How do you do community engagement well? You listen to the community, partner with them in the creation process, support their needs, evaluate, and repeat.
Local public media station Nine PBS has always focused on early childhood education and being a free and engaging resource for teachers and families. It values the voice of its audience and adjusts its content to their needs. A focus on positive representation of local Black and Brown kids has developed into the literacy initiative Drawn In.
In 2018, Nine PBS wanted to create a block of Saturday morning cartoons with locally produced content, says Curriculum Designer Dr. Arionna Ralleigh. She says what they heard from Black and Brown kids was, “There’s nobody who looks like us on TV.”
In children’s television at the time, people of color represented only 25 percent of human characters, yet children of color are nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population of children under the age of 15.1
Research also showed children of color were underrepresented as primary characters in children’s and young adult books. Protagonists who were Black/African (11.9%) and Latinx (5.3%) appeared far less than those who were White (41.8%) and Animals/Other (29.2%).
Third-grade literacy is a priority for Nine PBS. According to a Nine PBS 2021 Impact Report on Early Learning, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported children who have difficulty reading by the end of third grade were four times as likely to not graduate high school on time. Of the third graders in Nine PBS priority districts, 91.5% were not on grade level.
Nine PBS set out to meet their goal of creating authentic characters and stories that not only improve literacy but help children with critical thinking. Dr. Ralleigh says, “We wanted our Black and Brown children to be seen as characters doing positive things.”
In 2022, Nine PBS launched its multimedia initiative Drawn In, with Lion Forge Animation Studios. Drawn In centers on four Black and Brown kids in the intentionally identifiable Midwestern city of Midland City who love comic books: Tyler Agbani, age 10, is the adventurous club leader; Nevaeh Campbell, age 11, thinks fast and is ready for action; Jadyn Harris, age 9, has advanced reading skills, loves science, and has a vast knowledge of comics; and Yeong-Ja “Grace” Park, age 9, is artistic and outgoing.
The kids are part of a comic book club at Lady Magnitude’s Imaginarium, a comic shop that features an enchanted long box used to store comic books. Sometimes characters escape the enchanted long box and magically come to life, usually causing some kind of chaos.
The children use their knowledge of words, such as “analyze,” “infer,” and “structure,” to find solutions and save the day. These words, referred to as Lady M’s Magnificent Words, were chosen because they appear in questions requiring higher level thinking and are used in standardized assessments. All of the content is aligned to Missouri and Illinois Department of Early and Secondary Education standards.
Early Learning Initiative Manager Kristina Vidovic adds, “The kids have to use their early learning vocabulary skills, social-emotional learning skills, and teamwork in order to set their city right again and put the comic characters back into the books.”
Dr. Ralleigh says, “I spent a lot of time, by myself, at the kitchen table looking at words in Common Core, Missouri state standards, Illinois state standards, ACT, and SAT. What words, if we exposed kids to now, would change the trajectory of their success in schools?”
As the Drawn In kids were created, Nine PBS consulted community advisors to find out what they thought of the character’s names, appearance, and personalities. For example, Dr. Ralleigh says, “The first round of the characters’ shoes, we got slammed.” The feedback helped the characters to look more like kids in St. Louis.
Nine PBS had a longstanding partnership with the philanthropic Steward family in St. Louis. David Steward II founded St. Louis based Lion Forge Animation Studios, after years of success in the comic book industry. In 2019, Lion Forge produced the Oscar-winning short Hair Love. As one of only a few Black-owned animation studios in the world, they bring an authentic point of view to the production.
Watch. Read. Play. Learn.
There are four ways to connect with Drawn In: watch, read, play, learn. Each facet of the initiative is designed to complement the other parts.
Nine PBS and Lion Forge created sixteen animated shorts which were also produced into four half-hour Drawn In episodes, each containing animated shorts of the Drawn In kids as well as live-action segments involving children from the St. Louis area explaining the words through action. All segments are available to view online at drawnin.org.
