English Class Authors Connect to Community

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Celeste Brooks P'12, '21, Director of Communications

There are school projects that are remembered for a lifetime, ones that build skills, forge character, and touch the hearts of students. Kim Cramer’s freshman English classes experienced such a project this year. 

In the summer of 2017, Kris Campesi of Summit Therapy Services was scheduled to bring her therapy dog onto the R-MA campus to help combat homesickness. Kim Cramer, who teaches drama and freshman English, approached her about coming into the freshman classes. The two women hit it off, and amidst discussions of the places Mrs. Campesi and her therapy dog, Nicodemus (“Nic” for short), had visited, and the things they had done, an idea was formed.

R-MA freshmen became published authors and were able to share their creations with students at The Key Center.

Not long after school started, Mrs. Cramer challenged her students to develop an idea for a book. It was to be a book that would be written, designed, and published, then presented to special needs students and/or retired military personnel in a retirement community. That was the only guidance she provided. The topic was wide open. The students were a bit daunted, and their reactions were not as excited as one might expect. 

“Truthfully, I thought, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to do this,’” admitted Abigail Stewart, author of Animals Talk?

“Initially, our class didn’t think it sounded like much fun,” agreed Ricky Guiffrida, who produced the recipe book, Mexican Sweets. But the carrot of a field trip off campus was enough to get the ball rolling, he added. Before they knew it, the students were immersed, engaged, and imagining. 

The books about Nic the therapy dog were huge hits with the students.

With some fits and starts, the students went through the process of brainstorming, choosing an idea, researching the topic, obtaining and/or creating artwork, and laying out the book. Then came the editing process as they tried to make each page perfect. The books were submitted to bookemon.com for publication, and by the end of spring break, they had arrived. 

On Friday, April 13th, the students gathered in the President’s Dining Room for the book release ceremony, where each student was presented with a hard copy to keep. Paperback copies were scattered about the tables for the R-MA staff and faculty guests to peruse. Heard throughout the room were exclamations of delight, accompanied by small smiles of pride from the students and a huge grin of joy from Mrs. Cramer.

“I’m just so proud of them,” she said. “They really bought into this and came out with some great books.”

Ask Mrs. Cramer about the project, and she could tell you about every one of the 21 books and their authors. There was Isabella Spencer’s book of inspirational photos and quotes, Come Into My Dreamland, written with her eight siblings in mind. JJ Banek-Gabelle’s book, Nic and I, featuring Mrs. Campesi’s therapy dog, was written for his younger sister. Ethan Mayo and Alex Tendler’s books took Nic to the airport to learn to fly. Bernie Luan’s writings The Pearl On the Yellow Sea:  A Concise Guide of Dalian, China focused on a favorite childhood spot in China, and Long Vu’s cookbook The Pho Cookbook features secret family recipes (though perhaps they are not so secret any longer!). Click here to request an information packet about Randolph-Macon Academy.

On April 17th, when the group took their books to The Key Center, a school for special needs students ranging in age from five to 21, the R-MA students were treated to untethered, heartfelt reactions to their books. Some of the Key Center students, knowing Nic from his visits there, clapped and cheered excitedly when they saw him in books. One student grasped it tightly and had to be coaxed into letting go of it. Another student laughed aloud with excitement while hearing The Journey of Astronaut Bill by Hugo Chambert.

“The first group we read to had a hard time focusing their eyes on the book. The adults in the room really helped with that. But the second group of kids lit up,” said Ricky. 

Abigail admitted that she was uncomfortable at first, but the student’s enthusiastic reactions to her book changed that. “One student was yelling while I was reading, repeating the words I had just said,” she recalled. Though it was hard for her to raise her voice loud enough to be heard over him, she knew he liked the book based on his reaction. “That made me feel good,” she said. 

Dressed in their college-prep school best, the students of R-MA had the honor of reading to special needs students. According to Kris Campesi, the trip was beneficial to both groups.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for both groups to learn from each other,” said Mrs. Campesi. “Both groups got information from each other, and both groups got a feeling of belonging from each other, how they could blend as two different populations, how they could come together and respect each other and to care for each other. I loved seeing the Randolph-Macon students interact with the special needs kids and the love and the care and the compassion they gave to them. And the response of those kids to the Randolph-Macon Academy students. They looked up at them with large eyes. Seeing people like that, and the fact that they’re from so many different nations, these kids haven’t been exposed to that.”

Next the students traveled to Falcon’s Landing, a military retirement community. They split into two groups with one going to read to residents of the assisted living area, West Falls, and the other going to visit the Johnson Center on the independent living side. A small group of musicians visited each site and performed two songs. 

While Nic was the highlight for the Key Center students, it was the cookbooks, such as Ricky’s Mexican Sweets, and the books on foreign countries that caused a stir among the older audiences. 

“This was an experiment, and I think it was a success,” said Mrs. Cramer. “The project hits on so many valuable life skills: creativity, research, managing deadlines, writing, desktop publishing, editing, graphic design, presentation skills. At the same time, it provides an opportunity for these students to connect to groups they may not have encountered before. They did a fantastic job relating to both audiences. I’m just so proud of them all.”

The joy of their listeners made all the work worth it for the R-MA students.

All of the students’ books are for sale on bookemon.com. They can be searched by the book title or author (note that some students may have used a penname, or the title on bookemon might be slightly different). 

  • Jerry James (JJ) Banek-Gabelle: Nic and I
  • Yazmin Blell: The Bedtime Secret!
  • Jacob Carver: The Daily Life of Taryn the Unicorn
  • Hugo Chambert: The Journey of Astronaut Bill
  • Amaju (AJ) Erenshey: The Adventures of Flower Girl:  Dawn of the Butterfly
  • Joseph Flowers: Flowers Food
  • Richard Guiffrida: Mexican Sweets
  • Shukriya Hasanka: A Feeling of Home....My Journey to Iraq
  • Donavan Heggs: 6 Piece
  • David Kim: Things of Myth and Legend
  • Kyung (Aaron) Lee: Mike the Teen Detective
  • Haorun (Bernie) Luan: The Pearl On the Yellow Sea:  A Concise Guide of Dalian, China
  • Ethan Mayo: Nic Goes Flying
  • Roosevelt (Trey) Roberts: Babalou the Cat
  • Shahzaib Shahzad: Experiment in the Kitchen
  • Isabella Spencer: Come Into My Dreamland
  • Abigail Stewart: Animals Talk?
  • Alexander Tendler: Nic's Sunday Morning
  • Destinee Thomas: Like the Dew in the Morning
  • Long Vu: The Pho Cookbook
  • Mishel Levina: The Stories that Teach Us

The boarding school students were pleasantly surprised to see that The Key Center had put their names on the welcome sign!