Japhet School students virtually create book during lockdown

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published June 23, 2020

 The cover of “Across the Distance: A Tale of Two Friends” was illustrated by Margie Brown, a Japhet School staff member and watercolor artist.

The cover of “Across the Distance: A Tale of Two Friends” was illustrated by Margie Brown, a Japhet School staff member and watercolor artist.

Photo provided by Janine Krasicky Sadaj


CLAWSON — All approximately 55 students at Japhet School, a preschool-through-eighth-grade private school in Clawson, recently utilized technology to collaboratively write and illustrate a short story titled, “Across the Distance: A Tale of Two Friends.”

Educators quickly shifted from the school’s long-standing tradition of Spring Sharing, an original musical in which each student has a role, to the book after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered all in-person activities.

Head of School Kerri Vizena said the transition from physical to remote learning took place over the course of a weekend. Each student received a Chromebook, and each class contributed to a different part of the story during Google Hangout sessions.

“My goal when this all started was to keep as many traditions true to our Japhet community as possible to provide stability to students to make them feel secure, but the question was how to do it,” Vizena said.

That was when Betsy Stecker, communications director and registrar for the school, had the “lightbulb” idea of a schoolwide storybook. Having taught language arts at the school for a decade, she said, the idea of round-robin storytelling was not unfamiliar.

The next step was figuring out how to facilitate such an endeavor, but Stecker said teachers exhibited a “growth mindset” to make it work.

Teachers asked the younger class questions to develop the main characters and their families, the older students designed the theme of being separated and crafted more of the narrative, and the upper class wrote and returned finished chapters to round out the resolution.

“I gave teachers the choice of how to make it happen, and it came together very well,” Stecker said. “You can rely on children’s imaginations. That was really the most fun. If you give the road to go on, they’ll fill in the scenery.’”

She said the time frame from concept to published book was approximately three weeks. After writing it, students submitted illustrations; Margie Brown, a Japhet School staff member and watercolor artist, illustrated the cover; and Stecker narrated the digital version.

“Parents took photographs of (the students’ illustrations),” Stecker said. “We didn’t have high-quality scanners — we just used cell phones and Zoom.”

Vizena said she was impressed with the detailed plot that students developed, as well as their unprompted incorporation of many of the school’s 18 character traits that are part of the curriculum.

“Technology has been an integral part of our curriculum, but for it to be the sole connection to students and to not be near them physically brought us challenges, but teachers emotionally learned to adapt and build relationships online,” she said. “We felt closer just by being on Google Hangouts and saw students in a different way in their home environment.”

She said she was proud of the administration, teachers, parents and students.

“We really value that every child here has a voice and is heard,” Vizena said. “(The story) really did reflect what the students were thinking.”

The heartwarming tale revolves around the friendship of two 10-year-olds, Marshall and Lucy, and their ability to remain connected despite distance and challenging times, including Lucy’s family’s temporary move to Japan and their eventual transition to college.

Owen Banna, 7, of Clawson, will be a second grader at Japhet in the fall. He came up with the idea of Lucy teaching Humphrey, her pet dog, to jump through a hoop of fire.

“It was fun and really cool. At the end (of the Google Hangouts session), we could stay for 10 minutes and talk, but most of it was about the story,” Banna said. “There were lots of details.”

He said he enjoyed listening to the rest of the book and that he thought it was “really realistic.”

Georgia Golbiw, 12, of Bloomfield Hills, said she was disappointed she had to leave her friends she had been with all year, but she adjusted to the distance-learning routine within the second week.

“(Spring Sharing) is one of my favorite events of the school year, but I’m glad we could reassemble it this way with this story,” she said. “It was pretty normal, to be honest, because we do newspaper at the school, so we do articles a lot and work together as a class.”

Susie Golbiw, Georgia’s mother and president of the board of trustees, said she was impressed with the way Japhet School handled online learning.

“Because of our small class sizes, it didn’t change much. We still had face-to-face teaching and a full school day with art, Spanish, math and everything they normally do. They just did it individually at home,” she said. “We still don’t know what the fall will look like, but I don’t anticipate anything will shake up the foundation of education at Japhet.”

To view the book online, visit bit.ly/JaphetATD.

For more information about Japhet School, visit japhetschool.org.