Each time Melissa Wells has taught “Literature and the Arts in Elementary Classrooms,” her students have partnered with local teachers to create children’s books to use in their classes.
That wasn’t an option after the pandemic hit, said Wells, an assistant professor in University of Mary Washington’s College of Education (COE). But her colleague, Leslie Martin, faculty director of UMW’s Center for Community Engagement, had an idea.
She put Wells in touch with Fredericksburg Parks, Recreation and Events department, which recently launched a StoryWalk® project to get kids outdoors and reading. This semester, Wells’ students wrote and designed a 20-page storybook, Alex’s Day on the Rappahannock, about a family discovering wildlife and safety while tubing on the river. Rather than paper, the pages will be printed on panels along the Rappahannock Heritage Trail.
“The arts got many of us through the pandemic,” said Wells, who teaches aspiring educators how to integrate arts and literature into their curriculum. “As human beings, we naturally process our world and experiences through storytelling, which can help teach concepts that lead to deeper learning.”
StoryWalk® was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, in partnership with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, and has been implemented in all 50 states and 13 countries. Fredericksburg’s project launched last fall with Bear Came Along, by Richard T. Morris.
Many communities choose to feature popular children’s books, Wells said, but her class decided to create their own. “As future teachers, what better way to grow young readers than to position yourself as a reader and writer,” she said.
At the beginning of the semester, her 10 students met on Zoom with Callie Brown ’17, the parks department’s outdoor recreational supervisor, to outline the project, which needed to address river safety and highlight native plants and animals. They also reviewed Virginia’s Standards of Learning to determine how to communicate this information to readers of all ages.
“It has been so important this past year for families to be able to get out of the house for safe, socially distanced activities, and this provided something new and exciting in our city,” said Brown, who has secured sponsorships from Central Rappahannock Regional Library and Riverby Books, and is looking for others to keep the project going.
Katie Molina, a graduate student in COE’s elementary education program, learned which personal floatation devices, or PFDs, are appropriate for water-based activities and researched sustainability issues and river conservation. “I was amazed by how diverse the ecosystem is in Fredericksburg,” said Molina, who also digitally edited illustrations created by the class using a collage technique popularized by Eric Carle, the late author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
During the brainstorming process, the class decided Alex should have brown skin, as characters in children’s books are often white. Senior Kira Frazee also advocated for Alex to be nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. “It’s critical for kids to see themselves and their families represented,” Frazee said, “but also for them to see people unlike them so they can become more open and accepting.”
Junior Eli Keith, an English major with a focus on creative writing, said the project gave him a chance to showcase his skills and hone in on his teaching philosophy. “Arts integration is accessible for all students and naturally incorporates their interests into lessons.”
Kendall Wilkinson, also a junior, summed up the team effort: “It felt so great to have a finished product, knowing we all helped one another achieve it.”