Shuksan 8th graders read to Birchwood kids

Right after the first school closure announcement went out, students at Shuksan Middle School were feeling a lot of things including nervousness about how online learning would work as well as boredom. Language arts teachers Erin Meese and Mindy Galbraith decided to give their eight grade students an assignment that would help them engage with their family, do something in service of others and compliment their previous learnings.

The main direction given to the students for the “messages of hope” assignment was to “provide something meaningful for an elderly person to see and read, since they can’t have visitors” because of COVID-19. Meese and Galbraith provided examples of greeting cards describing their own grandparents and how they appreciate them. They also provided an example of cards if they didn’t have grandparents in their lives, or if they didn’t want to write about a grandparent.

Students responded by creating electronic cards that their teachers emailed to more than ten local assisted living and care facilities including Shuksan Healthcare Center, St. Francis of Bellingham, and Whatcom Hospice Care. The cards included drawings, letters, photos, ideas and personal reflections.

“Receiving this encouragement has been so beneficial to all of our residents,” said Carmen Gurney, Activity Director at Shuksan Healthcare Center. “It brightens their day to know someone has thought of them, but there’s something special about the energy of youth that is revitalizing to them.”

View some of the cards here:


Narrating their own hero’s journey

The card project was a natural fit with what students were studying this school year. They spent their fall writing children’s books that both followed the archetype (a pattern that occurs across literature, cultures and times) of the hero’s journey and told a story in which the conflict, character, theme or events mirrored something from their own lives.

The concept of the project was influenced by the #weneeddiversebooks movement and related nonprofit organization, which strives to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. Each year the nonprofit produces an inforgraphic showing the racial or ethnic background of children’s books main characters published in that year. The students compared that with the racial/ethnic breakdown of the United States.

“They were able to break down whose stories aren’t getting told and have really rich conversations about why that matters,” said Meese. “For the kids it came down to two things: if you never see your story get told, then that tells you that your story doesn’t matter; and if you never see your story get told then you don’t connect with characters and you don’t connect with reading. They were able to identify why it matters that kids see their own stories represented in books.”

Students discussed how empowering it would be for elementary school students in Bellingham to hear eighth graders read stories that reflected their own experiences. The teachers then coordinated with Birchwood teachers to allow 8th graders to read their stories to their students.

Students wrote about a variety of topics including gender identity, immigration, bullying, abandonment, but then also overcoming your fears of joining a sports team or becoming a better reader. They were thoughtful about writing stories that would allow elementary students to see themselves.

The added buy-in of having an authentic audience also increased student investment in the work, “That gave students more reason to care about the quality of their work,” Meese said.

The 8th grade students who chose to share their stories at Birchwood Elementary School continued to work on their stories long after they were due and long after grades were posted. “They did this out of the kindness of their hearts and a commitment to the community,” said Meese.

“They were confident, proud and engaging with the elementary students,” said Rachel Smith, 2nd grade teacher at Birchwood. “8th graders Maria and Melissa wrote a story including Spanish and English words and read it like real teachers with stop-and-talk moments. Their story was one all kids could connect with as well. Their visit made our day!”

“Our students blew me away that day,” said Galbraith. “Not only had they written meaningful stories, they engaged elementary students in high level questioning and thinking, read-and-lead discussions in both English and Spanish, and mentored kids on the playground.”

“My students were thrilled to have 8th grade visitors,” said Chelsea Hawkins, 2nd grade teacher at Birchwood.”They were impressed by all the hard work, dedication and creativity the 8th graders put into their hero books. When the 8th graders left, students were glowing and eager to know when they were coming back.”

“Our students understood that their words had power and it opened up space for the 8th graders and kindergartner to connect in a way that only young people can do for each other,” Galbraith continued.  “We hope that this was the first of many opportunities of the One Schoolhouse Approach to join our students together.”

After the hero journey story and reading project, they had planned to do service learning projects this spring including working with senior populations.

“We’d written our service learning letters of application, only to have to cancel service learning,” said Galbraith. “We segued this into being heroic for people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities by sending these cards. We also reminded them that the best way to feel better about a tough personal situation is to do something for others.”






  1. This is such a beautiful and timely assignment. I’m sure the cards were a bright moment for our elders. Thank you for providing this rich opportunity to our students!

    • What a wonderful way to incorporate service learning without physically going out into the community. This is learning that kids will retain.

  2. This project makes me proud to be a Shuksan family. You teachers, engaging with your students in a way that helps them tell their stories, make our world better with your efforts. You and your students inspire me.

  3. Very good program. My one grandson attends Shuksan. I wonder if they will again issue lap tops to the students since they will be doing remote classes? does anyone know?

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