Eighth-graders Create Stories for English Students In Kenya

Camila Chaudron ’08

June 3, 2015

Students in several eighth-grade classes wrote and illustrated short stories to send to Kinondo Primary School in southeastern Kenya this May. Stemming from the grade-wide initiative of “Empathy to Action,” the project enabled students to use their creativity to address a global issue – promoting literacy – within the framework of the English curriculum.

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Eighth grade Punahou students worked diligently in class and independently to create story books to send to school children in Kenya.

“Our stories had to relate to a theme in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” explained one of Joanna Beyer’s English students, who wrote about compassion and race. Intentionally connecting their work to Harper Lee’s classic novel reinforced students’ understanding of these important themes, which also include justice and morality.

The Punahou students’ exposure to the project began in social studies, where they learned about Kenyan society and culture. The eighth-graders also received letters from teenagers at a school in Kinondo to discover more about their lives in Kenya, including information about their school and home life, as well as their hobbies, sports and the local landscape.

“The pen-pal activity gave students a sense of the environment that their books are being sent to,” said grade 8 social studies teacher Leah Anderson. Many of the Kenyan students’ interests and ambitions – going to the beach, spending time with family, hoping to become a nurse – are relatable to Hawai‘i eighth-graders and support the empathy aspect of the “Empathy to Action” initiative.

Anderson heard about Kinondo Primary School through an administrator at Viktor Rydberg School, one of Punahou’s partner schools in Sweden that she visited with a group of eighth-graders during spring break. After learning about the Kenyan school’s need for books, she brought this information to the attention of her colleagues and they leapt into action.

“We asked students to think about this project as an educational tool for others,” said Beyer. When writing their stories, students took into consideration the age and reading level of their readers, as well as the cultural differences of the intended audience.

During the storyboard planning phase of the project, students were sensitive to the reality of life in Kinondo and many were careful to use language that is accessible to non-native English students in primary school.

“This project plays to students’ strengths by allowing for more creativity and authentic engagement,” Beyer remarked. The book’s illustrations were also an opportunity for students to convey meaning visually. Some chose to use digital art to illustrate their stories, while others used watercolors or colored pencil drawings.

The final products, nearly 100 books in all, will be sent to Kenya this summer. While the overall impact of the project may never be measured, the eighth grade Punahou students will carry the values that they wrote about in their stories – justice, morality, compassion, empathy – into the future.

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