The City of Stories is an integrated book arts and oral history project that explores the intersections:
• between text and image on the page;
• between oral and written traditions of storytelling;
• between classroom and community;
• and between people of different cultural backgrounds.
In the spring of 2002, and again in 2003, I worked with a team of eighty-five students at the Amherst Regional Middle School in a unique book arts residency project that used personal connection and creative storytelling to explore the diversity of the local community. Students conducted oral history interviews with local immigrants, including classmates, teachers, neighbors and family members. Then they transformed their stories into artists' books filled with illustrated narratives and poetry about the immigrants' homeland, journey to the United States, and transition to American life. The students built architectural book structures that join together to create city blocks, and filled them with pictures and words to create a City of Stories.
The project began with the United Neighbors game. This introduced bookmaking and interviewing skills, and the principles of world citizenship. Students made a Planetary Passport and used it to collect signatures of people from different lands, languages, and religions. A world map, hidden inside, was used to record people's birth locations. Students received bonus points for finding people from all nine areas of the globe. As students practiced interviewing skills and built confidence in reaching out to strangers, the team was able to develop a pool of contacts for the longer interview project ahead.
Each student then created a pop-up house book with a sewn-in signature, an accordion road book, a two-pocket carrying pouch, and a corner connecting piece. After practice interview sessions in class, students paired up to conduct longer interviews with local immigrants of their choice. Writing workshops in English class helped students transform this interview material into stories and poems. Library and internet research was used to gather information and visual images about the person's homeland. The project then moved into the art classroom where students learned to use a storyboard to help plan their pages, and they worked on their finished artwork.
When the artwork was completed, the books were connected in groups of four to create city blocks, and the blocks were joined to build a City of Stories. The project was on display at the school library and later at the public library, with an article in the local newspaper.
Two children's books inspired this project, and served as mentor texts. SEEDFOLKS by Paul Fleischman, in which a neighborhood of immigrants find common ground by building a community garden. This book was used to learn about writing in the first person narrative. And MADLENKA by Peter Sis, in which a young girl walks around her city block and meets her neighbors from many lands. We used this book to learn about picture-book art and design.
•I learned how tough some other people have life and what they had to go through to have life like us. •I learned that by asking all the questions in the interview you can learn a lot more than you would ever think and even become friends. •I learned that we take our lives and freedoms for granted, and life is much harder other places. •I learned that if people are born in completely different places with completely different cultures, we're all really similar anyway. I also learned how to take notes better. •I have more respect for immigrants as a result of this project. •The world seems smaller because I met people from so many different places around the world. •I have a new perspective of the world, I feel that I am not the only one in the world.
The City of Stories Project was designed by Jeannie M. Hunt (book artist) and Alfie Alschuler (English teacher), with teaching assistance by Tara Farley (art teaher). Grants were provided by: The Amherst Cultural Council, The Amherst Area Education Alliance, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine.