Jeff Fessler

Comic (Book) Challenges to Chronic Problems: How students face the challenges of malaria, malnutrition through graphic novels, collaboration

How can you take classroom instruction to the next level while engaging students in meaningful community service? It takes a bit of creativity and an openness to the rising academic trend of service learning. Service learning is a method by which students learn required academic standards for their grade level while participating in a service project that benefits the school and/or local community.

For the third year in a row, my fourth- and fifth-grade students at the American International School of Bamako (AISB) in Mali collaborated with Mali Health – an organization with a mission to reduce maternal and child mortality in resource-poor communities in West Africa – and students from three local schools to create graphic novels on health-related issues. (Click here to learn more about the Bamako Initiative.) AISB students learned valuable information in science, literacy, math and art, all within the context of a real-world project that benefited the local community.

AISB is a small international school for children and youth ages 2-18 that includes students from more than 30 countries and is based on an American-style curriculum. While instruction is conducted in English, all students also learn French, the primary language in Mali.

Each year, Mali Health has suggested a key health issue for the AISB students to focus on. Three years ago, their first graphic novel, The Adventures of Anti-Malaria Man, addressed one of the most serious diseases in Mali. It included information on the identification, prevention and treatment of malaria, but within the context of a superhero story set in the Sikoro neighborhood of Bamako. Sikoro is a peri-urban slum with more than 80,000 people, and is a focus area for Mali Health, as well as the setting for all three graphic novels.

Their second graphic novel, Agents of HEALTH: The Future of an Epidemic, focused on diarrhea and rotavirus. As with the first novel, it included information on identification, prevention and treatment, this time within a science fiction-themed story featuring time travel and again taking place in the local community.

Students just completed a third graphic novel, Ami and the Challenges of Doom: Adventures in Conquering Malnutrition. Nearly two out of five children in Mali suffer from chronic malnutrition. This adventure-themed novel takes a local girl on a quest around Mali where she solves challenges related to the prevention of malnutrition, all based on the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) philosophy used worldwide.

Commenting on the projects, AISB Director Caroline Jacoby noted, “I have been touched by how deeply our students have been affected by their initial visit to the local schools and community. … Working in partnership with the local children has helped our students relate on a personal level and form friendships while both groups of students have learned important health lessons that they will remember for years to come.”

One of the strengths of this project is collaboration. Each year, Mali Health organizes field trips for my students to visit schools and clinics in Sikoro. This is where my students see firsthand the challenges faced by local residents.

Students were initially speechless when they saw 60 or 70 students crowded into a tin-walled classroom, or saw homes without windows or electricity or plumbing. This was the first time many of them had ever seen a Malian school or clinic. By the time we returned to our own school, they were committed to these projects and to helping others.

Fifth-grader Clara noted, “There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re helping the community.”

Local students from Sikoro joined the AISB students to learn about the selected health issues from Mali Health staff before showing their AISB friends around their neighborhoods. “It was so exciting because I got to have new friends and learn about a new culture,” commented Aida, a fourth-grade AISB student.

There are relatively few opportunities for students from AISB to cross paths with children and youth from Bamako. We do have a number of service learning projects that include local students visiting our school, but otherwise, our paths would most likely never cross in our day-to-day lives.

A day later, the local students visited AISB. Students from both schools worked together to develop a plot, storyboard and illustration ideas for the novel. The challenge for them was creating a story that is engaging for kids while providing important health information. It’s a delicate balance, but they have been wonderfully successful so far. The local students also posed for photographs that were eventually used as the basis for the illustrations in the story.

This collaborative process affects all of the students. “When you work as a team, you can really make a difference for a community,” noted fourth-grade AISB student Bijan.

The collaboration between AISB and local students is key to the success of this project. It’s important that the local students feel they are an integral part of the graphic novel, that it’s not something strangers are doing and dropping on their doorstep.

Once this visit was over, the AISB students completed the remainder of the work over the course of four weeks, including ink illustrations, scanning of the drawings, final text and importing it all into a comic software program. AISB middle school French classes take on the task of translating the novel into French. Using funds donated by AISB parents, the school was able to print 1,000 copies of the book, all of which were donated to Mali Health for distribution to children and families in Sikoro. “I think the local kids will appreciate this comic when they read it,” said fourth-grader Gladd. “And I hope that they share it with their friends so the information goes all around the city and the world.”

Aissatou, a fifth-grader at AISB, added, “This was a captivating experience I’ll never forget. I think we will make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

This service-learning project includes elements of many different disciplines covered throughout the school year.

It’s important to understand that a teacher can address so many academic concepts in a project like this. And imagine how much more engaging it is to learn by working on a real-world project that can potentially save lives.

This project also allows students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, to gain an understanding of diverse cultures and communities, to learn more about social issues and their root causes, and to satisfy an urge toward public service and civic participation.

“This is an exemplary service learning and public health project that helps to deliver quality public health awareness information to the Malian people,” noted AISB Service Learning Coordinator Jeff Brown. “Any international school looking for a high-quality example of true service learning need look no further than this collaboration. I hope this partnership will continue for years to come.”

Jeff Fessler teaches a split grade 4/grade 5 class of international students at the American International School of Bamako in Mali.

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