Clackamas High School students share personal stories in books
The dominant emotion was excitement when 22 Clackamas High School students shared their personal stories with elementary school students, as part of the Clackamas Book Project.
In Monica Whiteley's second-grade class at Scouters Mountain Elementary several weeks ago, the youngsters cheered when the high schoolers walked into the room.
Once the older students began reading the books they had written and illustrated, the second-graders gave them their full attention.
"CHS students in grades 10, 11 and 12, boys and girls, and all different ethnicities and religious backgrounds came together to write and illustrate these books," said Kellette Elliott, art, photography and yearbook teacher.
"Telling your personal journey, covering topics ranging from divorce to religion, immigration to skin color, is cathartic to write and create art about," she said.
Elliott was in charge of the illustration and layout of the books, while English teachers John Stewart and Laurie Thurston helped with the writing; staff member Shalaia Walter helped tie the project together.
The project fulfilled equity goals set by the North Clackamas School District and was funded by a grant from the North Clackamas Education Foundation.
The Clackamas Book Project was "inspired by the Microaggression Project I led last year, where we allowed students to show the microaggressions they experience through photographs hanging throughout the school," Elliott said.
"We wanted to continue this message of allowing students to share their personal experiences, but this time through writing," she said.
"Since October, we have been holding meetings and setting deadlines for the kids. I've kept our GoogleClassroom page up to date, worked with our students on their writing/scripts, and coordinated our trips to the elementary schools," Stewart said.
Students visited Bilquist and Lewelling elementary schools in Milwaukie, Sunnyside Elementary in Clackamas, and Souters Mountain Elementary in Happy Valley.
Reading their books aloud to students at the elementary schools is an important component of the project, as the high schoolers "can both connect with students with like stories, or expose the students to stories that they otherwise might not have known existed that might be affecting their peers," Elliott said.
When the high school students looked back on the process of putting their books together, they "shared that it was a powerful project for them. Some said that they cried while writing because it brought up some very sensitive memories for them," Elliott said.
"When we were practicing reading, some students even teared up while reading their stories to our group because it's so real for them," she said.
"I've loved putting students in front of other students and creating those leadership opportunities," Stewart said. "There's incredible power in putting a student who has experienced something difficult in front of younger students who may be experiencing that same challenge. It's been really fulfilling to stand back, now that the books are done and the kids are sharing their stories."
It's been rewarding, Elliott said, to watch the young students listening to a high schooler tell a story, and then "seeing the 'they get me' expression on their faces," as they realize that the high school student is thriving despite obstacles.
"Some of the high school students have said how much it would have meant to them if they were in the young elementary student's position of hearing their story told through a high school student," she added.
Edaena Maldonado-Vizueth said her book, "The Life We Were Given," is about a girl from an immigrant family struggling to grow up in America.
She decided it was best if she read her book to older elementary students, she said, because it deals with deportation, and even though "these are issues everybody should know about, I did not want to scare the little kids."
Maldonado-Vizeuth, whose family emigrated from Mexico, said her overall message is "you have to work a lot harder, but if I can do it, you can do it. Don't give up."
"This project is so wonderful because students on both ends, the high school kids and elementary kids, grow and benefit from it. Each time our kids read their stories to younger kids, it's more than just sharing their project; they're being role models and mentors," Stewart said.
"Our kids not only got to work with a diverse group of classmates that they might not otherwise have met, but they shared their stories with each other; stories about race and religion, divorce and immigration, self-doubt and ADHD," he said. "These are stories that they might not have heard, and faces they might not have put to a story, had this group not happened."
The high schoolers have been proud to see their printed books and also have felt satisfaction in making a difference in the lives of grade school students.
"This project has validated our students' identity and affirmed their value, and allowed them to pass those on to young kids. That it was students doing that for other students makes it all the more powerful," Stewart said.
"I'm just so proud of the students who worked on this project. The level of teamwork and professionalism over the seven months of the project is admirable," Elliott said.
She added that she appreciated the wide range of students who participated and shared their different viewpoints. The result was a variety of stories and art styles that made each book special.
"These are stories that are uncommon themes in children's books, but they are relevant and important," Elliott said.
"I've just been blown away by how talented and compassionate our students are. I'm so proud of their work, but also of their altruism and leadership," Stewart said.
He added: "After our first reading at Bilquist Elementary, one fourth-grader made a beautiful connection to one of the books, a character who was learning to see her skin color as beautiful. Our student said something like, 'That's what I wanted to have happen. I wanted the story to connect with a child, and it just happened.' That was an incredible moment."
Kelsey Ruhl, 18, and 17-year-old Y-Nhi Tran collaborated on the artwork for "Waves," a book about anxiety and depression, and Ruhl wrote the story.
After one of their readings at an elementary school, one little girl told Ruhl she understood what the book was about and that she worried about her siblings.
"There are 12 of them, and not all of them are allowed to live in the United States. My heart just broke for her," Ruhl said.
She added, "You are never too young to experience these types of things."