Dunwoody Elementary School’s fourth graders will share an important part of United States history starting this week at Brook Run Park’s next StoryWalk.
Created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vt., StoryWalk is an initiative that encourages children – and adults – to enjoy reading and the outdoors at the same time. To create a StoryWalk, one page from a book is placed at a different location along a trail, allowing people to read a new part of the story as they arrive at each spot.
Brook Run Park had its first StoryWalk in 2020 just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Gina Jenkins, youth programming and services coordinator at DeKalb County Public Library. Jenkins said that while normally the youth services librarian would make a selection on which book to feature, this year teachers at Dunwoody Elementary School had a special request.
“We allowed this special request from Dunwoody Elementary School for their story to go up,” Jenkins said.
The story is called “Coolies,” by Yin, the title coming from a derogatory term that has historically been used to describe low-wage laborers of South or East Asian descent. The book follows two Chinese immigrants who face discrimination while working on the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s.
Dunwoody Elementary School librarian Sarah Sansbury said that after seeing the amount of hate crimes and instances of discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander people increase following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and fourth grade social studies teacher Emma O’Connor began discussing ways they could teach their students more about the history of Asian American people in the United States. After the mass murder of eight people, including six Asian American women, at Atlanta-area spas last year, the two became more determined.
“When we don’t talk about it, and it’s not taught, it just seems foreign,” Sansbury said. “I think what you don’t know and what you don’t understand, that’s where a lot of fear and ignorance lies.”
O’Connor and Sansbury decided to incorporate more information about the contributions of Asian Americans throughout United States history in their teachings about westward expansion, particularly regarding the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
“The United States couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without technological advancements, one large part being railroads,” O’Connor said. “Obviously, a huge part of that is the transcontinental railroad, but oftentimes, people … don’t understand how the transcontinental railroad was built and in particular who contributed to the building of the transcontinental railroad.”
According to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Chinese-American workers played a crucial role in the construction of the railroad, making less than their white counterparts for their labor and often doing the more dangerous parts of construction. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Chinese-American workers were employed by Central Pacific during the peak of railroad construction.
“It’s just important to highlight that U.S. history is everybody’s history,” O’Connor said.
Both O’Connor and Sansbury thought that one simple way to teach their students about this time period would be through historical fiction. The students started with “Prairie Lotus” by Linda Sue Park, a book about a young half-Chinese girl named Hanna trying to fit in in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s. Then came “Coolies,” which takes a closer look at the injustices Chinese workers faced while working on the railroad.
“My students, after reading this picture book … They were really affected by it,” Sansbury said. “They were like, that is not fair.”
The children’s reaction to “Coolies” was so strong, that it became the book Sansbury and O’Connor decided they wanted to highlight for a StoryWalk. Sansbury said she and others are expected to set the walk up on March 11, following which Dunwoody residents will be able to walk down the trail and read the story a page at a time.
But that’s not all. Sansbury has added two unique QR codes to each page – one with a video of a student reading the page in question, and one with that student sharing what they found interesting about the page.
In an email shared by his parent, fourth-grader Camden Crump said “that he truly enjoyed the StoryWalk and [is] looking forward to working with more StoryWalks.”
Sansbury said she appreciated the students’ honesty in their reactions to the book, and O’Connor said she was proud of their ability to think critically about the subject.
“The students have faced a lot of challenges the past couple of years, and I couldn’t be more proud of their overall attitude and willingness to participate in activities like this,” she said.