Illustration by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.
A funny thing happens when you give kids an online tool for creative freedom: they run with it. If any one thing can be gleaned from the runaway success of Bitstrips for Schools—a web-based comic-generating platform that recently reached its one millionth strip in Ontario—it’s that hands-on interactive learning engages students in ways that traditional instruction simply can’t match.
“It’s a great instant creative device, another way of communicating ideas,” says Royan Lee, a grade 5–6 teacher at Charles Howitt Public School in Richmond Hill who has been using the site with his students since last school year. “And it’s very engaging for students as a result. It also speaks to different learning styles and multiple intelligences. It just gives them another option; in education, we call that a differentiated instruction. So, having as much differentiation as possible to attend to the different needs of students and not just one mode of communication or one mode of literacy.”
Class portrait of Barb Morris’s Grade 6/7s from Gracefield Public School in St. Catharines.
Though Bitstrips may seem tailor-made for the shifting literacies of the Web 2.0–era classroom, the application was initially developed for grownups—specifically, comic geeks. When the original site launched at the 2008 South by Southwest music and arts festival in Austin, Texas, it was envisioned as a tool for sidestepping the laborious hurdles of the traditional pen-and-paper cartooning process. With Bitstrips, anyone would be able to make comics, regardless of artistic limitations or time constraints.
The site was born out of the collaboration between two old high-school pals from Toronto, cartoonist Jacob “Ba” Blackstock and journalist Jesse Brown. Brown recalls that when Blackstock came up with the original idea for Bitstrips, he was eager to jump on board to co-develop the project.
“I used to draw comics,” Brown recalls, “but I gave it up because it’s so difficult and time-consuming to tell a story in comic book form, drawing the same characters again and again in these tiny little panels, and just the amount of draftsmanship required. And even if you can do it well, which I never could, it takes years to make a story.” The idea of putting a free picture storytelling tool in the hands of anyone with internet access excited him. In a 2008 interview with Wired following Bitstrips’ South by Southwest launch, Brown described his vision for the site as a sort of “YouTube for comics.”
Within a year of the original site’s inception, Blackstone and Brown responded to teacher requests for a classroom-friendly version of the program with a pilot version of Bitstrips for Schools, which the duo distributed to a handful of Ontario educators. Jay Major, a grade 5 teacher at Northern Lights Public School in Aurora, was among this early group of teachers to test out the pilot, and he has been using the site in his classroom ever since.
“I really like the idea that I can assign the work to kids and they can do it at home,” says Major, “because our school population is such that the vast majority of kids do have internet access. So it’s something that kids can work on at home, but it’s still fun and it’s still related to language, so it’s the best of all worlds.”
By Ethan from Deborah Zamin’s Grade 8 class from John English Junior Middle School in Etobicoke
Jodi Caverzan Wells, a grade 7 teacher at St. Bernadette School in Barrie, was also an early classroom adopter of the pilot site. She has used Bitstrips for teaching a number of different subjects, but has found the application especially useful for language-related exercises such as grammar instruction. Wells appreciates the level of student engagement generated by Bitstrips, as opposed to more traditional teaching methods. “I could give the same writing activity on paper and pencil and maybe get three-quarters of the class to hand something in, but if I put something on Bitstrips or another website, I get 100%.”
Kids aren’t just making Bitstrips for school. “The web allows you to track the usage really exactly, and 40% of the comics that kids are making are being made on the weekends or after school,” says Brown. “So, on the one hand we’re seeing lots of great comics that are absolutely curriculum-based. But [kids are] also making comics in their spare time, just to express themselves and to tell stories.”
As Brown explains, Bitstrips for Schools is a content-generating platform as well as a social media site, which means that kids are making and sharing comics starring themselves and their friends, and even remixing each other’s works. “They are just incredibly creative and bizarre,” says Brown.
Lee also enjoys how the comics showcase the humour of some of his students, recalling a class yearbook Bitstrips assignment he gave at the end of the last school year. “It was interesting to see what students remembered from their year, the memories that they cherished and the ones that they found funny. Those kinds of projects were really awesome.”
By Spencer from Sandra Silver’s Grade 2/3 class at Linbrook Public School in Oakville.
Major agrees that self-reflective assignments make for some of the most entertaining Bitstrips, recalling a particular self-portrait activity where some of the students’ visual representations were, as he recalls, “very much enhanced, shall we say.”
“So many grade 5 kids come up with facial hair, for some reason,” says Major. “I don’t know if they’ve got goatee envy or what it is, but every once in awhile you get one that does a self-portrait and he’s got a moustache or a beard or something. It’s always interesting that way.”
It’s this kind of creative licence that pleases Brown. “The wonderful thing about moving from something like journalism, where you’re always signing off on the final version of a story, to something like this, where you’re putting a tool into people’s hands and they get to make the content,” he says, “is that it’s so gratifying and shocking what people do with your tool to make their own stories in ways that you never would have anticipated. Some of them are just brilliant.”