So far, four vibrant comic books have been created to accompany the episodes. The inside cover of each comic defines two Magnificent Words and offers learning goals related to those words. Nine PBS has distributed over 200,000 print copies to the community including through the St. Louis American newspaper, St. Louis Public Schools (grades K-2), East St. Louis School District 189, and the Missouri History Museum, as well as partners like EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore, Apotheosis Comic Shops, and Betty’s Books.
The Drawn In website has interactive features where children can click on a character to learn more and play games. One of those games asks kids to analyze and infer from riddles to identify items that Midland City’s Snazzy the Snack Cat left in the room. Dr. Ralleigh worked with high school students at Confluence Preparatory Academy to come up with the riddles and credited them within the game. She points out, “What high school kid can say I helped build a game?”
A second game is a choose-your-own adventure in which the player teams up with the Drawn In kids to find a missing dragon’s egg. They will be add a feature where the player can print out their storyline. Dr. Ralleigh points to the social-emotional learning aspect, “They get to decide based on how they’re currently feeling.” She says identity was important.
When a player comes to a stumbling block, the game acknowledges the outcome and suggests another attempt. Dr. Ralleigh says the adventure game helps kids practice risk-taking skills without consequence, “What we’re finding—especially in the education community—is we stopped teaching kids how to take risks at some point and now have an entire generation of adults who don’t know how to take risks and bounce back. Everything is life or death.” She says research is showing that risk needs to be built back in to learning. “We need to give times and places for kids to practice success and failures.”
The Drawn In website has resources for grownups, too. Originally, they referred only to parents, but have expanded that out to grownups: any adult caring for a child. Grownups can find tips for engaging children, coloring sheets, and DIY comic book templates. The site also provide a variety of activity sheets to pair with the first comic book volume and resources for the other volumes are in the works.
Nine partners with local, trusted organizations to host Power Hour literacy learning sessions in St. Louis City, North St. Louis County, and East St. Louis tied to the Drawn In world.
Dr. Ralleigh says, “We knew we wanted them to make a comic, but how do you do that and what does that look like?” They concluded that sessions should be informed by a writing workshop format.
Each session features Drawn In comics and a mini-lesson. Kids are given time to read aloud, develop their own comic, and share their stories with other kids and accompanying grownups.
Power Hours allow the children to practice their own autonomy, Dr. Ralleigh says. “They’re getting to decide, do they want a four-panel sheet or a three-panel? That’s the risk in decision making. There’s no consequence. If you don’t like your four-panel sheet, you go and you pick up your three-panel sheet.”
Based on community feedback, the curriculum was reduced to six sessions from eight and flexibility has been built in. Sessions can be once a week for six weeks, six days in a row, or two per week for three weeks. Dr. Ralleigh says, “It’s truly made for kids to be successful.”
Every child who participated in the first year received a Chromebook with no restrictions on use. The same is happening for schools who participate. One cohort who graduated was treated to caricatures by David Gordon, author of the Drawn In comic series.
Power hours have been held with community partner sites with early learners in the St. Louis area and one in Columbia, Mo. This fall, Power Hours are planned at three city and three county libraries and will be open to the public.
Project Consultant/Media Coordinator Kathleen Unwin appreciates the joy in audience reactions. “‘They look like me’ or ‘My hair’s like his hair,’” they tell her. “You just don’t realize that they don’t have that.”
Dr. Ralleigh says resources were created for anyone from three years old to a high school senior. “Comic books have no age group,” she says, “If a 12th grader is going to analyze and infer, and they want to do it with our comic book, we wanted to have those resources for them.”
Responsive evaluation has also been key to the program accomplishing so much in a short time. L.S. Associates is the Initiative’s external evaluator group. Kristina said she has worked for years in social services, but she has never seen evaluators so involved with an initiative and willing to provide real-time data and modifications.
The Drawn In team hopes to create four more volumes of the comic and get their creation to be picked up by other PBS affiliates around the country. Perhaps, one day, Midland City will be as popular as Metropolis or Gotham City.
1 Nine PBS aggregated Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim, Native American information within this document (Common Sense Media, 2021) up against US Census data.