Westerville schools: Collaboration with Ohio State connects school to home through story

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group
Longfellow Elementary School English teacher Kristin W. Potter and kindergarten student Bridget Moreno Serrano wave at their Bilingual Storybook Project partners at the Ohio State University during a Google Meet on Dec. 14.

A collaboration between Westerville City Schools' Longfellow Elementary School and the Ohio State University is helping bring students’ imaginations to life through the Bilingual Storybook Project. 

Kristin W. Potter, a first-year Longfellow English teacher, said the idea for the project began in 2012, when she was student-teaching in Columbus City Schools in a third-grade classroom. 

“As teachers and administrators were working to create a connection between home and school and encouraging families to read at home with their families, it occurred to me that many of these families may be unable to read the books we were sending home due to a language barrier,” she said. “I communicated this concern one evening to my mom, a Spanish composition instructor at the Ohio State University, and thus began our efforts to provide literature to families in their home language.”

Potter said it also provided her mother, Jill Welch, an opportunity to provide her students with an authentic writing assignment connecting them to the Spanish-speaking community, creating stories in Spanish and English with, for and about Potter’s students. 

The process

With the permission of her students’ parents, Potter said, her Spanish-speaking students fill out an All About Me paper and illustrate a picture of their choice.

Then the Ohio State students choose a student to write about. 

“This year we organized Google Meets for the students to meet one another and for my students to talk more about themselves, what types of stories they like and their artwork.”

A second Google Meet was held with the Ohio State students, where they read their original stories aloud to Potter’s students. 

“My mom also provided my students with laminated copies of their stories in Spanish and English and a bag of OSU swag,” Potter said.

The project was small in the fall, with two of Potter’s students participating and four Ohio State students.

Story creation

Juliana Reising, an Ohio State freshman from Bay Village, was paired with Longfellow kindergartner Bridget Moreno Serrano.

“The Bilingual Storybook Project was part of my Intermediate Spanish Composition class, but my classmates and I were selected to participate because of our honors status,” Reising said. “I had a fantastic time participating because I adore creative writing, Spanish and working with kids.”

Longfellow Elementary School kindergarten student Alexa Ramos meets virtually with Jill Welch, a faculty member at Ohio State  University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese who teaches the Honors Spanish Composition course, and her students, Austin Smith and Gabrielle Caito.

Reising and her classmate, Patrick McNally, met Bridget on Google Meet, where she gave them ideas of what she wanted to read about.

She described her love of mermaids, monkeys, cats, princesses, superheroes and the colors pink and purple.

“And with that seemingly random list, I got to work,” Reising said. “What I pieced together from Bridget's favorite things was a story entitled ‘Bridget the Supergirl’ or ‘Bridget la superheroína.’ ”

The story followed Bridget, a superhero-in-training, embarking on her first mission with her monkey sidekick, Rosita.  

“Together, they save the mermaid princess Selena from the evil fishermen who have kidnapped her,” Reising said. “The fishermen want to lock Selena up in an aquarium to get rich.”

She said the project made her reflect on her colorful imagination as a little girl, the wild stories she had created and how she loved a lot of the same things as Bridget.  

“Being able to write her a custom story was a truly wonderful and enlightening experience,” Reising said. “To return to that childlike sense of imagination to create the story was really fun for me as a writer. It was especially exciting that I could write it in English and Spanish so Bridget and her family could enjoy it in whatever language they preferred. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to help bring Bridget's imagination to life.”

Personal connections

Over the past eight years, Welch said, her students consistently have said the Bilingual Storybook Project was their favorite part of her writing course.

“The opportunity to make personal connections to the Spanish-speaking community in the Columbus area makes their study of Spanish more meaningful to them,” she said. “Their time spent getting acquainted with the children is invaluable. The task of creating an original story for a known audience is a priceless gift to their development as writers.”

Welch said the project received a $2,000 grant from the Ohio Hispanic Heritage Project for this school year and next.

“With the pandemic, though, the project was cut way back, and we haven't used any of our funds yet,” she said. “We had originally planned to use the funds for publishing the storybooks, providing transportation to the year-end celebration of literacy on the OSU campus or at Longfellow, and for refreshments for the students and their families.” 

Welch said she’s optimistically looking to the immediate future and hopes to include more students this spring and have the celebration of literacy once again.

“When we are able to meet, it’s always a special joy for me to see everyone reading together, with my students helping the children with English and the children helping my students with Spanish – everyone demonstrating the shared value of biliteracy,” Welch said.

In the past, Potter said, as many as 30 elementary students have participated, and they each received a storybook containing all the stories. 

“In the future, we would love to expand this project to more students and include more languages,” she said.

This spring, many Ohio State students are ready to write, and Potter hopes many more Spanish-speaking children in the Westerville schools will be able to collaborate with them.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla