“Butch,” a fifth-grader at Penn Yan Elementary School, didn’t like reading.
But thanks to a three-week partner project where Keuka College students met one-on-one with schoolchildren to craft a personal story from the child’s perspective, it wasn’t long before he changed his mind. So says Butch’s new buddy and personal “author,” Keuka freshman Will Staub.
“Butch told me the first day he didn’t like reading, then the next week he showed me this book he’d read,” Staub described. In truth, it was more like Butch raced to Staub’s side, book in hand, thrusting it into view and leaning forward in eager anticipation for the response.
Watching the interaction – and others like it across 17 such pairs of college and elementary students – were Dr. Jennie Joiner, assistant professor of English at Keuka, and fifth-grade teacher Terry Test, herself a 1973 Keuka graduate. The two teamed together, with support from elementary principal Edward Foote, to enable the collegiate “authors” to craft a three-page story from the perspective of each child selected from the joint classroom Test shares with team teacher Rebecca Morse.
The project, dubbed “Who is Penn Yan?,” was the final assignment for Joiner’s Literature in the Wider World course, a new introductory English course in Keuka’s general education curriculum. The course was designed to highlight the focus the English program is placing on literature as the doorway to culture, society, community and more. Over the course of three weeks, each college student spent time getting to know his or her child, and ultimately, learning more about Penn Yan through the child’s eyes or imagination.
The fifth-graders all chose character names for themselves and wore name tags to each session, where partners paired up, using whatever chairs, tables, floor space, gym mats, or window ledges were available to continue their conversations.
“Look at the dynamics of this,” Test said, gesturing around the room at the pairs. “The ‘I’m too cool to do this’ vibe just shattered in the first second, and my students are real, being true to themselves. The energy is here on all sides. I’m so impressed at Dr. Joiner’s scaffolding of this.”
To say the children were thrilled would be an understatement. Some brought sketches, notebooks, origami, and more to share with their college author during the second and third sessions. A handful of boys could be seen half out of their seats, leaning forward to dialogue with their authors, while other children were seated more casually, body positions mimicking the college students taking detailed notes.
Watching from a few steps away each week, Test and Joiner were almost as excited as their students at the energy generated during the interactions, and the impact it had on student learning. By the end of the first week’s session, when alerting everyone in the room that only two minutes were left on the clock, Joiner said she could tell the project was en route to success.
“Every student – big and little – turned around and went ‘awww’ in disappointment,” Joiner said. “Some of my students who are not as vocal in class totally engaged with the children. It was just a cool thing.”
Test said the impact on her fifth-graders was almost immediate.
“We watched it happen and dragged our principal away from other duties to watch it happen. We were looking at expressions, body language and ability to communicate,” Test said, adding that her students even began using a higher level of vocabulary in the first week.
Both Test and Joiner were delighted to see the fifth-graders begin to take a co-writing role by the second week, elevating participation beyond just a character at the center of a story.
As part of developing a broad perspective of the importance of literature in a literal “wider world,” Joiner said she also wanted her students to build a bridge to Penn Yan as more than just the town where they attend college.
Keuka senior Vanessa Coy was paired with “Charlotte” and heard stories about her two cats, Toby and Sajah, how she wishes they could talk or do her math homework for her, and how much she enjoys grocery shopping at Tops market. Hearing Charlotte talk helped Coy understand “Penn Yan is more than just a town – it’s home for a lot of kids. Hearing Charlotte’s story I feel like she really loves it here and someday she wishes she could go to the bowling alley and eat at Wise Guys Pizzeria.
“I love this project and I think Charlotte loved working with me, too. Every [visit], she told me she would rather talk to me instead of going to recess… so apparently our class has made an impact on these kids,” Coy said.
The children had an impact on the college students, too. Freshman Kaitlin Burke suffered the unexpected death of a friend between the first and second visits and said she returned to campus solely for the sake of her fifth-grade partner, “Trish,” and the project. Trish was quiet the first week, but “an open book” at the second visit, and Burke spent more time listening than talking.
“My child changed my whole day around. She was able to pull my mind off of it and made me remember what it was like to have an imagination,” Burke said. “I have learned that the town of Penn Yan is very small but the kids learn to adapt to what they have. I know that my child is excited to hear my story.”
In several pairs, the imagination of the young charges played a key factor in story development. For example:
“This is an experiment for me,” Joiner said, when asked how fifth-grade imaginations were to fit into what was originally a biography assignment. “I gave some parameters and I hope my students learn that the act of creating literature may start in one place and end up someplace else.”
While the college authors have one final opportunity to revise the stories and turn them in at the term final, plans are in the works to publish a collection of all 17 stories so both the Penn Yan children and Keuka students have keepsakes. The fifth-graders have the opportunity to provide illustrations of their own to accompany stories written by their respective authors.
Doug Richards, professor of English and chair of the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts, said he is thrilled to support such a “powerful” project.
“We’re trying to build bridges for students from reading and discussing novels and poems and plays in the classroom to experiencing the power of sharing stories and poems as a means of connecting with other people (sometimes people very different from themselves),” said Richards. “Stories, poems, and plays have always been a vital means of sharing and building community or connection between people, and Dr. Joiner’s project seems to have provided that kind of transformative experience for her students and for the kids at the Penn Yan Elementary School.”