A term in distance learning forced faculty to rethink how they teach and conduct their courses at Kalamazoo College this spring. That was especially true for Siu-Lan Tan, K’s James A. B. Stone Professor of Psychology.
Tan normally has her Developmental Psychology class work, one-on-one and in person, with children at Woodward Elementary School. Together, through a co-authorship project, they write and illustrate their own storybooks, revealing the children’s wondrous minds and creativity. Tan’s Social Development class was also set to get involved this term with a group of slightly older children. Yet once upon a time, a pandemic came along, forcing schools to close and K students to spend a term away from campus. A happy ending to this story was in doubt.
“I told my classes I cried for three days,” Tan said. “I knew I’d really miss seeing my students, and I thought the experiential components of the class would have to be dropped.”
Nevertheless, after watching a news report about bored children and stressed-out parents, Tan wanted to get creative to fill a need. She decided her students could attempt the co-authorship project if they paired virtually with young relatives, or children of acquaintances, and worked together via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime and other methods. In fact, if they were successful, it meant the distance learning component would allow the classes to take their projects beyond Kalamazoo for the first time in the program’s 22 years.
“I knew if we could get the kids’ minds to flourish during self-quarantining, that would be a major accomplishment,” Tan said. “I’m not somebody who could be on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to help with medicine. I can’t sew or make masks. But in a way, the classes were our way of trying to brighten lives.”
K students in Developmental Psychology paired with 5- to 8-year-old children, and Social Development students collaborated with children aged 8 to 12. Tan taught her students to use scaffolding, a method of guiding children to achieve goals as independently as possible, by providing questions, prompts, clues, and other tools. But, she wondered, would college students be able to scaffold young children remotely via a computer screen?
By the end, children stuck at home without school made new friends while participating in stimulating activities, parents were eased of their home-schooling duties for a little while, and K students were wowed by what children can create. Here are some of the results.
Flion the Flying Lion
When Carter Vespi ’21 partnered with a 7-year-old boy from Atlanta, Georgia, the two began their friendship by drawing together. The boy was good at drawing the solar system, with the planets identified and all in order.
“He told me how in school he had recently learned to draw a lion,” Vespi said.
After noticing that the lion the child drew had wings, Vespi asked, “Can he fly?” And in no time, they brainstormed Flion the flying lion, the namesake and hero of their story. Flion is a professional football player in the Animal Football League. He goes to Mars to practice because he enjoys playing in low gravity.
“Flion had a big game coming up so he came back to Earth, where his team played a game against the Tigers,” Vespi said. “Of course, with a flying lion, Flion’s team easily won 49-7.”
Arty the Painting Dragon
Anne Kearney Patton ’22, of Birmingham, Alabama, partnered with 7-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who she previously knew from working in her church’s nursery.
When the twins were frustrated by the drawing process, Patton told the kids to try drawing a heart for the dragon’s head and an oval for the body, prompting one of them to yell, “Oh yeah, and triangles for the wings!” Arty the dragon was born.
“Arty fell into magical paint and found himself in Candy Land, where he started eating the houses,” Patton said. “The ocean was made of melted blue chocolate.”
The plot describes Arty’s process for making amends to the owners of the homes he ate.
“Something I’m taking away from this is that what we learn in the classroom can be applied to real life,” Patton said. “I enjoyed it. I’m pleasantly surprised I could find a class this engaging considering it was distance learning.”
A Dragon’s Home is Its Castle
Noah Coplan ’21 didn’t know any 5- to 8-year-old children going into Developmental Psychology, but was matched through Tan with Logan, the 6-year-old son of Kyla Day Fletcher, K’s Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Associate Professor of Psychology.
“He’s a funny kid,” Coplan said. “He’s super bright, really talkative and he tells you exactly how he feels. I would wind him up with a question and let him go.”
That questioning led Logan to create a dragon named Ringo and his sidekick, a paintbrush named Colorful. The two win a painting contest by illustrating a castle that becomes their prize, which they give away to another character, Toothscary.
Logan and Coplan quickly developed a friendship. In fact, Logan was comfortable enough with his partner by the time midterms came that he told Coplan, “You look tired. Did you take a nap today?”
“It was the little things that mattered to me with this class,” Coplan said. “I would tell him, ‘I have to go, I have more homework to do.’ Immediately he would say, ‘Can you call tomorrow?’ Even on our last call he had more plot-line plans. It was cool to see that kind of stuff.”
Fletcher was equally pleased.
“I’m a big believer in the experiences Logan gets to have with people other than me and my husband,” she said. “It was an opportunity for him to sit and be boundlessly creative, and then channel that creativity into producing a book of his own. Just the time he spent with a college kid and the attention he got is the wonderful part. Noah was absolutely amazing with him.”
Star Wars Meets Kitty Mermaids
You’ve heard of catfish, but what about kitty mermaids?
Ola Bartolik ’22 guided Lillian, 8, and Eleanor, 6, the daughters of Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer Perry, through their story following the Four Ferocious Kitties, four cats that live in a magical potion factory. A potion spills and spreads, creating kitty Jedi and kitty mermaids, including Snowflake, Lightfury, Luke and Leia, who conduct an epic battle with Cat Vader and Darth Kittious.
