What Stanford Students Are Learning from First-Graders

Photo: Rod Searcey, ’84

Thanks to a new project in an undergraduate writing course, Stanford students and local first-graders are teaching one another.

In Writing & Rhetoric 2: Once Upon a Cause, students write, produce and design their own picture books with guidance and feedback from first-graders at Palo Alto’s Nixon Elementary School. Each story focuses on a life skill — perseverance, patience or cooperation, for example — with the goal of helping kids better understand personal and social problems.

Instructor Erik Ellis says the Stanford students often think the project will be easier than it is. “But I think that’s a good thing,” he notes. “I think they realize that picture books as a genre are crucial for developing children’s sense of the world.”

Picture books, Ellis says, pass down previous generations’ attitudes about gender, race and social norms. Through research and readings, undergrads examine how their projects can have an impact on readers in the long term. Students discuss diversity, gender stereotypes and the dearth of female lead characters.

“I think it’s really rewarding to see students’ research reflected in their books. They’re thinking more consciously about their rhetorical choices [and] trying to avoid gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes.”