Wilmer De La O left El Salvador three years ago, taking a month-long journey to reach the United States. Now a senior at Park View High School in Sterling, Va., he still speaks in halting English, but he dreams of becoming an educator so he can someday teach his adopted language to other newcomers.
In a small way, he is already on his way. As part of a project called Viajes de Mi Vida — or, Journeys of My Life — De La O and about 70 of his classmates conceived, wrote and illustrated children’s storybooks in English and Spanish that are now in the hands of Salvadoran schoolchildren.
“It feels great because you’re sharing what you think, and you know that children from your own country are reading it,” De La O said.
De La O, 18, and his classmates have published 15 children’s stories as part of the project, which is in partnership with the Loudoun County Public Library and funded with a grant from the American Libraries Association. The project included award-winning illustrator and author John Parra appearing at the school library for a two-day workshop. The school assembled a group of students — including English-language learners and aspiring writers and artists — to draft and illustrate the stories over several weeks.
Many of those who participated are immigrants, but others were drawn to the project because they are interested in art or writing.
The books, published in the spring, were recently delivered to schools in El Salvador and also are in Loudoun County’s libraries.
Eneida Headley teaches Spanish at Park View High, where about 35 percent of students are English-language learners — the highest percentage among high schools in Loudoun County. She said many of her students have endured difficult journeys to the United States, and were able to tell their stories, in a way, through the narratives they created for the books.
“My goal was to give them a voice,” Headley said.
The tales include the story of a boy in El Salvador whose family was too poor to buy him a teddy bear. But then he works hard and earns good grades, and his teacher sends a wizard who gives him one. In another, a puppy, Pablito, and his mother, Linda, lament their lives as street dogs and venture out to find a better life. In another story, Rosalinda, a young girl, struggles to adjust during her visit to Guatemala to see her grandmother.
The project was cast in the mold of One to the World, a school district initiative that urges educators to convey lessons through authentic, problem-solving projects that address real-world problems. It is intended to get students more engaged than they would be if they were just chasing a good grade or a high test score and to teach students to think creatively and work in groups.
Students across the county have tackled a wide range of issues, including pollution and hunger. In one middle school, students aimed to raise funds for local food banks.
School librarian Kathleen Britto, who helped coordinate the project, said she believes students are more enthusiastic about the books project because they know other children will read their work and because it is extracurricular, with the students volunteering after school and during lunch, instead of it being a classroom assignment.
“It’s hard to get that kind of engagement on a day-to-day basis unless there’s a real audience,” Britto said. “It made a lot of students think more about themselves and their abilities.”
Sofia Alli, a 16-year-old sophomore who loves to write short stories, said she has long dreamed of becoming a published author. Now, “The Adventures of Rosa/Las Aventuras de Rosa,” a book about a cat exploring a street festival in Mexico, bears her name.
“Writing has always been a passion of mine,” Alli said. “To be given an opportunity like this is amazing.”
Keivan Malhani, a 16-year-old sophomore, said the project taught lessons that are difficult to get in a traditional classroom. He said he improved his ability to work in teams and got an inside look into the publishing process.
“We didn’t just learn how to just write a book. We learned the whole experience of publishing a book, cooperating with a team,” he said. “All these skills you can’t really teach unless you’re in that situation.”
Headley said some students, who spoke English only tenuously at the start, were confident enough to read their books aloud in English by the end of the project.
“They are proud of their journey and they are viewing the academic journey ahead with a new sense of hope and ownership and pride in a very humble manner,” she said.