Martha Davis, a second grade teacher in Toronto, Canada, is no stranger to Blurb. She’s an experienced bookmaker who knows what it means to have a printed book, and how it can transform a creative class project into something big. Case in point: Dogs Who Talk. The book, a fun and freeform collection of stories and photos, is an utterly charming jaunt through the collective imagination of her second grade class. We talked with Martha about how turning class projects into kids photo books helped her group of kids become first-time book publishers.
Blurb: Tell us a bit about the backgrounds of the kids in the class:
Martha: My students come from immigrant backgrounds where both their parents work, often shift work. They hail from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Burma, Iraq, Ethiopia, China, Ecuador. My classroom is a real multicultural mosaic. They behave well and are generally hard-working. These kids watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games, but their real world experiences are very limited. Making books with Blurb is definitely a new experience for all of them.
Blurb: How did the class project come about?
Martha: My grade 2 class was studying a unit for Science on Animals. I was bringing my dog Casey into the class once a week so the kids could familiarize themselves with a real dog. Only one student has a dog at home and some had never even patted a dog before. During their in-depth observations of Casey, their general study of dog behaviour and their work classifying many animal species, there was talk of how to “show what we know.” The kids had seen the three books I’d made with Blurb in 2011-12 because they’re on the shelf in my class library: Vermin Viewing Valuables, Monkeys Marking Milo’s Math, and The Good Old Days?. They’d heard from students in grade three and four about how much fun it had been making them. They thought the photography in last year’s books was “awesome” and they prattled excitedly about how “purfesshunal” the books looked and how pleased their parents were when they saw their work on the internet. They saw that copies of the books had been placed in the school library and “had a bar code and everything!” So when it came time to choose the format for the presentation of their work, it was no surprise to me that they voted overwhelmingly to make a book with Blurb.
Blurb: So, how did the creative process work?
Martha: For the creation of their book, I gave the kids a wide choice of miniature toy dogs, other realistic plastic animals, people and scenery. They each designed and set up their own scene which I then photographed. In a writing conference, and looking at their final photograph, they each dictated their story to me. They took what they knew about their chosen animal and their new-found knowledge of dog behaviour to make sense of these odd couplings and weave them into short narratives, which I like to call “story fragments.” The kids had complete control over the graphic design of their two-page spread: fonts, colours and backgrounds. At the end of the book, their drawings and the emotional letters they write to Casey describe her activities in the classroom and demonstrate their love and caring for her.
Blurb: How does making a book as a class project work with your teaching methods?
Martha: There are so many ways the book making process helps integrate my teaching. During the creation phase, kids are researching, planning, writing, designing and making many important, creative choices along the way. They are highly motivated and their level of engagement is very strong. When the books are completed, they are improving their oral reading skills by sharing the books with an audience (their parents, classmates, siblings, kids in other classes) and improving their communication skills by answering questions pertaining to their process. When they read the stories of their classmates, they reflect on their own growth as burgeoning authors.
Blurb: What do you think it meant to them to have their work published in a book?
Martha: Having their work published in a book was beyond exciting for them, especially a book that looks so professional! It’s great to make little books that are bound with string or paper fasteners or even cerlox and have the pictures glued in, but nothing beats a Blurb book in terms of the finished quality, and the kids can see this immediately. Publishing their work with Blurb becomes a huge motivating force. Reluctant writers and artists are on board with the project overnight. They know in the end how great their work can look so they work extra hard to make this happen. First they’re over the moon about having the book available on the Internet for relatives and friends in different countries to view, at no cost to them (in the Blurb Bookstore, under Preview), and then when the paper copy of the book arrives in the mail, they’re even more ecstatic and everybody wants one. Here’s where I’m glad to have the computer option, because most of my kid’s parents can’t afford to buy their own paper copy. Last year the class voted to hold a toy sale of their old toys and we raised $500. This money was used to bring the cost of their 80 page book down to a level that most parents could manage (from $33 to $20). If they still couldn’t, I subsidized them from my pocket. Equity is a big deal in schools.
Blurb: In a world of tablets and readers, do you get the sense that printed books are still important to your kids?
Martha: Of course, and especially when the book they’ve written is their own. The world is becoming more computerized, for sure, and I’m glad the option exists to view their book on the computer, but there’s still nothing like holding a physical book in your hand and flipping through the pages. Last week the kids brought their books, hot off the press, to the seniors’ residence. Every book and every writer needs an audience and this was their first outside their families. They sat elbow to elbow and shared their books with the seniors, reading aloud their own story and talking animatedly about the bookmaking process. As I watched them flipping the pages and pointing to the photographs, their feeling of pride was undeniable and the seniors’ unconditional appreciation of their work was palpable. The old folks had never seen anything like this before!
Blurb: Anything else you’d like to share about the book?
Martha: My thanks to Alexandra, who “discovered” me and my little class. The kids all have a permanent memory of their year in Grade 2 with Casey the dog. They’ve all said they’ll keep this book “for ever and ever.” (Amen.)