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Class projects impact children and communities across the state

Posted April 5, 2016
By Brandon Gann, first-year master's in mass communications student

In a world where almost everything has gone digital and where 'flipping a page' more often than not means 'swiping a screen,' Dr. Michelle Martin ardently spreads the message that a printed book is still a valuable resource.  

“If you can get a kid passionate about books, especially when they're young, the world is open to them,” Martin said.

This is a particular emphasis in the Children's Literature course she teaches - a course taught on campus to traditional college students and online in USC's Palmetto College.

The course has two parts: academic and outreach. The survey course includes the study of several genres of children's books and her students are encouraged to study their content and plot, "... to look at what the protagonists are doing, how they interact with other people,” she said. But Martin says that a lot can also be learned from a book's appearance.  “Look at the lines, the shape, the color of the picture books," she said. 

But it's the service learning portion of the course that provides her students a hands-on experience with children's literature. Each student is required to do an outreach project with books within their own community, even her Palmetto College students whose online class is only eight-weeks long. “Even though it’s fast and I don't ever see the students, since they are an older set of students and have more life experiences, the projects they come up with tend to be very creative, interesting and diverse,” she said.

The projects that come from the course have made great impact upon the students, and several projects are still ongoing in their communities. One such project is a Little Free Library, a box containing children's books from picture books to short stories for children in the community.

Faith Black found her project fun and rewarding and especially meaningful in her rural community. “I decided to build a library box and put it outside of my church, Good Shepherd Lutheran, located in Swansea, South Carolina. In the box I put about 50 children's books. Children can come pick out a book of their choice, and, if they want, they may choose to return the book and pick out another, or they can pass it on to a friend,” she said.

A standout project that fits Martin's criteria of letting books impact a community took place at Midway Elementary School in Lexington, South Carolina. Because the school had plenty of financial resources and supplies available for their students, finding just the right project using books was a challenge.

So David Dutka, who works as an assistant custodian at the school while earning his degree in elementary education through Palmetto College, decided to use the Dr. Seuss Book "The Lorax" to teach a third-grade class about what it means to be a good steward of the resources they have.  

“At the end of the story, the Lorax gives the child the last Truffula seed. So I gave giant sunflower seeds to the kids for them to plant and I took them outside where they planted their 'Truffula' seed in a garden I built for them outside of the school's library with reclaimed bricks,” Dutka said.  

The outreach part of the classes pushes the students — future educatorsinto the teaching side of things, and Martin believes this hands-on experience is a must for future teachers. “Community-based projects get our students to think about who they are within their own community and how they are going to help shape the community once they are finished school,” she said.

Rachel Cass is one such giving member of her community. Balancing a 12-hour work shift as a nurse and being a mom to a four-year old daughter, finding the time to be a student is taxing. However, she volunteered at Miracle Hill in Piedmont, South Carolina, and to her, it was worth the experience. “I went to their girls’ cottage and had a 'Reading Hour' with them. I wanted to give these girls, who have lost everything that is familiar to them, a little bit of time to just escape from the real world and escape into a book world and have fun,” she said.

Cass took two books, "Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses" and "Pinkalicious" to read to the girls. But what she brought with her really drove the point home, especially for girls who have few possessions to call their own. In addition to the books, she brought sunglasses for every girl to keep, and she also baked pink cupcakes for them to enjoy to go along with the stories. 

Cass could tell the girls enjoyed the event, but the next day, she received word that her trip was more of a success than she thought. “The director of the girls’ cottage emailed me to tell me that the girls told her all about my time with them and everything that we did. She said several of them were even wearing their sunglasses. I'm thrilled that I was able to make them happy,” she said.

Student Brandon Adams acknowledges that these service learning projects impact not just the community, but also the students doing the project.  Adams, a member of the Zeta Zeta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, recruited some of his fraternity brothers and went to the Davis Early Childhood Center for Technology to read to the kids there. During their visit, he noticed that both the kids and his fraternity brothers enjoyed each other's company.

“They are getting a mentor who really cares about their well being. They have someone to really talk to. Moving forward, I definitely plan to expand on this idea and continue to make a difference for these children. I am glad I decided to move forward with this project because it touched the children and adults alike.” he said.

Unanimously, everyone who comes through Dr. Martin's course says that the experience was enjoyable and notes that their projects have motivated them to continue what they started in their children's literature class.

Martin always has a "goal" when she teaches a class, and these projects help her meet  this goal. “I'm passionate about children's literature. Getting my students to understand how important it is for them to be passionate about children's literature and books is something that I love about the course,” she said.

Martin models service learning in her own career. She is the former president of the Children's Literature Association and founder and director of Camp Read-a-Rama®, which has operated in Clemson and Columbia.

At USC, Martin holds the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from the College of William and Mary, a Bachelor of Science in Outdoor Teacher Education at Northern Illinois University and her Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in Children's and Young Adult Literature from Illinois State University. In addition to Children's Literature, she teaches two other courses: Libraries, Literacy and Literature and The History of Children's and Young Adult Literature.

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