Each spring, seniors at Central Valley Christian in Visalia, California, write books for the school’s first graders. The collaborative effort results in unique stories for the first graders, great experience for the seniors, and bridge-building relationships within the school.
High school English teacher Alecia Vanden Berg has been organizing the project for the past 10 years, but it predates her tenure. “My freshmen students remember this project from when they were first graders—some still have the book!” she said. “The first graders enjoy the one-on-one attention from the big kids.”
Of course, the first graders love the books themselves, too. “This year there was a story about two girls making homemade pizza and then going ice skating, and then a puppy comes and steals the pizza. They follow the trail of crumbs and find the puppy pizza stealer, and everyone ends up happy and having fun,” said Vanden Berg. “Another year, a senior wrote about his first grade partner crossing all sorts of imaginary obstacles on the playground to save an animal. Sometimes the protagonist goes on a Disney vacation, sometimes they throw a summertime pool party, and sometimes they are contestants on a TV show. The stories get pretty creative, and no two are quite alike.”
To begin the process, the high school English teachers work with first grade teachers to pair students up. “On average, there are 60–70 seniors and 65–75 first graders, so about 130 students are collaborating on this project,” said Vanden Berg. “Most partnerships are one-on-one, but occasionally we double up if the numbers don't match perfectly.”
At an initial "meet and greet," each senior interviews the first grader to get an idea of likes, hobbies, and favorites in order to incorporate those things into the story. Armed with these ideas, the seniors do a brief study of children's literature before creating a story board. Once that's done, they begin writing and illustrating the story. Vanden Berg then helps the students print and bind the book before going back to the first graders for delivery. The whole process takes about 10 days.
“It's the final project for the seniors, and while they might initially think it's an easy finish, they end up pouring quite a bit into it because they want to give their first grade partner a quality finished product,” said Vanden Berg. “The seniors enjoy the energy of the first graders. After the initial meet and greet, they spend nearly the entire walk back to the high school swapping stories about their partners and how fun/quirky/silly/energetic they were.”