sent outside the classroom, which was a prefab portable at our overflowing school, because I was drawing in my notepad while listening to the math teacher. I’ve always had this habit of minor distraction while listening and think about a lesson or lecture.

    I was sent outside with my paper and pencil to “enjoy doodling” which is exactly what I did, only I missed the rest of the lesson.

    I only wish she had asked me to repeat what she had been saying instead of kicking me out, she might have been surprised.

  2. It works with reluctant readers in college too (read: engineers). In my English classes at Georgia Tech we read Watchmen and LoEG.

  3. It started as a gag, but many years ago I brought a bunch of comic books (mostly Marvel) to a freshman comp class and we extracted words for a vocabulary test. Among all the many CRACKs, BANGs, and KA-POWs there were words like sentient, lambent, nullify, bioverse, retrograde, oscillate, etc. One of my colleagues printed up the list and distributed it to faculty and staff under the heading: “Are You Smart Enough To Read A Comic Book?”

  4. Actually I remember reading about a guy who taught EFL kids in Thailand and how he read them this really great webcomic called Gunnerkrigg Court.

    He put videos up on Youtube.

  5. it would be nice if the price was a bit more apparent – i clicked through the site and aside from the “free trial” tab, couldn’t find any mention of cost

  6. One has to be careful, however, that comic books serve as a link or a partner with other forms of writing (and usually the more difficult ones to comprehend) like novels or poetry. Certainly, comic books can be just as artistic or intelligent or vocab-heavy as a novel. But the nature of comics as a partially visual medium eliminates or reduces numerous features to be learned from the pure written word.

    Sorry, teacher pedagogy. I’ve used comics in my English classes from time to time, and read a ton of them on my own. There’s just been a danger in modern education to say, “Hey, at least they’re reading!” without paying any attention to what they’re getting from what they’re reading.

  7. >But the nature of comics as a partially visual medium eliminates or reduces numerous features to be learned from the pure written word.

    true, but comics are also a great to get to getting ppl into learning to draw and developing their own visual style. this focuses on the literacy angle and sidesteps the gfx side, but in general it’s good to see a comics positive attitude in .edu.

  8. That looks like a neat tool for the classroom. I could see how you might use it in place of things like power point to make or assign a presentation. There isn’t any academic content on the site, though. The students or the teacher, depending on who was making the presentation, would need to get that somewhere else, which shouldn’t be too difficult. I just wonder if future iterations of this product might include the grade-specific, state standards for learning, in addition to the very cool comic making mechanisms. :)

  9. I am in favor of anything that gets a reluctant reader to read. If you consider pot a ‘gateway drug’, why not let comics be a ‘gateway media’. Spiderman and Superman (even if they just like the pictures) may get them into Captain Underpants, then Diary of a Wimpy Kid, then Shredderman, and look out! You’ve just created a reader.

    It’s already been established that graphic novels can have literary merit; while I wouldn’t throw Where the Red Fern Grows out of the classroom just yet, I might consider reading something like Persepolis or Tale of One Bad Rat in the classroom. Then analyzing it from a literary stance.

  10. Makes sense to me. Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have become the gold standard for early readers if his illustrations weren’t so fun to look at.

  11. This would have been my undoing if I’d had to use it in school for a grade. I have always been good with words, but anything visual goes right over my head. To this day, films with any subtle visual symbolism have to be explained to me.

    I don’t think Bitstrips is a “gateway to literacy,” implying that proper literacy should be verbal. People process the world in different ways, and this sounds like a great tool for students who are more inclined to think visually, which is in no way inferior to verbal thinking.

    Writing and reading are not the one true literacy. Until recently, they have just been the cheapest, most efficient way for most people to communicate with the world beyond earshot. That’s changing, and it’s a wonderful thing. We’re not losing our depth and meaning in communication. We’re opening up new methods of expression, and now all those other students who saw nothing recognizable in the words I found so meaningful can converse across the world in ways that mystify me and my verbal cohorts.

    Actually, while there is not much academic content on the site at the moment, teachers can create and save their own assignments (which may or may not match your local curriculum requirements) and then they can optionally choose to share these assignments with other Bitstrips for Schools teachers.

    As use of the site grows, so will the repository of available lessons!

  13. This post couldn’t have been better timed for me.
    I am about to start teaching the graphic novel Persepolis in my AP Language and Composition class. I have been wracking my brain for an assessment that gives my students a chance to move beyond analysis, synthesis and persuasion in the traditional written form (we do enough of that). I think this may be the answer!
    Using Persepolis as a springboard, I can imagine my students exploring their own cultural history, important events in their own lives, or some other sort of relevant content in this ultra-cool comic format.
    I will let you know how it goes. Thanks for the inspiration.

  14. Funny. I was just thinking that something I would really like to do with my life is design and publish a series of textbooks – say, biology, physics, etc. in the graphic novel format.

    As a youth as an avid reader, having read dozens of history books, I remember “The Comic Book History of the Universe” being the best history book I ever read. It was funny, engaging, and full of facts. It was so easy and fun to read, and gave a lot of understanding. I think if every American read this series, the public grasp of history would increase 1000%. I think this idea could be applied extremely to almost any subject.

  15. I’m all for comics in the schools and host a weekly afternoon club at my son’s elementary. We’ve got a lot of non-readers, pre-readers in the group as well as kids who are on the autism spectral scale and have down syndrome. We talk a lot about sequential movement, how our eyes track things on a page and how this mirrors the reading process, also how it can set up verbal and visual jokes.

    Using software to create and share content is great and I’m very behind the process, especially if there is an opportunity for online collaboration,but it isn’t actually comic creation. From what I could see from the site, the kids are using preset characters and then using selection tools for expressions and features.

    My younger friends love the physical act of drawing their story as much as telling it. It isn’t just about artistic expression, but creating a context for combining visual and verbal literacy. The characters the kids choose to illustrate are amazingly diverse- Vikings, kittens, robot skeletons…They work hard on their characters using facial and physical movement which move the story forward along with the text. This freedom gives them the ability to do things which can be limited through language- a person can describe a nervous hand opening a closet door, but it is something quite different to see that as a single frame close-up panel with shadows and accompanying text describing a dark stormy night. One of our favorite exercises, which I’ve done with older kids and adults is to have each student illustrate a line from Jabberwocky- “Vorpal blade goes snicker snak” is almost always amazing.

  16. ‘Now, research has shown that comics are a great way to turbo-charge literacy in reluctant readers’


    Scroll down to the bottom where there’s a section titled ‘Listed below is our current inventory of old and obscure comic books, recordings, other things of interest:’

  17. thanks for the post…

    as a teacher, i’ve seen how these sites can help with the development of language arts; however,teachers need to be able to teach the core skills of doing any project: planning, organization, research, evaluation, etc.

    more importantly, kids get bogged down in cosmetics when using comic strip generator/animation sites or other online mediums. teaching students how to use their time wisely is hard, but truly beneficial. i’ve seen tons of teachers use these tools as an excuse for higher order thinking.

    also, there are a ton of free comic generators out there for educators with little money to burn. google free comic generators.

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