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Grade 6 student Nathaniel McMurray creates a comic using Bitstrips at Charles Howitt Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2009. (Charla Jones)
Grade 6 student Nathaniel McMurray creates a comic using Bitstrips at Charles Howitt Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2009. (Charla Jones)

Comic relief comes to Ontario classrooms Add to ...

Eleven-year-old Nathaniel McMurray could tell you lots about the culture of Scotland. But he'd rather let Wee Angus do it.

"He's supposed to be a Scottish guy," Nathaniel says, reluctantly heaving his eyes from the computer screen. He's just finished pulling together eyes, a nose, a leprechaun hat and other features that he coloured, reshaped and assembled to create the star of his comic strip on Scotland.

On every desk of the Grade 5/6 class at Charles Howitt Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., a black laptop is logged into a Web-based program for making comics. At one time, this would have been seen as a misuse of school computers. But for Ontario students this year, it will be schoolwork.

Nearly 42,000 kids are already using Bitstrips for Schools to make comics, even if they can't draw. Ontario's Ministry of Education paid $180,000 for a licence to use the software this school year. The hope is it will boost literacy for boys like Nathaniel.

In provincial test results, girls perform better in reading and writing, a "gender gap" that has shown up for five years straight. Grade 6 boys lagged female counterparts in writing by 27 per cent last year.

Comics help to pique boys' interest in school, says Jennifer Rowsell, an education professor at Rutgers University who studies comics and literacy. "If you just stick with the beloved five-paragraph essay, you're not going to speak to boys."

It's working for Nathaniel.

"[Angus]starts telling you about how Scotland invented the game of golf," he says, eagerly narrating the comic to come. "And some great things like haggis and shepherd's pie that came out of Scotland."

Nathaniel's teacher, Royan Lee, watches over the classroom - wandering among desks, and logging in to see what students are up to. Each class has a password: Students can see each other's work and talk to their teacher, but are invisible to the rest of the Net.

It keeps kids in "a little walled garden" at school, says Jacob (Ba) Blackstock, one of the founders of Bitstrips. It started as a "YouTube for comics," a site to make and post strips. The company was run out of Mr. Blackstock's Toronto living room until last year.

He and co-founder Jesse Brown, a tech journalist formerly with CBC, revamped the software for schools. After a pilot project in April, Ontario bought in. Students now make roughly 2,500 comics a day.

"It's an explosion of creativity," Mr. Blackstock says.

Internet-age kids, both boys and girls, turn off easily in class, Prof. Rowsell says. "Teachers are competing with these very advanced forms of communication outside of school ... students like [comics] and they're motivated by them. They understand them. They invest in them."

Mr. Lee has seen the effect. "I don't have to convince the students to do their work," he says in a delighted whisper. In his digital-savvy classroom, kids learn to podcast, make slideshows and Google wisely.

"We need more of that in schools. Not just worksheets," he says. "We're trying to focus on really communicating information in a dynamic way ... not just random facts or memorization."

Eleven-year-old Dana Gold

berg's tiny wrists flit back and forth over the keyboard as she checks her notes. She breathlessly describes plans for her comic, her voice lilting at the end of each sentence like a question.

"I have all my information?" she says. "About the country? I have to find out what's important? I have to find which information goes where?"

These skills - researching, note-taking, communicating the information - will serve students well when they start writing essays, Mr. Lee says.

That's attracting attention. Bitstrips just hired a distributor to sell its software. So far, 58 private schools in Ontario, 16 more schools across Canada and seven in the U.S. are paid subscribers. A North American school in Saudi Arabia has also signed on. And teachers around the globe, from India to Slovenia, Singapore and Chile, have used its free trial.

In Richmond Hill, Jonathan Narodetsky has surfer-dude blond hair and a matching demeanour. But he's hard at work, typing the population of Russia into a speech balloon and giving a character a Santa hat for good measure.

Comics are better than essays, he says. "It's just easier, to write it. It's fun."

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