“I was nervous meeting them,” Bartolik said. “I remember talking to my friend beforehand and asking, ‘What if I’m not cool enough for them? What if we don’t come up with anything?’”
But during their first meeting, there was a chance to break the ice.
“I thought I heard roosters in the background and they said, ‘Yes! We have chickens!’ It led to a whole conversation about chickens and what they do. Even their little brother would talk with me.”
Perry was grateful her girls had someone else to talk to, even if it was from a distance.
“I typically homeschool my kids and I was looking for educational opportunities for them that are different than what I might be able to offer at home,” Perry said. When the girls first met Ola, “I told them we were going to turn on the computer and talk to this student and they sort of looked at me funny. They weren’t excited at first, but Ola was enthusiastic about talking to them and listening to what they were saying. I could see the girls getting more and more excited. They loved working with her.”
Play Ball, They Call, While Including All
Although most in Social Development created a book for a general audience, Saahil Patel ’21 and his cousin, a 12-year-old girl, developed a book specifically for another cousin, a 7-year-old boy.
“She told me our cousin had recently developed an interest in sports, and we wanted our plot line to solve a problem,” Patel said. “She was always the shortest in her class and got picked last for teams so she wanted to create a book that showed no one should be excluded from participating in sports.” As an added challenge to the project, his cousin wanted the story to rhyme, given her love of Dr. Seuss.
At the end, the 12-year-old added a dedication to the book to make her cousin feel special.
“I was shocked by this, as this level of consciousness and thought is usually developed later in life,” Patel said. “But as usual with this project, she continued to outperform my expectations for her. As a college student, you get so used to working with other college students. Dr. Tan said not to underestimate our partners, and my cousin blew me away with her ability. She made it easy for me.”
Teaching About the Pandemic
Raphaela Varella ’20, a psychology and biology major, came to K from Los Angeles as a Posse Scholar, although she has family in Michigan. That family includes a 9-year-old cousin in Traverse City, who was excited to help with the co-authorship project.
“The first time we FaceTimed, I thought it would be for 30 minutes,” Varella said. “We did it for two hours because she was so into it.” Over the next several weeks, Varella met with her cousin regularly.
Work sessions included Disney music, drawing, coloring and brainstorming ideas for their plot. Because the book was intended for a younger child, the duo decided to craft a story that explained the COVID-19 pandemic and why it meant children couldn’t go to school or play at a friend’s house. That meant Varella would ask her cousin questions such as “Why do you think people are staying home?” and “How does that impact people?”
Ultimately, Varella’s cousin surprised her with her creativity and they were happy to find a unique opportunity to build on their relationship.
“It’s hard for her not to have an older sister,” Varella said. “I always wanted to be there for her, and this has helped me to be a role model. I’m thankful for being able to foster such a connection with her.”
In class, Varella mentioned that she plans to continue doing creative projects with her cousin.
“That’s one of the most moving outcomes of this quarter’s project. Some had barely known their younger relatives, occasionally seeing them at family events.” Tan said. “Many students expressed how relationships with younger siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, had gotten closer and felt forever changed.”
Animals Learn Kindness
Laura Hanselman ’20, a chemistry major from Ann Arbor, plans to follow in her dad’s footsteps as a dentist one day. When she does, she might have a book called It Started with a Rainbow in her office’s waiting room.
The book, created by Hanselman and an 11-year-old family friend, Alexis, provides advice on what it means to treat others with kindness. The partners started by drawing rainbows and proceeded to build a plot featuring anthropomorphic animals with alliterative names such as Daisy the Dog, Peter the Pig and Rowan the Rabbit.
“The story starts where the dog does something nice thing for the frog, and at the end, the kindness came back to a pig doing something nice for the dog,” Hanselman said of their pay-it-forward-themed story. “She was definitely nervous at first, but everything she came up with was excellent. She surpassed my expectations.”
All told, the K students wrote stories with more than 40 children in many states, including Alaska, and even a couple of international locations. Despite the initial disappointment of distance learning, the courses yielded several successes and many firsts for the project, including:
- A story created entirely in sidewalk chalk between the homes of a student and her 6-year-old partner. The two practiced social distancing and used their own chalk.
- A student and partner who completed the co-authorship while camping and observing social distancing.
- One story first written in French between a student and her French cousin living in France, before it was translated into English.
- A record three sets of twin children writing stories alongside K students.
“The variety of children, stories and drawings that we see every time has been one of the greatest sources of interest and joy for me as the project always has many colors,” Tan said. “But this year, the rainbow is even fuller as the students have individualized their partnerships with children in so many different ways, more than I ever could have imagined.”
With respect to this project, Tan reflects: “I always wanted to teach in a way that takes learning outside the classroom. As long as learning is just contained within a space and not linked outside, there’s a real limitation on growth. That’s why it had such an impact on me to see how the tremendous dedication and resourcefulness of the K students made this co-authorship project so bright, during a quarter of distance learning.”