Education Matters: Canyon Crest students partner with Panama to create an environmental comic book

Pictured is a watercolor of one of Panamanian student Giovanna Agrazal’s comic book characters that Canyon Crest Academy student Jessica Li created live during the Comic-Con panel.
(Jessica Li)

When Canyon Crest Academy social science teacher Zachary Brown asked his students for ideas for a project focused on the environment, producing a comic book was the last thing he thought they’d suggest.

But the students were passionate about the idea, so Brown, who was skeptical at first, soon became an eager adviser.

Called Spirit Skies, the CCA project is an international endeavor in cooperation with a sister school in Panama.

The series of graphic novels highlights the environment, culture, community and history of four Earth biome regions, as seen through the eyes of a hummingbird named Jasper.

The project, a collaboration between Canyon Crest Academy’s Envision Conservatories for the Humanities and for Visual Arts, is a four-part graphic novel series.

The Spirit Skies team, all Conservatory writers and artists, worked with the school’s sister school in Panama to complete the first volume of the book. Volume 2 is being created in Panama, with CCA student involvement, and will have a Panamanian storyline.

According to the Spirit Skies website [], Volume 3 is projected to be written and illustrated in Vancouver or Alaska, and Volume 4 will be completed by the core Spirit Skies team in San Diego.

Five CCA students and one student from Panama spoke about their project at a Comic-Con panel this year titled “How Are Comics Changing the World for the Better?”

Giovanna Agrazal is a student at Escuela Homero Ayala, CCA’s sister school in Panama, and spoke at Comic-Con through interpreter and CCA student Riley Sullivan.

The Comic-Con synopsis for the panel stated that teachers and students would “share the story of how they are practicing international diplomacy, building literacy, fostering citizen science, and promoting environmental stewardship by creating comics in schools.”

Spirit Skies, creators say, isn’t just a graphic novel project, but “a culmination of a partnership between two cities and two schools, infused into a revolutionary new type of collaboration never seen before on this scale.”

Regarding terminology, comic books and graphic novels both tell stories through words and illustrations. The difference is that comic books are usually shorter and in magazine format while graphic novels are longer and bound more like a book.

Graphic novels are sometimes called comic books, but comic books presented in their traditional format are rarely called graphic novels.

The Panama connection

The idea for the project began in 2015, “after one of our students remembered being in the hospital as a young girl with nothing to read, and a hummingbird flew past her window,” said Timothy Stiven, CCA social science teacher and co-coordinator, along with Zachary Brown, for the high school’s Envision Conservatory for the Humanities.

Both Stiven and Brown are advisers for the Spirit Skies project.

“The goal,” Stiven said in an email, “is to weave the story of the migration of the hummingbird as it flies up and down the Pacific flyway … [passing] through four different climate zones (arctic, temperate, desert and tropical).”

In 2017, seven CCA Conservatory students traveled to Panama, where they interacted with high-level Panamanian officials, schools and educators. While there, the CCA students visited a hummingbird sanctuary in the rainforest where 20 different species of hummingbirds reportedly exist.

Students at the Comic-Con panel said they learned in Panama that Panamanians were most concerned about deforestation.

Since that first visit, CCA students have returned to Panama and plan to continue visiting to “expand the reach of our project to even greater heights,” the website states.

Students on the Comic-Con panel said the point of the comic was to foster personal responsibility in kids for environmental stewardship.

After traveling to Panama and “giving presentations to important people,” the project “felt much bigger than when we started,” said CCA student Katie Sheng. “It felt like we could have an impact. We want kids to feel like they can make a difference.”

The international collaboration was a critical component of the project, said Riley. “We learned we’re all just people; we’re really all the same,” she said.

Collaboration and cooperation were key components of the project, said the students.

“It felt like a cohesive group,” Riley said, “and not a student-teacher relationship.”

In addition, “comics can encourage literacy,” noted CCA student Jessica Li.

The next phase, the students said, is a Spanish language version.

The story

The plot synopsis on the website provides an overview of the first installment of the series, which takes place in a desert biome city like San Diego that’s suffering from a drought.

Jasper, a teenager living in the city, has little appreciation for the importance and beauty of nature, like most of the townspeople.

After the city disconnects from nature and falls into a state of disrepair, Mother Nature decides something must be done. She places a spell on the town to end their excessive use of natural resources.

Jasper discovers a talisman and is transformed into a hummingbird. As a bird, he discovers a new perspective on nature. He connects with Windy, a messenger of Mother Nature, who guides Jasper on his journey to free the city from its magical punishment.

The purpose of the journey is to change the city into a place where nature and humans can exist in harmony. Along the way, Jasper learns powerful lessons about the importance of environmental stewardship and water conservation.

Mai, a coyote, Rigby the raccoon, and other characters populate the book.

The students on the Comic-Con panel said Jasper as a hummingbird gives him the ability to see the world differently than he did as a human.

The transformation into a hummingbird was to connect to culture, mythology, history, biology, physics and other subjects. describes how the hummingbird is important in cultural studies, particularly its role in four societies.

In Aztec society, the hummingbird symbolizes regeneration and resurrection, and its feathers are considered magical. In Mayan history, hummingbirds are depicted as the sun in disguise and are revered.

In Hopi society, a magical hummingbird keeps two siblings alive. Apache folklore has a story about a deaf warrior whose songs brought healing and good weather and who was reincarnated after his death as a hummingbird to bring peace and calm.

The Spirit Skies website provides more details of the plot and the characters.

Getting published

Since 2015 when the project began, about 50 students have been involved – as writers, editors, illustrators and translators, Stiven said. And there is gender diversity on the team, despite the fact that the six Comic-Con panelists were female.

After an audience member observed that these six were all young women, Jessica said what mattered most was that they all collaborated as a group.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re male or female, or this country or that country,” said Giovanna in Spanish, speaking through Riley, her translator. “We just all came together in a beautiful way.”

Brown said three of the six panelists graduated this year and the other three are rising juniors.

The Spirit Skies team is currently seeking a publisher for Volume One of the series. Stiven said the students are now preparing to pitch to comic book publishers.

When asked at the presentation who would own the rights to the book and who would receive royalties, once the first installment is published, Brown said lawyers are involved and that “it’s a thorny issue.”

Later, in an email, he clarified, saying, “Any revenues from Spirit Skies would go back into supporting the programs that created it at CCA, and any revenue generated from Panamanian circulation would go to Homero Ayala School and the Ministry of Education in the city of Panama.”

Said Brown about the Comic-Con panel, “I’m hoping that hearing the students share their experiences of personal growth and seeing their pride in their contribution to the project gave members of the audience a window into some of the things that make CCA special.”

Canyon Crest Academy is one of five high schools in San Diego County’s San Dieguito Union High School District.


Congratulations to San Dieguito Union High School District students Beatriz De Oliveira, John Finkelman, and Ethan Hirschberg for being honored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation as three of 15 students in the U.S. who were selected to receive the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award of $36,000 each for their work to “repair the world” (Tikkun Olam in Hebrew). The foundation selects teens each year whose charity efforts help build a better world. Beatriz, John and Ethan hail from Torrey Pines High School, Canyon Crest Academy, and San Dieguito Academy, respectively.

— Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at