Last year they were fourth-grade students. Today they are published authors. For eight months, with the help of teaching assistant Debbie Fox, a dozen fourth-graders at Pelican Island Elementary School in Sebastian, Fla., wrote and researched a travel guidebook called "Fun in the Sun - a Kid's Guide to Indian River County ... and Beyond!"
What was originally intended to be a small spiral-bound booklet turned into a real paperback book when Ms. Fox stumbled upon an inexpensive online publisher and realized that the thrill of working together to produce a "real book" was within reach for her students.
But their foray into publishing didn't come easy for these fourth-graders. Since this was an add-on to their regular school work, the students had to meet at lunch for weekly brainstorming meetings. Then they used their weekends to visit beaches, parks, bowling alleys, and art classes from Cocoa Beach to Port St. Lucie.
Along the way, they discovered places they didn't know about - and sharpened their writing skills.
"Real-life experiences are so important to get your head out of photocopied paper and spitting back answers," says Fox, who spent $99 of her own money to publish the book through Weekly Reader Press and iUniverse. "It shows them that writing is more than an assignment. It has helped them understand deadlines."
In today's climate of heightened concern about standardized test scores, it's become rarer for teachers to invest time in such special extracurricular projects. But since Fox is a teaching assistant without the heavier workload of a full-time teacher, and the students were willing to donate their lunch breaks and weekends, the project didn't interfere with other class work.
"Debbie is an incredible talent," says principal Bonnie Swanson. "She's so in tune with young children and the things that interest them."
The idea hatched after Fox moved from Fort Lauderdale to Sebastian. She had already written a travel book about southern Florida. No one had ever written a book about Sebastian - a small fishing town in eastern central Florida - so it got Fox thinking: why not turn the project into a student-teacher collaboration?
Once Fox got approval from Ms. Swanson, she asked several teachers to nominate strong writers from their classes. The students needed to be detail-oriented, able to take constructive criticism, and capable of understanding deadlines. They also needed thick skins to get through the editing process. Twenty-five students were nominated, but only 12 had the stamina to stick with the project to the end.
To start, Fox created a master list of the students' favorite destinations, from skateboard parks and arcades to restaurants to beaches. But nothing violent, such as a paintball site, would make it into the book. She also made it clear that not every review would make the final cut - even though seeing their words cut was sometimes difficult for the young writers.
When it was time to think about restaurants, students eagerly mentioned McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell. "I thought, 'These kids don't get out much,' " laughs Fox. "I explained to them that we're not going to do the fast food. We want to try to find unique places. It was a growing experience for them."
The book is written in a colorful and lively fashion. It includes chapters about nature trails, museums, and the Indian River Lagoon. Chapter titles range from "Fabulous Food Factories" (restaurants) to "Fun for Your Body" (bowling and skating places). Sprinkled throughout are facts about what every Florida kid should know about lightning and rip currents. The 23 illustrations were all drawn by students and the cover art was completed by a second-grader.
For Chris Vernon, it was an opportunity to watch her daughter, Isabelle, handle herself in a public situation. "It was a learning experience through my child's eyes," says Ms. Vernon. "[Fox] worked with them at their level and let them direct the project. Speaking to adults and making her thoughts clear and then being able to translate this back onto paper is a great experience."
Isabelle Vernon said the project was a perfect avenue to express herself. "[Ms. Fox] would let us say silly things and maybe let us put them in the book," says Isabelle, who wrote about the Outback Steakhouse and the Vero Beach bowling alley.
At Vero Beach Book Center, an independent bookstore, the book is not exactly flying off the shelves: 25 copies have been sold so far.
But additional copies are on order. "We have regular inquiries," says associate Cynthia Grabenbauer, who displays the book in the children's section.
In the eyes of the parents and students involved, however, the book is a run-away success.
"We were giggling because we thought it was going to be a basement project where you bind your little papers together and have a little book," says Vernon. "It actually blossomed into a full-blown project."
Fox won't be teaching at Pelican elementary this fall because the school's supplemental federal funding ran out. Instead, she will transfer to another school in Vero Beach. It's a longer commute, but she's looking forward to collaborating with a new group of students.
This time, she says, the project will be a work of fiction.
"I'm a big believer in books," says Fox. "If you want to kick it up a couple of notches, you can get a book published. And that's really exciting. Kids really love the idea of seeing themselves as authors."