At first glance, the digital storybooks created by students in Dr. Krupal Amin’s Women’s Studies class at NCSSM are artful and lighthearted. Their bright colorful pages — filled with dancing birds, a rocketship who loves camping, and a determined cocker spaniel — also hold important lessons in perseverance, courage, confidence, and resilience.
Amin, an Instructor of Humanities, asked the students in her Women’s Studies section to choose a female leader they were in awe of and tell her story in a way that would appeal to a younger audience. Digital storybooks were the assigned medium — a form that would be accessible to many readers and where the students’ own creativity wouldn’t be limited by material resources.
Working in groups, the students constructed and illustrated their stories, with a Google Slides presentation readers can page through as the final product. Not allowed to use stock images of their characters, many of the students chose to tell their women’s stories through illustrated creatures — or even inanimate objects. There are dancer Misty (Copeland) the penguin, soccer star Megan (Rapinoe) the komodo dragon, astronaut Christina (Koch) the rocketship, and justice Ruth (Bader Ginsburg) the cocker spaniel — to name a few.
“It’s a hard thing to do, to take a very complicated life story, or to take a complicated lesson, like diversity, and filter it down to an 8-year-old’s reading level,” says Amin.
The stories tell how these women leaders faced challenges — discrimination, poverty, discouragement, rejection, injury — but in their own ways, managed to pursue their dreams and become the leaders today’s students look up to.
A group of three students worked on a storybook about Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to become principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. The story opens with a young penguin and follows her journey to the famous Bird Ballet Theatre, where she struggles with self-doubt as the only penguin among a company of flamingos, and has to take time off after a bad flipper injury. Why a penguin?
“We found a theme about how she constantly overcame struggles in order to pursue her dream, therefore making it easier and providing a path for others to follow her,” says co-author Sofia Basurto ’20. “Misty Copeland’s a dancer, and we wanted to use animals to represent her. When I think of ballet and dancing animals, we think of swans or flamingoes. And so we wanted to use a penguin … Because one of the things Misty had to overcome was body image and body structure.”
But the story of resilience doesn’t end on the storybook pages. All of the students’ collaborative group work to create these projects happened from their homes across North Carolina after NCSSM sent students home for remote instruction in March due to the spread of COVID-19.
“I think one of the things that’s most important to me that came out of this is the level of resilience and positivity that students are showing even in the middle of being at home and in the middle of feeling a lot of stress and anxiety from outside sources,” says Amin. “They’re still able to see the beauty and the success and the overcoming of challenges that these particular narratives tell, and to create beauty in the middle of all that, even while being separated physically, I think is just so important.”
Before the pandemic started, the class was planning to visit E.K. Powe Elementary, just up the street from NCSSM’s Durham campus, and read their stories aloud. Kaia Spero ’20 worked on a storybook about NASA astronaut and NCSSM alumna Christina Koch ’97.
“I thought it would be really interesting to learn about her and also be able to … show kids, ‘this is what an empowered woman in STEM can do. She can leave the Earth and go live in space for a year.’ That’s just incredible.”
While that in-person mode of service learning was put on hold this year, the storybooks are still available for anyone to read.
So enjoy a story, or even better, share one with a young friend or two.