Published: May 19, 2016
Boy and a girl holding a book in the writing class

Two first graders walk into a class. They open a science book they wrote together. They read it to college students, who clap and ask questions.

This is no joke. It’s a joint effort of a writing class at CU-Boulder and a first-grade class at Bear Creek Elementary School.

More on that later. But first, back to the story. It concerns a grizzly bear and a polar bear, both famished after a harsh winter, both eyeing a “luscious elk.”

The first-grade girl ticks off the grizzly’s diet, size and top speed—35 mph. The boy narrates a parallel tale about the polar bear—25 mph, if you’re curious. The tension peaks as both animals lunge at the hapless elk.

The grizzly runs faster, so it wins. The fate of the polar bear is left to the readers’ imagination.

Daniel Long calls this a “great example of community-based writing.” He should know. Long, who earned his MA in English literature at CU-Boulder, teaches “Writing on Science and Society” for the university’s Program for Writing and Rhetoric.

A few years ago, one of his students, Allyson Adams, asked to write a science-themed children’s book for her final project. Her book is called Our Love Was Born from Burning Stars, and it offers a scientific, as opposed to religious or mythological, account of the universe’s origins.

During the next two semesters, more and more students asked to write children’s books, Long recalls. “So I said to myself, ‘Why not ask all of them to write children’s books?’”

As long as you’re writing children’s books, you might as well share them with actual children. Long did this via Stephanie Briggs, a first-grade teacher at Boulder’s Bear Creek Elementary School.

Long’s students read their books to Briggs’ first graders last spring, and the kids asked if they could write their own books. After two more classes made the same request, “Mrs. Briggs and I said to ourselves, ‘Why not let them?’”

This spring, the first graders at Bear Creek Elementary wrote and illustrated their own books. Their assignment: to tell a story based on imaginary contests between two animals—and the assignment was appropriately called “Who Would Win?” The matchups included a mako shark vs. a great white shark, badger vs. wolverine, cheetah vs. leopard and great horned owl vs. golden eagle.

Read more about the book project and see examples on the Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine website.