By Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy (author and illustrator of The Weird Series and Nobody!)
When Tim Francis, counselor at York and Jefferson Elementary Schools in Middlebury Indiana, reached out to thank us for creating The Weird Series, we had no idea that it would be the beginning of a unique student-centered anti-bullying project. The award-winning seasoned counselor explained how the emotional connection that students felt with the characters had made the series “the most requested and talked about books” he had ever seen. Tim felt that the illustrations brought the characters to life and noted that the books had sparked a change in behavior, with many more kids calling out bullying.
After Tim’s students shared suggestions for future books, we came up with a plan: Why not have the students create their own books and keep the story going? With the help of York Elementary School librarian, Paige Palmer, and the creativity and enthusiasm of third grade authors and illustrators, Tim turned The Picture Book Project into a reality. The final result? Two fully illustrated picture books on bullying and a lot of proud kids. We asked Tim and Paige to share their process so that others might add The Picture Book Project to their anti-bullying toolkits.
1. How did The Weird Series play a role in the project?
Tim: The Weird Series engages students in a way that made me think, “I’ve got to do more with this!” Taking kids through The Weird Series gets them excited about thinking in a different way. Unmotivated, disengaged students who never raise their hands all year in class and struggle to pay attention have their hands up waving in the air begging to be called on! The students really listened and seemed to connect with the characters and situations and relate them to happenings in their own experience. After we finished going through the Weird Series we read “Nobody” and the students wanted more stories!
Paige: The kids were really excited to write a story, especially when they found out it was going to be sent to the author and illustrator of The Weird Series. As far as the characters were concerned, the kids knew each character well and when we started discussing what the book was going to be about they would start to reference characters from the different Weird Series books in regard to a situation they were trying to explain. I think they surprised themselves with their ability to tell a story. A lot of them asked if we could do it again because they had so much fun.
2. How did you schedule time to work on the project?
Tim: I have the students for classroom guidance every other week. I have five third grade classrooms, so I took one session in each room for writing and one for drawing.
Paige: Here at York we worked on the story during our library time. Each class meets forlibrary once a week for 30 minutes. I divided the story between three classes: one class would write the beginning, one class would write the middle, and one class would write the ending.
3. How did you get the collaborative process started?
Tim: I pulled up a Word document on the promethean board and kids started raising their hands and sharing ideas. My job was to capture the story that was taking shape. We wrote and edited together as we went.
Paige: I hooked a laptop up to my Promethean board so the kids could see what I was typing as they told me what to type. I am a big supporter of letting kids be as creative as they can be so we "popcorned" out ideas and sentences as we went.
4. How did students decide on the main characters and the plot?
Tim: I met for lunch and conversation with six students who seemed to put the most effort into a questionnaire I used at the end of a classroom lesson. Together we brainstormed the idea for the title and everyone wanted Emily to be in the book. Other characters came into play in whole class instruction. One student suggested the name Jeff as a code word for Jefferson. Another student suggested the name Ty as code word for Tigers (our school mascot) That was impressive to me. I never would have thought of that!
Paige: We did a recap of what a bully, victim, and bystander were, who those characters were in the Weird series, and what their motivations/resolutions were. Then we did a rough outline of what we wanted our story to be and went from there. I wrote down all the characters and ideas we brainstormed so that each class could see what the other was thinking.
5. What role did you play in guiding students in the process?
Tim: My role was facilitating respectful discussion which was not difficult at all, and limiting the amount of characters and events that occurred. It seemed it would have been easy for it to turn into a full-length novel!
Paige: I think my biggest role in this was guiding the kids and keeping them on track. As far as the story itself was concerned, I let the kids just flow with it. Each class wrote their part at the same time as the other classes. I made sure to read what the other classes had written to each class as I worked with them so they had an idea of where the other classes were taking the story.
6. Once the stories were written, how did you organize the illustration process?
Tim: Once the story was complete, I cut it into sections, and in the next guidance time I read the story and asked for students to volunteer to draw a picture that could go with that sentence or two. I told them not all pictures would make it in the book. Each strip of paper with words had a number, and they put that number on the back of their drawing so I could match them up later. One day after school, I took the pictures where it appeared kids took the most time and put in the most effort and scanned them on our copier. I then copied and pasted them into a Word document to finish up the book. Some kids said they couldn’t draw. I asked if you could draw a bus? Or some diamonds for design? So everyone felt they could do something.
Paige: Once we finished the story, I divided it up onto pages the kids could illustrate, then divided the kids into groups so they could work on the illustrations together. It truly was a group effort! Illustrating took another 2-3 weeks.
7. What was the biggest challenge in the process? Did anything surprise you?
Tim: Trying to incorporate as many students as possible. It really wasn’t that big of a challenge for us. I felt strongly about the importance of the project so it was easy to make time for it. We all make time for what is important to us. They surprised me with the amount of ownership they showed of the project and how well they listened and worked together. I was really encouraged by the respect they showed for each other’s ideas and the way they wanted everyone to be involved and included. They wanted everyone to have a voice.
Paige: Time was the biggest challenge! Especially since I still wanted the kids to be able to find and check out books during their library time as well.I found it so interesting the different characters the kids came up with and the situations they put the characters in. I think the one that was most profound to me was they chose to have the principal not believe the kids who were getting bullied. So often we tell them to "Tell an adult! Tell a teacher! Tell your principal!". But what happens if those people don't believe you? It seemed like a very real concern to them. I was also impressed that they chose not to get the bully in trouble for something he didn't do, even though it would have been easy to do so. Kids never cease to amaze me!
We asked the student authors and illustrators to share their thoughts on the project:
“This is a good activity to help students know more about how bullying effects everyone. Writing about it helps you in the real world. Writing helps express your experience.”
“You learn how bullying makes people feel and take time to think about it more. It helps you understand you can stand up and say no.”
“Don’t be afraid you can’t write a book. Encourage each other. Don’t ever give up.”
“This is a really good story!”
We agree! Congratulations on keeping the story of kindness going.
YES, book by York Elementary
Stand Up, Be Strong, You Can! By Jefferson Elementary