Book features D181 students' creativity

More than 200 submissions of prose, poems and artwork share views of life during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for the D181 Foundation to hold its annual Young Writers Night this year.

But rather than abandoning the project altogether, foundation board members decided to take a different approach. The result is a beautiful, 196-page, hard-cover book filled with prose, poems and artwork created by Community Consolidated Elementary District 181 students.

The idea came up during a foundation board meeting, said Hinsdale Middle School applied tech teacher Nancy Gadzala, who serves as a teacher rep on the board.

"We were brainstorming different ways we could still celebrate Young Writers Night in a COVID year," she said.

She mentioned a book she had been involved with for the Illinois Digital Educator Alliance called "IDEAS to Amplify Student Voice."

"What a great way for students to express what they have been going through and compiling it to become a book," she said.

Fellow board members embraced the idea, but there was much work to be done. Twenty-four teachers volunteered to be mentors and spent six months working with students on the 240 pieces submitted for publication.

One submitter is HMS seventh-grader Chase Jessop, who wrote a day-in-the-life piece.

"I came up with the idea to do a day-in-the-life first thing when I signed up for Young Writers Night," he said. "It seemed relevant to explain to people what it was like during a pandemic because most people don't live through one."

He said he tried to convey how different the year was from a typical one and the many difficulties it presented. His piece also emphasized the monotony of life during COVID-19.

"A lot of the same every day," he said. "I remember some days I would have the same thing for lunch every day. Everything was kind of on a replay button."

Madison School fifth-grader Aaron Mikhail covered what he liked and disliked about the pandemic in a piece called "Crazy 2020." Incorporating everything he wanted to say was tough.

"It was not that easy because there were so many things that changed," he said. "I just thought about COVID-19 and just did it."

Remote school, wearing masks, missing friends, celebrating birthdays, racial justice protests and the presidential election are among the topics covered in the book. Many students also wrote about their pets, including Monroe School fifth-grader Zahra Musabji.

"Almost a Shadow" is a piece about how her family almost lost its cat, Puako, to illness.

"This was something really big during this time of COVID and it felt really important to write about," she said.

Re-living the sadness she felt when she thought her cat would die was an unavoidable part of the writing process.

"The most difficult part was the part when I talked about how we were going to put him to sleep. That was probably the hardest thing to do," Zahra said.

Fortunately, Puako recovered.

"I lost a lot of things this year and I'm happy I did not lose my cat," she said.

Preserving those emotions was the goal of teacher mentors who worked with students to make sure they had a quality piece for publication.

"We really wanted to make sure the students were doing their best writing but not take away from their feelings and their experiences that they are trying to express," she said. "There's a balance. You don't want to take away from their story."

The writers agreed seeing their work and their names in print was exciting.

"It feels good and I like it," Aaron said.

"It's really cool to see some people you know in it," Chase said. "It's almost like, for people who want to be authors when they grow up, it's like your first published book. It's your first step into your career."

Some students also had the opportunity to record a video about their experiences during COVID-19 and their writing process for an exhibit created by the Hinsdale Historical Society (see sidebar on Page 7).

Everyone at the foundation is proud of the book and of funding it, Executive Director Meg Cooper said, extending thanks to teacher mentors and community donors.

"We hope that we have created a meaningful learning experience for the students who participated and a book that will be a treasure for the whole community," Cooper said.

The book and videos serve as wonderful reminders that students' feelings and experiences are just as important as those of adults, Gadzala said.

"I think people in the community and outside of our community need to really hear what the kids are feeling these days," she said. "That's the best way we can support them - by knowing what they are feeling and experiencing."

Book centerpiece of new HHS exhibit

Often one good idea leads to another.

When the D181 Foundation had to cancel its Young Writers Night, a new project emerged. The foundation published a hard-cover book, “Young Writers The 2020 Project: Student Reflections on a Pandemic Year.”

Following a conversation between the foundation’s executive director, Meg Cooper, and the Hinsdale Historical Society Board’s president, Kristen Laakso, the book became the basis of a new HHS exhibit.

“Hinsdale: the 2020 Experience” will open with a special reception/open house from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 15, at Immanuel Hall, 302 S. Grant St.

The book will be on display (and available for purchase) and visitors will have the chance to learn more about the student writers.

“We decided we’d have the kids record video and talk more about their submissions and their feelings,” Laakso said, noting that 50 students were filmed for the video.

The result is a 10-minute interactive piece. Viewers can watch it straight through or click on a student to hear what he or she has to say.

The exhibit also includes photography from Megan Arndt, artwork from David Marcet and Maureen Claffy, and a selection of front covers and photos from The Hinsdalean. A panel created by Jimmy McDermott and kids in the art studio at The Community House also will be on display, as will fun images of Instagram posts.

“You’ll see adults recording how they lived through the pandemic,” Laakso said.

Physical objects like puzzle pieces and wine corks will remind folks of how they got through a difficult year.

“I’m bringing a dog-eared copy of ‘War and Peace’ because I finally read ‘War and Peace,’ ” Laakso said.

The exhibit, curated by Molly Begala Haworth, will be open from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays to Saturdays from June 16 to July 3, with hours by appointment.

“Our goal was not to have people relive a difficult year, but to see how we all used creativity and ability to appreciate the simple things in life as a way to get through a difficult time and to highlight how our community helped us through a historical year,” Laakso said.

“We are supposed to bridge the past, present and future,” she added. “This is that we’re doing. We’re featuring original creative work by Hinsdaleans of all ages in an effort to record what this past year of the pandemic has meant to our community.”

Author Bio

Author photo

Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean