Superpowers and School: Comics Empower Students to Academic Greatness

Would you choose super strength or the ability to turn invisible? Students at the Eagle Academy for Young Men in Newark, NJ carefully consider this and many other superpower-based questions. But for sixth-graders this January, the super hero alter egos they chose would affect the rest of their school year. Thanks to a unique project called 12 Comics and the expanded learning time provided by Citizen Schools, this team was getting energized about learning through comic art. The superheroes now represent their school achievements, and the better they do in class, the more powerful they become.

12 Comics CEO and Founder Mark Hair believes that comics are actually an effective way to engage students in their schoolwork and excite them about history, science, and literature. Since 2003, he has been leading projects that allow every student to create a superhero and then incorporate the superheroes into their lessons.

Student works during extended learning time on his superhero.

12 Comics offers students physical representation of their hard work and effort through trading cards and stories featuring their superheroes. Superheroes grow in strength and prominence based on student grades, test scores, and completed homework assignments. Students want to see their superheroes gain more power and that means doing well on their assignments, or missions.

The science mission involves students learning about the science of superhero abilities through the study of biology and physics. Students learn about historical events, such as writing a short story of what would happen if their superhero stopped the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, Jr.  Adding a personal superhero into the curriculum inspires students to think about lessons in a new, innovative way.

Using comics to engage students in learning is unconventional, but it works. “I loved seeing how engaged the students were during the creative process,” said Allyson Cook, the Deputy Campus Director for Citizen Schools at Eagle Academy.

“The scholars began to be more proactive to excelling, knowing their progress reports and report grades directly affected their hero,” says Shakirah Islam, the AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow who led the comic art apprenticeship.

Eagle Academy student shows off his superhero.

“It was the only apprenticeship that I’ve experience where the students had to be basically kicked out of class because they wanted to stay and finish their missions.” said Islam. Students talked about the comic art program in the hallways and always looked forward to it. Students competed with each other about their word count, an indication of their superhero strength.

12 Comics and Citizen Teachers are natural allies brought together by the experiences of Eagle Academy for Young Men’s Operations Manager, Thomas Owens. Owen’s son went through the 12 Comics program and saw first-hand the benefits of stimulating creativity to raise school engagement.

With Citizen Schools' extended learning time integrated into the school's culture, innovative programs like 12 Comics can fit in seamlessly into the learning day. If the staff of Eagle Academy had superpowers, they would probably have the ability to make partnerships transform.