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Community Storybook Project

Story: Jaret Waters, Design: Bob Craig, Images: Nithika Badam

All throughout history, fairy tales and children’s stories have transcended languages and cultures: Cinderella was originally German; The Little Mermaid was originally Danish; and Pinocchio was originally Italian. The universal morals and themes woven throughout these stories are fundamental across the world. Even within Ohio State, the Spanish department has begun employing the art of storytelling to connect communities across cultural bounds. This undertaking originated with Jill Welch, a senior lecturer who has taught Intermediate Spanish Composition (Spanish 3403) for over 20 years. During that time, the course consisted of four major compositions, the last of which is a traditional narrative story. Beginning five years ago, Welch found an opportunity to take this composition outside of the classroom.
“It started when my daughter was doing her student teaching at Salem,” Welch says of the north Columbus school. “She was complaining about how little reading practice some of her kids were getting at home. They sent books home with the kids in hopes that they’ll read with the parents but she said, ‘My Spanish speaking kids can’t do that because their parents don’t read in English,’, and her kids were still learning how to read in English.”
As a result, Welch and her daughter worked together to craft the bilingual storybook project. Students in her honors class are matched up with Spanish-speaking students in the first and second grade English as a Second Language (ESL) class; students then write their final composition specifically for that child, often making the child the protagonist of the story. To give the students some background, the children fill out a form with basic facts and then draw a picture to be featured in the story.
“I remember that the child I picked, Cristian, had drawn an adorable picture that was also a little confusing (it involved a witch, a movie theater, some spiders and popcorn),” says Kirstie Rippola, one of Welch’s former students who took the course in autumn 2015. “His ‘About Me’ section was cute, too—he mentioned his love of sports and his best friends. I remember being nervous that he wouldn’t like my story; it ended up being about Cristian and his friends going to the movies, only to discover that the villain of the film, a witch, came to life and it was up to Cristian to defeat her.”
Following the production of the stories, Welch combines the stories—written in both Spanish and English—into one single book with a copy for each ESL student. She then organizes an informal field trip for interested students to any student interested in which they go to Salem Elementary to meet the children and read them the stories.
“This was by far the most rewarding part of the project,” says Samuel Riddell, one of Welch’s former students who took the course in spring 2014. “Entering the class and meeting Yesi [my assigned student] can’t be described in any other way besides purely magical. As strange as that may sound for such a simple project, I felt like I really made an impact in one individual’s life that day. Yesi was grinning from ear to ear the entire time I read her the book and seemed thrilled to see the picture she drew incorporated into a book solely about her. You could tell she felt like the star of a movie, or the main character of a princess story and she was the main character. This is kind of every little girl’s dream.”
After Welch’s daughter finished her student teaching at Salem, she began to face greater difficulty in coordinating the program. Nonetheless, it has remained relatively unchanged for the past five years as she has been able to work with Celeste Guglielmi, the ESL teacher at Salem. Welch added one adjustment this past semester, incorporating a video component in which both the children and students exchange video greetings in order to establish more personal connections.
Looking forward, Welch hopes to expand the program not only through the fifth grade, but also among a wider array of languages. As well, Guglielmi would also like to bring the children to Ohio State in order to experience more beyond their small community. Nonetheless, the current program aids in fostering bonds within the community. “Not only do I think Yesi enjoyed seeing a story where she was the main character, I think that activities like this can play a major role in helping immigrants feel integrated into the community,” Riddell says. “Most of the interaction immigrants (children, specifically) have directly after their move is with their immediate family and the school. I think this made Yesi feel more welcome in the community and did wonders in boosting my confidence in my Spanish skills.”
Welch, as well, emphasizes that the project is mutually beneficial for students and children alike, considering each is in the process of learning what the other knows. In general, this dual purpose of the program highlights the value and meaning of being bilingual in an increasingly globalized world.
“Being bilingual is such an asset,” Rippola says. “I hope writing the stories in both English and Spanish showed the kids that holding onto their native language is just as important as learning English—that their Spanish-speaking abilities should be celebrated and maintained, not given up.”

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