Sumita Soni

The Students are the Real Superheroes:  Fourth-Grade Class Creates “The Comic Book of Oakland’s Black History”

“Have you ever wondered where African-Americans lived before they came to California?” asks Nathaniel Keller, a fourth-grader at Civicorps Elementary, in the introduction to his essay on black history in Oakland, California.   “If you don’t know, they came from the south.  Some people might think that they had very little problems, but they had a lot of problems.”  Nathaniel goes on to describe the life for many African-Americans after immigrating to California around the turn of the 20th century.  In order to better understand this little-known history, he would suggest that you read his comic book.

Normally filled with superheroes or jokes, a comic book may seem like an unusual vehicle for teaching and learning about history.  But Nathaniel’s teacher, Sumita Soni, knows that comic books have also been used for much more than entertainment and it served as a perfect tool to solve a variety of the challenges she saw in her classroom.

Using a NEA Foundation Student Achievement Grant, Soni developed a cross-curricular project for her fourth-graders to incorporate social studies into her lesson plans and to effectively work with students of different writing abilities.  The end result, “The Comic Book of Oakland’s Black History,” taught her students important lessons about the history of their city and improved their writing skills.

When discussing the motivation for developing this program, Soni said, “First and foremost, the school’s academic curriculum did not include social studies. Students had not had previous experience with studying history or geography and consequently, also struggled with understanding time and chronology.”

But the project wasn’t all about history.  Because the writing skills widely varied among her fourth-grade students, she was able to use their interest in creating a comic book to engage them in the process of writing and research.  The curriculum she developed included a number of important phases. The research, reporting, and composition components took place before the students transferred their knowledge and writing into comic art narratives.

Soni guided the students’ research in a variety of ways.  They viewed a documentary, visited the local library in Oakland to study primary documents, and interviewed guest speakers.  Most notably was, Erika Huggins, the former director and co-founder of the Black Panther’s Oakland Community School.   

Soni also used the funds for a variety of field trips.  They visited the Shoreline Park in Oakland to understand the impact that the port, the mass transit system, and the construction of a major freeway had on the local community.

“Field trips, then, were not just field trips,” said Soni.  “They became field studies in which students observed, asked questions, took notes, and got excited about how the context they were learning was being synthesized through varied sources and contexts of information.”

While the students were engaged and learning about history, they were also learning how to create a comic book.

The students worked with a local comic artist, Doug Calderon, to learn the technical aspects of comic making.  He worked with the students in a number of sessions until their comic book was complete. Additionally, they visited the Cartoon Art Museuem of San Francisco where students were introduced to tools used to make comics and studied the work of several artists. 

“The students saw their opportunity to work with a local artist as a true privilege, which it was,” said Soni.  “And as they developed those comic-art techniques and skills, their depiction of historical content also became more complex.”

The finished product became a literary tool for the students to present all they had learned in a way that was engaging and exciting for them.   

The students shared their knowledge with parents, students, and community members at their school’s annual Showcase of Learning.  At the event, the students guided their guests through the stages of the project and shared what they had learned.  The students also demonstrated their new skills by taking adults through a step-by-step process of making a mini-comic book.

“The results of the Showcase were outstanding,” said Soni. “I could see clearly from the expressions on their faces that they were wholly absorbed by the task of teaching.”

Finally, the students also presented each classroom and administrator with a copy of their comic book.

“The production of the book is on its own a testament to the detailed and extensive process students had to undergo in order to create it,” said Soni.  “They learned important writing and visual art skills and used those skills to express the content which they had learned and cared enough about to share with the community.”

Click here for a sample of the students’ work