Into Africa

Students at Athey Creek Middle School use their artistic and writing skills to
by: Vern Uyetake, Seventh graders at Athey Creek Middle School  show off their books, from left, Juman Kekhia, Carolyn Cruze, Callie Attanasio, Will Holloran, Jenny Walter, Michael Wright, Kendall Weierich, Katia Farnbach, James Lavery, Brandon Waller and Jonathan Macemon.

It is night. Dwellings line a plateau surrounded by a rim of mountains. The air feels tropical and a cool breeze sweeps over the village. Children gather in the streets and begin to walk beneath the moonlight - the walk to safety.

This year, seventh-graders at Athey Creek Middle School learned about Africa - the victories, the struggles, the rich culture and hardships. Within classroom discussions, the students learned about children living in Uganda known as 'night commuters.'

An estimated 30,000 'night commuters' flee their homes in villages each night and travel to urban areas to escape attacks or abduction by an armed group known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Walking several kilometers each way, the children sleep at centers run by non-governmental organizations that provide safety, water, basic health and counseling, according to Amnesty International.

Through their social studies classes, 180 students at the West Linn school wrote and designed books that will soon be sent to these young Ugandans in eastern Africa and connect with a far-away culture.

The assignment - the brainchild of social studies teachers within the West Linn-Wilsonville School District - was to write and illustrate a non-violent story with a positive message.

'We didn't know what to expect,' Athey Creek social studies teacher John Moshofsky said. 'All year long we've talked about character in my class, and I've been trying to nurture and develop that - (my students) are to be good people. My only expectations were that they would do an excellent job and take ownership of their work.'

Six weeks ago, each student was given a white hardbound book with blank pages. Now completed, the individual stories have come to life through colorful detailed drawings and informative stories about hope, laughter, everyday life and joy.

Becoming authors

While the books are part of the seventh-graders' curriculum, they will not be graded. Moshofsky said the activity was a required community service effort. And hopefully, he said, the Ugandan children will enjoy reading them.

'At first I was thinking, 'why are we doing this?' But after studying Africa we learned about the LRA and the rebels torturing these kids,' student Carolyn Cruze said. 'The kids are our age. These books are some of the only possessions these people are going to have.'

Upon receiving the assignment, a majority of the students said they started their books immediately after school. They researched information, watched interviews from 'night commuters' online and thumbed through their favorite children's books. Blank pages became colored, and stories evolved.

At school, some shared their books with one another, which were written in English because it is an official language in Uganda.

'I was really excited(about the books) because I'm really into art. This is a way to use something I love doing to help someone else out,' said student Jenny Walter.

Several students designed ABC books. Princesses made their way into Juman Kekhia's story. Callie Attanasio wrote about a giraffe that wandered out of the zoo and incorporated other African animals. Cruze wrote about a mouse in a cheesecake contest. And Jonathan Macemon made a little black hat go on quite an adventure.

The students came up with the story and picture ideas, developed them and put them down on paper. A few students made color copies of the pages in their book to remember the project when it's gone. Some kids included an 'About the Author' page and included information about themselves and a photo.

Providing an escape

On any typical day, after the final bell rings at Athey Creek and students are dismissed to go home, many of them said they relax. Some students said that they call or text message their friends from their cell phones. Others play racquetball, read, go for a jog or play with younger siblings.

After researching Uganda, they said they now realize that many kids 'escape' the hustle and bustle of everyday life in different ways. Many of them read stories in the centers they visit at night.

'When the teachers mentioned that we were going to send these books to Africa for kids that needed books and something to read and learn from,' Tyler Neville said, 'that made me realize it's not just one of those projects that you turn in (in the classroom) and get back. This is one that'll stick with them forever. I really wanted to try hard with my book.'

Before the books are sent to Uganda and distributed at safe centers through an aid organization, the seventh graders plan to read their stories to students at Stafford Primary School.

'We wanted them to have the opportunity to share with an age group similar to who will probably be reading them in the future, to see their reaction,' said Jessica Meade, social studies teacher at Athey Creek.

And once this batch of books is sent overseas some students said they are ready to design another one.

'I'm going to make another book,' said Will Holloran. 'I really like it. This was fun.'

Several students said their family members also became interested in learning about children in this part of Africa. Kendall Weierich said her mother purchased a book written by an African man who experienced the life of 'night commuting.'

'I'm just starting to read it,' said Weierich. 'It's like you're in the place the kids are staying. Now, when we write the books we can feel what a big difference we're making.'