Winter weather was no deterrent when we visited Edmunds Consolidated School with Anne Sibley O’Brien for day one of a special two-day pilot program. Despite some wickedly icy roads and a two-hour delay, the sun broke through and produced a lovely rainbow and we sallied forth for a grand day.
Once everyone got safely to school, it was full steam ahead. With an all-school presentation, Annie showed photos of her life growing up in South Korea and there was much excitement about her colorful traditional clothing depicted in the photos. She shared that the locals often viewed her as a “princess” or a “friendly space alien” with her white skin and fair hair. When she started speaking Korean, there were burst of, “What is she saying? Is that Korean? Cool!”
Into the bright and well-stocked library (kudos to Alison Goodwin), Annie surprised the youngest students by reading her latest book, “Someone New,” the companion to “I’m New Here.” The two books share the same characters but are told from different perspectives. The children made comparisons to how they felt being new when they began school that fall. They determined they could make someone feel welcome by saying, “You can play with us.” Upon receiving his very own copy of “I’m New Here,” one young fella declared, “We read this two times!”
First and second graders showed us their wonderful projects hanging in the hallway. They had devised maps of their community showing the Denny’s River, the school, firehouse, their houses, and even the hairdresser! They also had thought about how they could help make a new student feel welcome and drew pictures of “What I Can Do to Help.” Some of their ideas were: helping a new person find a seat, or asking them to join in their games, and even how to find the bathroom.
“I was very nervous and scared when I first came to this school,” one youngster shared, “I didn’t even know where my class was.” Another said, “I was nervous when I first moved to Trescott. I didn’t even know if I’d make any friends.” These kids had many questions for Annie about South Korea like, “How long does it take to get there?” and “What kind of clothes did you wear?” Annie signed all their books with a special “friend” for each student – a drawing of a boy or girl for them to keep forever.
The third and fourth graders read “The Legend of Hong Kil Dong” a graphic novel about a Robin Hood-type character, set in the 1400’s. They had studied the story of Robin Hood and done some comparisons. “Was the story about North or South Korea?” one student inquired. She told them that this was a time before Korea was split into two separate countries. “And this is what South Korea looks like today,” she told them, pointing to a current photo in her slide presentation. “Futuristic,” said one student. “It looks like L.A.,” said another.
After explaining about graphic novels and how this story “wanted to become one,” Annie demonstrated how to draw a Korean dragon with a heart-shaped head, whiskers, beard, and horns. The children were given art supplies to create their own version and were amazed at how great everyone’s dragon turned out.
For the last workshop of the day, Annie met Mrs. Molly Calder’s 5-8th grade ELA students. As part of a pilot program, they had read both “In the Shadow of the Sun,” and “The Legend of Hong Kil Dong,” and had delved deep into the culture and history of Korea. Though the two texts were very different, they used the hero’s journey theme to examine the characters and begin to identify their own hero stories. The first day was an introduction to comparing literary/cultural formats around the hero’s journey, conversations and connections about identity and introduction to developing a character with purpose.
First though, there were many questions and, as often happens with Annie, an intriguing discussion took place. After all, living in rural Maine, it’s not an everyday opportunity that you get to talk to someone who has lived in South Korea and wrote a novel based in North Korea.
Annie loves to tell the story of how she got to visit the North Korean border in China to do research for the book. Though she is fluent in Korean, she does not speak Chinese and yet, by using creative communication methods, she managed to relay to a Chinese taxi driver that she wanted to go to the border wall. Not really knowing what the man was saying, she agreed to get into the cab with two other Chinese men. “You what?” gasped the class. “Don’t you know that’s dangerous?” they asked. Tossing her head back and laughing, Annie assured them she was safe.
Amazingly, she found physical characteristics to the landscape that she had already written into her manuscript, including a boat in the river! Serendipitous for certain. She even went into North Korean waters on a boat and waved at a civilian on the North Korean side. “Weren’t you scared?” the kids wanted to know. “What if you’d been caught?” But she wasn’t and now has a thrilling tale that really brings the novel to life for these lucky kids.
Annie wrapped up day one with the 5-8th graders and a challenge to have a hero’s story ready in their minds for day two.
Day two of the program was a full day of hands-on drawing/composing comics from story board to dummy. The budding writers and artists shared their pre-visit projects with Annie, everything from plot diagrams to Venn diagrams, dioramas, letters to Annie, and fact posters. Annie shared some variations on plot diagrams that they could use and instantly Mrs. Calder created an assignment, “Research a plot diagram you like for Monday.” “Can we make our own?” asked a student. “Our plot diagrams are going to look much different from now on,” noted Molly with excitement.
Kyle, all of his own volition, had created a Google Map of Mia and Simon’s adventures. Bringing it up on the large screen, Annie was able to point out the accuracies and some slight variations that needed correcting. She was super impressed. A connection was made to another Maine teacher’s map and Molly said she would be using that in her unit later. Annie shared that Google Lit Trips is going to be making an “official” map including 3D. When Annie is with kids it becomes a shared discovery process with her learning as much from the students as they learn from her. And Molly reinforced that idea saying, “I love learning new things with the kids.”
On to drawing comics. “The power of the frame is important,” Annie shared showing them the various layouts that can be used. “Zoom in and zoom out. Use the frame to control your setting.” She encouraged them to make it rough and quick and don’t get bogged down in perfection. Molly shared that her students really struggle with the idea of rough drafts. “The best gift you can give yourself is the ability to do roughs,” Annie shared. “The advantage of roughs is you have to do it over again, you make discoveries and the quality of the work gets better.” Molly loved that her kids were hearing this from someone else.
At the end of the day the kids eagerly shared their “roughs” and pointed out what they liked about each other’s work. They were thoughtful and kind, even after working all day long.