By Paul Wisenthal, The Huffington Post
Eleven-year old Joe struggled with temper tantrums. His anxieties drove him to physical violence and numerous school suspensions in Wales, United Kingdom. A year ago his uncontrolled outbursts were tempered after James McKeon, a school psychological counselor, began working with him using MakeBeliefsComix.com, one of the world’s most popular educational comic websites.
The troubled teenager learned to channel his anxieties and fears into storytelling using the comics. Working one-on-one twice a week, they tapped into two resources offered by the free site.
One enables visitors to create comic strip stories using comic strip characters created by noted illustrator Tom Bloom, interactive designer Toby Rosser, and best-selling author Bill Zimmerman, the site’s founder. The other provides hundreds of comic printables that ask questions to help users express their deepest thoughts.
“The comic strip and printables sections helped Joe identify a lot of his feelings and he started to empathize with others in his social reactions,” said his counselor in a recent interview. One of the printables used asks the reader to jot down ‘’5 Things that I like about myself.’’
“Struggling to see positive traits about himself, we worked on things he liked about himself.” Over a few weeks, Joe eventually ‘’came up with traits such as ‘I am caring toward younger children’; ‘I’m a good friend’; ‘I’m funny’; ‘I have a good memory’ and ‘I am kind.’ At the beginning of each session, McKeon insisted that Joe tell something nice about himself. “Slowly this built up his own self-esteem and he could then see all the positive traits he had, rather than concentrating on the negatives all the time.’’
CHILDREN WITH AUTISM AND SPECIALS NEEDS CREATE COMICS
In California, Sharon Eilts, a 40-year veteran special education teacher, incorporates the web site’s four-cell comic strips when working with her middle-school students who have autism and special needs.
“Playing on the site instills self-confidence and helps me recognize serious social issues,” she said in a recent interview. She cites the example of a child creating a comic strip on the site which revealed he was being bullied at school.
According to Eilts, the increasing use of educational comics websites provide an easy transition from the morning TV cartoon shows children watched while growing up. “It helps kids relieve their stress levels and avoid face-to-face confrontations. They can control what they feel and think using comic characters they are comfortable with. The site brings out the magic in them.”
Educators Increasingly Using Digital Tools
Three million parents, teachers, students, education professionals, and families, even refugees learning English, are drawn annually toMakeBeliefsComix.com. Utilizing digital resources like the comic generator reflects the effort by educators to think out of the box in order to shrink the historic achievement gap between struggling public schools and others, says Megan Beyer of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
With never enough funds available for special needs education, educators and therapists like Eilts and McKeon are turning to innovative tools like MakeBeliefsComix and other digital aids to stimulate literacy, communication and linguistic skills. They find these web sites help more students became engaged, improve their attention span and increase their class participation.
The American Library Association cites MakeBeliefsComix.com as one of the best children’s web sites. Google, UNESCO and Parent’s Choice Foundation, which evaluates children’s media, acknowledge this award-winning site for its educational value to people of all ages.
With the Help of Comic Prompts, Ben Confronts His Low Self Esteem
In Wales, Ben R., 16, another highly anxious student avoided school, suffered from low self-esteem and felt uncomfortable in social situations. Working together, counselor McKeon and Ben found the writing prompt printables and comic strip on the MakeBeliefsComix site easy to understand and use - and helpful to getting Ben to express his deepest feelings.
For example, one of the illustrated printables McKeon uses asks: ‘’Make believe that wearing a mask could transform you into the person you thought you wanted to be. How would you differ from the way you are now?’’ Another asks: ‘’My happiest memory is...’’ Ben talked about how he’d like to be confident in social situations as he is when he was acting in his drama/theatre group.
“His mask was himself on stage,” said McKeon. “We talked about how far away this was from his ‘true self’ and what he needed to do to become more confident and a braver Ben.” Said Ben, “The site appealed to me because of the way the comics are worded and the stylistic drawings. It felt like a safe place and helped with my self-esteem.”
