BENNINGTON — A children's book based on layers of principles ranging from female empowerment and equality to rules and community support will soon become a staple in the library of the Molly Stark Elementary School.
Karen Gross, former Southern Vermont College president and an author, has partnered with the new principal and the librarian at the school to develop her book "Lady Lucy's Quest" past the first edition. Initially she asked the entire fifth-grade class to come up with a sequel to the book, but after a brainstorming session on Aug. 29, the students decided to do more than write.
Lucy is a young girl who fights to become a knight after others tell her she can't. She goes through a series of tasks and then stands in front of the town to confess the bravest thing she ever did: "I tried to become a knight." At that point, a student was asked to act like Lucy and stand in front of the town to declare their bravery. The character is based on a real figure – Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon, a British fashion designer and survivor of the sinking Titanic ship.
"We wanted to extend this experience, make it more interactive, creative and encourage learners to realize that they can contribute to the sequel, which means they had to understand the essence of the first story about empowerment and meeting challenges and overcoming adversity. We thought that would be an appropriate message," Principal Dr. Michael Mugits said. "We want to emphasize the creativity associated with writing. Now they can take the beginning which was made by someone else, understand it and extrapolate that and turn it into a continuing story."
Gross will revisit the school monthly and children will contribute to the final product on a weekly basis, deconstructing "Lady Lucy's Quest" and bringing together ideas for what their project should be, according to Librarian Allyson Hoffman. Most of the teachers sported green attire to resemble Lucy's heroine costume.
Gross visited Molly Stark earlier this year to present her book to the then fourth-graders. On Monday she reread it and the children shouted out Lucy's name every time it was mentioned in the book.
Some suggested creating a play with a dance and writing a song to act out to the community as a fundraiser or having a puppet show. Others wanted to involve younger grades to teach them about Lucy's story. Mugits posed the idea of establishing pen pals in Tanzania, where Gross plans to distribute the story.
Mugits has experience with the idea from working with a school in Africa. He talked about how the children mostly noted the schools' differences until a popular music group, Lincoln Park, was mentioned.
"At first it was predictable. They didn't know each other. They were worlds apart literally and culturally," he said. "The kids were amazed that an American performer that they knew, was [talked about] in South Africa. Then we couldn't stop the conversation. On the face of it they were complete opposites in rural Saratoga County and a village in South Africa. They worked off what they first saw which was more differences than likenesses."
The children learned that "culture transcends boundaries," Mugits said. With working out the time zones being the only factor in establishing the international partnership, the librarian said it could work through Skype's webcamming service. Another suggestion was to have the children in Tanzania contribute to the Lucy sequel.
Mugits believes children should take part in their own education. By taking part in the year-long study, children will be given a voice and the power to get published.
"Most of these books are written for kids, to kids but they're not written by kids," he said. "Often times as authors who cannot be firmly in touch with our audience and the idea that learners can be co-authors of a book and share a collective voice. Learning is often something done to kids and for kids but not by the kids."
Gross explained her strategy behind Lucy's story in that there are layers of themes, similar to a cake.
"We tend to think of learning at one level," she said. "You meet Lady Lucy and you understand the story and maybe you understand the message and maybe the illustrations. That's usually where we stop. It's constructed by design to be taught with different layers invoked. That's not just true for this book, that's true for lots of learning. Do it in layers if you're willing to take the time to do it. It shows the depth of what you're doing."
At the bottom is the character followed by language, grammar, alliteration and other techniques. Then there's the story behind Lucy, based on the real woman and her career. Beyond that is a book of rules and lawmaking, then the frosting of a theory of what people believe in as a society.
"You lift the book into three dimensions and see it in all its layers and like a cake you can eat it across the layers," she said.
Gross taught at Bennington College in the spring, she writes and consults on improving student success and formerly served as senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. Currently she works as senior counsel to Widener Communications, a Finn Partners Company, and as an affiliate to the Penn Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.