As a teacher, every now and then you do a project or lesson that really resonates with students. An activity that motivates even your most disengaged students. A project that students put extra effort into outside of class because they care about the finished product, not the grade.
Let’s be honest. These projects are few and far between, so I’m super excited to be able to share a project that actually got those results: writing and designing children’s books. Read on to learn about how this project blended narrative writing, intercultural competence, and an authentic purpose for writing.
An Authentic Audience to Write For
In my district, Quarter 1 always has a focus on narrative writing. My students had already done a lot with writing personal narratives. In fact, it was exactly what they were doing in their ninth grade English class, and a version of what they did for their bilingual narratives with me in 10th grade. So, I wanted to come up with something different. It was also the first major project for ninth graders who had a wide range of abilities in Spanish, and it was vital the project be something all students could feel successful doing.
I had seen a post in a Facebook group from a woman from an organization called Global Learning Exchange (GLXi). She was looking for teachers of AP Spanish students to create children’s books for students in Guatemala. As I replied to the message and got more info, I became more and more convinced that this would be the perfect project for my freshmen.
Global Learning Exchange works to improve education in Guatemala through providing teacher training and resources to rural schools. The rural schools don’t have internet. So, each teacher receives a laptop and a projector to work on guided reading. The books my students created would be loaded on the laptop, so the Guatemalan schools would not need a WiFi connection to be able to read them. I loved this idea, and quickly signed up.
Doing this project meant my students would had something they didn’t usually have: a specific audience to write for. They were writing for rural Guatemalan students learning to read. This provided a great opportunity for conversations about how we needed to tailor our writing to our audience, what books would interest six to nine year olds, and what cultural topics would resonate with these Guatemalan students.
During this time students learned about using the three P’s to analyze culture: products, practices, and perspectives. After students watched the free documentary Living On A Dollar, which is set in rural Guatemala, they analyzed the products and practices they had seen. Looking at these cultural differences, we then talked about what book topics might not be appropriate. For example, a whole story about playing video games or cheerleaders wouldn’t be relatable to young Guatemalan students.
We also analyzed our favorite children’s books. Students had a good time reading and analyzing big books as mentor texts. They looked at what features made the stories popular and then read their story to another group and reported what they learned.
Narrative Writing Mini Lessons
Before starting, one concern I had was that students would have no idea what to write about and would get discouraged. Anticipating this, I created a lesson where we practiced strategies of how to get ideas for writing. I had fretted needlessly because my students were bubbling with great story ideas. As they started writing, we reviewed the story arc and talked about the four types of conflict and how conflict drives the story. Students had to plot out their story before writing their first draft. When students would have writing time, I would have individual conferences with students. I’ve discovered that I love conferencing with students about their writing and seeing how creative they are!
Two other mini lessons I pulled in were character development (looking at direct and indirect characterization) and writing dialogue. Children’s books are a good place to work on dialogue, because both the stories and the dialogue are short and simple. I had noticed that my students were writing Spanish dialogue exactly the way they wrote English dialogue. Like so many things in our programs, right? So we investigated how dialogue in Spanish is written with dashes instead of quotation marks and how it can even vary from country to country.
Using Book Creator
Once students had finished their drafts, we begin to transform our stories by using Book Creator. Book Creator can be a bit complicated at first glance, because it offers so much, but my students quickly caught on. What I love about Book Creator is it gives students lots of choice; they can illustrate their books by drawing in the program, uploading Google images, or even hand drawing their own illustrations on paper and uploading them. There are three book sizes available, and students can choose a normal book or a comic book template. The comic book template fit perfectly for some of my students who wrote about superheroes or sci fi. Book Creator is free, but only for a small number of books. If you have multiple sections and need more books it’s $5 a month.
I made this video in Spanish for my students to explain how to use Book Creator:
Another plus about writing for this audience was that students understood that their final version had to be perfect. They were helping students learn to read, so they worked hard to make sure that spelling accents and punctuation were correct. As a teacher, this was the biggest struggle because I really needed to do one to one editing, so students could recognize and correct their mistakes. Unfortunately I could only work with a few students in each class. So despite my best efforts and even inviting (or begging) other Spanish teachers to come read and edit with my students, this took FOREVER.
Here are some pages from the finished books. They look so awesome!!! Once the books were completely edited, we had a bit of a celebration so students could share them in small groups with their classmates. The books were all very different, but nearly every student went above and beyond my expectations. One student’s book was 80 pages long!
If you don’t have one-to-one devices in your classroom, another option is to have students draw and write their books by hand. Blank books can be bought online or in school supply stores (or even dollar stores) for $.50-$5 a piece, depending on the number of pages and if they are hardcover or paperback.
Changes and Plans for the Future
Like any unit, there are things that I would change. We were supposed to be able to do a virtual call with one of the teachers in Guatemala, but unfortunately it didn’t work out because Guatemala’s summer break was happening when we finished our books. However, doing this would have added a lot to the student’s learning and given us that interpersonal communication piece to make it a perfect project.
The first year I did this project, we did our writing in class, but on Chromebooks. This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are 100% virtual, and this project worked really well digitally. School in Guatemala is currently close because of Covid-19, so hopefully we can send our books once learning resumes.
I’m also going to talk to some of the DLI feeder program elementary schools to see if they would be interested in reading our books or even doing virtual reading buddies. One other cool feature about making Book Creator is you can record yourself for each page. So my students could record themselves reading each page, and young readers who needed more support could listen to the books while they read.
In the future I’d like to have students create books for our informational writing, maybe informing others about a topic like immigration or a holiday.
If you’d be interested in trying this project with your students, I put this book writing unit together for others to use. Feel free to message me if you have questions; I’d love to collaborate!
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