Growing up in Cwmbran, Torfaen, Wales, a few hours outside of London, both Ben and Joe could not connect socially with other students. They stayed at home all the time. Engaged in isolated activities like watching TV. Joe’s school and Ben’s mother were deeply concerned for the boys’ future education and emotional well-being.
After McKeon introduced them to MakeBeliefsComix, the boys could also select from among the 60 fun, quirky characters (each one shows four different emotions) to create comic strips about difficult social situations. And using the site’s cartoon writing prompts, the students found peaceful resolutions for their deep anxieties.
Confronting worries about going to college, Ben used the web site’s comic strip function to help deal with this. McKeon recalls Ben created a comic strip in which he expressed how he might manage different difficult situations that could arise in college. ‘’This helped him visualize himself managing difficult situations which in turn alleviated his anxieties.’’ Today Ben attends college, has higher self- esteem and is much less anxious in social situations. As for Joe, says McKeon, “He really improved his understanding of others’ feelings. He is also able to manage his own frustrations and anger more effectively and come a long way. I am very proud of him.’’
ACADEMIC INSTRUCTIONAL TOOL
Speech pathologist and clinical supervisor, Maribeth Plankers at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) uses the comic site as an instructional tool for her graduate students. She introduced both the comic creator and the printables of MakeBeliefsComix as important teaching resources during the two-year speech pathologist graduate program at MSUM. Plankers showed one of her student clinicians how to use the site’s resources to improve a boy’s communication skills by his creating comic stories.
She cites the story about 11 year-old Tim (not real name) who visited the university’s speech language and hearing clinic with challenging narrative language issues. The youngster used the different comic characters, each of which expresses four different emotions, to create stories.
Using the comic creator function, he selected a boy character travelling to visit the White House. First he chose the character, then a scene representing travel; after which he chose to write using speech-to-text in the blank speech and thought balloons. “For the first time, Tim managed to tell a story independently, in sequential order”.
“As his confidence grew with the section, he became more engaged and it soon became a game. Tim’s reaction was remarkable. He gained self-confidence in himself and communicated his feelings.’’ She continued, ‘’It’s a very powerful teaching tool.’’
Visiting one of her grandchildren, Plankers introduced her grandson Tristan to MakeBeliefs. The eight-year-old said, “”You can do anything with this app. There’s different things you can do and different characters. The coolest part is you can make up your mind and change it. I like that I only had to write a few words. It’s really cool that you can print your own comic.”
In Sunnyvale, California, special education teacher Sharon Eilts at Columbia Middle School incorporates MakebeliefsComix.Com in her lesson plans at least three times a week.
One of Eilts’ students, Adam, a 12 year-old with mild autism, used his words in the comic strip speech bubbles from the site to communicate deep anger. His comics revealed that he was being subjected to constant bullying in his general education classes. Discovering this,Mrs. Eilts immediately notified the school’s administration to change his classes.
She said, “He used a three-cell comic strip using the alligator [character] and several other cartoon animals’ talk balloons to say what other kids were saying to him.’’ After he was placed in different classes, she witnessed a huge change. “His trust level in my classroom staff improved and he began to communicate his feelings. something challenging for most kids with autism.”
She continued. “Bill’s [Zimmerman’s] creations provide a safe, therapeutic outlet that gives my students the skills and tools to communicate but in a way that is not uncomfortable.”
According to Eilts, some students in her social skills class have the “ah ha “ or light bulb” moment once introduced to the site. Others take some time to be oriented to their iPads, ‘’but it’s always fun and wonderful to see their reactions after they get it.”
Eilts recommends parents and teachers also try other web sites and applications, including Comic Life, Quiet Rev.com, and BookShare (not comic driven) which help those with learning impairments.
