The Columns

Merci, Madame Jennifer

— by on August 25th, 2015

For the past two years, Jennifer Latham Shotwell, a 1995 graduate of Washington and Lee University, and her students at Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia, have been involved in an unusual literacy project — writing children’s stories in French.

When her W&L classmate Cathy Gartin Kononetz heard of Jennifer’s efforts at their recent 20th reunion in Lexington, she thought the project would be a perfect fit for Humankind, a new social video product featuring positive news stories that is part of the Gannett/USA Today network. Cathy, who is the Senior Director of Gannett’s Video Production Center, pitched the story to her staff and helped produce a story and video about the project using footage that Jennifer shot while in Haiti. The story ran on the Humankind site on August 14th and has also been picked up by The Huffington Post. Jennifer noted on Facebook, “I’m honored and humbled by the result of some Class of ’95 teamwork!”

Jennifer, who is a French professor and director of RMC’s Butler Multimedia Learning Center, challenged her students to write the stories. “In my elementary-level college French class, my students have an opportunity to use the language in a unique way by writing children’s books,” she explained. “Though some learners don’t think they can produce much with a new language, my students are learning to express themselves and create entertaining stories that we ultimately share with disadvantaged children who are also learning French.”

The first books, which she shipped to St. Gabriel’s school in Lascahobas, Haiti, were handmade and illustrated by students as well. This year, Jennifer started a Kickstarter campaign to print more durable paperback books, and in June, she and some of her students were able to hand-deliver 90 books.

As the USA Today story reports, “Children stood by their tables, flipping through the pages and looking at the colorful drawings. Leaning against the walls of the school, uniform-clad students read stories out loud in French. At the end of the day, a loud and resounding, ‘Merci, Madame Jennifer,’ could be heard.”

You can read more about Little French Books here.