ELKHART — When Jim McClain tells his class to get out their books, he's not talking textbooks.
Students in McClain's class at Pierre Moran Middle School use a colorful comic book featuring the "Solution Squad" to learn math concepts. McClain developed the book and self-published it last year, guessing correctly that the story line and superhero characters would grab kids' attention.
"Kids will read comics," McClain said. "One of the things that's hobbled teachers in recent years are the books we have to use — it's very scripted."
But in his current classroom — mathematics problem solving — McClain has the freedom to use whatever materials he wants, as long as he's teaching the standards students need to know.
And the Solution Squad comic? It teaches Indiana state standards and the Common Core, just to cover all the bases, McClain said.
Math problems are hidden "like Easter eggs" in the book, giving McClain enough material to for many lessons.
On Thursday, March 20, he used just one character's birth date to kick off a discussion about leap year and to introduce several math problems.
"What's different is the enthusiasm," he said. "I have enthusiasm for this, so the kids do too."
The longtime teacher spent 20 years teaching summer school for funds to work on his comic on the side.
This summer though, McClain will be working on the Solution Squad full-time, thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment.
He was one of just 100 Indiana teachers to receive a $10,000 Teacher Creativity Fellowship this year. That money is allowing him to take the summer off and create an interactive web comic.
This comic will have more features than the print book, including video and new visual effects. Once it's done, teachers and students will be able to use the comic for free, he said.
McClain created the first book with his niece, Rose McClain, who did all the inside illustrations. Most of the designing he did himself, working in his free time at coffee shops on his laptop.
This time around, he'll be using more advanced equipment provided by the grant. And he won't have to work around his school schedule.
McClain expects the web comic to be finished by October, and he hopes that one day the Solution Squad might become an animated series.
"I believe that comics can educate kids," he said.