When the bell rang, the 15 third-grade students would ignore it. They stayed glued to their seats, engrossed in their assignment of reading comic books.
For the last month, the students in Starlet. Lindblad and Jennifer Palmer's reading class at Forest Lakes Elementary School seemed to be intrigued as they followed the adventures of Donald Duck or sketched their own comics. At the end of the school year, they put together their own comic strips - from a superhero clash between Water Girl and Fire Boy, to tales about two puppies visiting the beach or Donald Duck's visit to DisneyWorld.
Two years ago, the Maryland State Department of Education began a pilot program, distributing Disney comics to 200 elementary classrooms across the state, including those in Harford County schools.
Darla F. Strouse, who has headed the program for the state, said the pilot was a way of getting students interested in reading, and there are plans to expand the comic book program to middle school students.
The plan is to translate European graphic novels of 50 classics, such as Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables and Robinson Crusoe, into English. These graphic novels, which have less than 3,500 words each, are used in France, Strouse said.
"There is a big concern that kids are not interested in reading - with all the games, TV, computer games, movies," Strouse said. "We want to make it palatable for kids and work with them to read more. In some of the pilots in France, the kids loved [the graphic novels] so much they wanted to read the whole book."
The graphic novels will be a condensed version of the novels, containing pictures of action scenes and 16 pages of vocabulary, an explanation of the culture, the writer and the setting of the novel.
The books, which will be in English, should be ready by 2009, Strouse said.
While supporters say that the comics attract students of any age or ability to read, skeptics say the material contains fewer words and reduces substantial reading.
Strouse said it is not a dumbing down of the original material. "It's a way to pique interest," she said.
Lindblad, who used the comic book lessons with Palmer to teach their class this year, said the comics provide a valuable tool for her third-grade students. She said they learned about onomatopoeia, interjections and inferences. They also learned the structural elements of a story, such as plot lines, setting and character development.
They used critical-thinking skills to understand the story and what goes on between one panel to the next, she said. By the end of the school year, the students sketched their own four-panel comic. Many students wanted to go above and beyond the assignment, Lindblad said. Some turned in eight panels.
"They just wanted to go on and on," she said.
At the end of the school year, the teachers compiled the students' work into an anthology and threw a party, inviting the parents to see the results. The students sat with their parents, sipping from juice boxes and munching on pretzels and carrots as they read the comics.
"Anything to get the kids excited about reading, it's a great idea," said Maria Kalbac, the mother of Becky, one of the third-graders. Her daughter, a slender girl with auburn curls, said sketching the comics was a lot easier than writing.
Her comic, titled The Big and Funny Problem, features a story about a classroom where the stick-figure kids play a prank on their stick-figure teacher and plant a whoopee cushion on her chair.
"It's very funny," Becky said of her four-panel comic strip. "The teacher sits on a whoopee cushion."
How did her two reading teachers feel about her comic?
"They both laughed," she said.