IMMIGRANT STUDENTS LEARN ENGLISH BY CREATING COMIC STRIPS
A major user segment of MakeBeliefsComix is made up of educators who teach English to foreign students throughout the world. The site has a whole section of activities for teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (go to https://makebeliefscomix.com/ESOL/ ) .
In many countries, comic or graphic books are often used to teach different subjects. Text for comic strips created at MakeBeliefsComix can be written in seven different languages.
Tamara Kirson, named New York Times ESOL Teacher of the Year, said that from the moment her immigrant students at City College opened the website they were able to comfortably explore the site with minimal instruction. ‘’Clearly, when students create a comic strip of their own,’’ she wrote in TESOL Essential Teacher magazine, ‘’they are using their reading and writing skills as well as tapping into their creativity. The comic strip work readily supports classroom work.’’ (See Kirson and her students work at the site on YouTube at:https://makebeliefscomix.com/ESOL/ESOL-Videos-Lesson-Plans)
One of Kirson’s students was Ramos Santos, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. Said Santos, “The comix helped me to develop my ideas. I found a way to write an essay and express my feelings.” He continued, “It reminds me of my grandfather who also loved comics. I can also trust my emotions more.”
COMIC THERAPY FOR REFUGEE CHILDREN IN BERLIN
And, recently, in Berlin, Germany, a refugee help group — PassTheCrayon — began using the comic site’s Comic printables to help Syrian and other refugee children learn the German language. They translated the text for the comic-drawn printables into German and also used them for art therapy for the children.
Says Sevin Ozdemir, one of the group’s founders, MakeBeliefsComix.com was introduced to three refugee sites where they visit weekly to help Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Afghani children learn German. They use art therapy to inspire them after the trauma and horrors they have experienced in leaving their countries.
The group’s co-founder, Martin Ringenbach, says that in using MakeBeliefs’ cartoon printables, “the kids expressed their inner fears about violence.’’ Using, for example, a printable that depicts a street vendor and asks the reader to write or draw what the vendor sells, ‘’a young boy spontaneously drew a military tank and some guns. He also drew the street vendor with an evil face,” said Ringenbach.
The refugee help group is seeking 40 laptop computers to expand their programs to other sites. (They can be contacted at: http://passthecrayon.com/contact)
Ozdemir recounts her own experiences in using the printables with the children. “Others worked with their imagination instead of their memory. They created the world they wanted to live in and including dealing with metaphysical questions.’’
She said a 12 year-old refugee girl responded to a printable that asked, ‘’Make believe you could wave a magic wand. What two wishes would come true?” The girl, she said, expressed the wish to be a rabbit instead of a human and exchange her position with this creature in order to be able to experience another life other than former self.
“By using the MakeBeliefsComix.Com tools, each refugee kid can express their inner feelings or vision of one question that seemed simple, but in reality, there are a million ways to answer that simple question. This makes our work all the worthwhile,’’ said Ozdemir.
Says Zimmerman, creator of MakeBeliefsComix, ‘’It never ceases to amaze me how the site finds new innovative uses. It makes me feel so good that the web site is helping to make the world a little better.’’
About Bill Zimmerman, The Creator of MakeBeliefsComix.com
What made a 65 year-old retired newspaper editor create a comics web site for kids? It all goes back to Bill Zimmerman’s love of comics as a boy. Growing up in family beset by his parents’ economic and marital woes, he would try to escape the chaos by submerging himself in the Sunday newspaper comics sections and comic books.
“The colors and illustrations were dazzling. I could escape into the illustrators’ imaginations and enter worlds far better than the one I was living in,” he remembers. His favorites: Dick Tracy, Mandrake The Magician and Wonder Woman.
Despite having early problems learning to read, he later graduated from Queens College, then landed a job at American Banker newspaper where he eventually became editor in chief. His love of comic artists remained. “ I wanted to work with cartoonists so I added cartoons to improve the paper’s graphics.” There he began to work with artist Tom Bloom and on his own time created two dozen interactive writing prompt books. These include the best-selling Lunch Box Letters: Writing Notes of Love & Encouragement to Your Children, Pocket Doodles for Kids, and MakeBeliefs: A Gift for Your Imagination. His books can be seen at: www.billztreasurechest.com .
Later, joining Newsday newspaper, one of the nation’s largest tabloids, Zimmerman created the Pulitzer-nominated Student Briefing Page to teach youngsters about current events. The pioneering interactive page, published three times a week, encouraged readers to respond to major current events. This feature generated thousands of letters a month from youngsters, as well as adults. It soon became one of the most popular parts of the newspaper.
When he left Newsday, Zimmerman teamed up with interactive designer Toby Rosser (www.tobyrosserdesign.com) to create a web site that would encourage families to draw closer by creating comic strip stories and having fun together as well as improve students’ literacy skills. Thus was born MakeBeliefsComix.com, funded from his personal savings.
‘’My goal, in all my work,’’ says Zimmerman, ‘’has been to create a safe place where people of all ages can tap into their imaginations to discover new ways to express all the important things within them - their sense of humor, their writers’ voices, their ideas and concerns, the ability to tell stories about their lives - and to have fun.’’ (Zimmerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
E-BOOKS By Bill Zimmerman
You can download Bill Zimmerman’s free interactive e-books at:https://makebeliefscomix.com/eBooks/
What You Will Find at www.makebeliefscomix.com
Users of MakeBeliefsComix.com can select from among more than 60 cartoon characters, each of which shows four different emotions - happy, sad, angry and thoughtful. Choosing among two- , three- or four-paneled comic strips, they then fill talk or thought balloons with text now available in seven different languages, including English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Latin, Portuguese. Additional languages will soon follow.
Visitors create their own comic strips stories about their lives and what’s going on their external world. In addition to creating comics, the free site offers a variety of creative entry points, including hundreds of printables, free interactive e-books which help English language learners and literacy students, and a writing prompts blog called Somethingtowriteabout.com. These resources provoke children to write and talk.
There is also a free MakeBeliefsComix app for iPad users that can be downloaded at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/make-beliefs-comix/id795026580?ls=1&mt=8
More Info About Refugee Children in Berlin
Europe’s immigration crisis presents a different set of dilemmas to the newly formed Germany- based PassTheCrayon organization. With over 1 million refugees packed into factories, churchs and other temporary housing, Kurdish-born Sevin Ozdemir and Martin Ringenbach a former assistant photographer at Paris’s Louvre , recruited 15 volunteers to work with these displaced families living in Berlin.
They introduced Makebeliefcomix.com to three refugee sites, including the Notunterkunft Rathaus Wilmersdorf , a former town hall in Berlin, where they visit weekly to help Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Afghani children learn German and be inspired after the trauma and horrors they have experienced. With over 54,000 refugees housed in temporary facilities including empty factories in Berlin, the city continues to receive 20 new immigrants every day.
Their volunteers, many who are former immigrants. include students, graphic designers and artists who are drawn from 10 different countries and speak many languages. According to the group’s founders, there are currently 70 refugee sites around the city which have stretched their meager resources to the limit. They hope to discuss their situation with the President of Germany who recently requested a meeting with them.
The group can be contacted at http://passthecrayon.com/contact/. They are seeking 40 laptop computers to expand their programs to other locations. The co-founders of http://passthecrayon.com/contact/ hope to raise an immediate 50,000 Euros to address some of the expenses to expand since both continue to tap into their own personal finances. Donors can contact them through Betterplace.org: http://betterplace.org/p34682 or visit their website: http://passthecrayon.com/donate/
“By using the MakeBeliefsComix.Com tools, each refugee kid can express their inner feelings or vision of one question that seemed simple, but in reality, there are a million ways to answer that simple question. This makes our work all the worthwhile.” said Ozdemir.