Last year, a group of students at Finch Elementary School read the book "Maybelle in the Soup."
They took a plastic version of Maybelle home, wrote about their adventures and photographed her, said Mary Carole Strother, library media specialist at the Texas school.
"We had a lot of fun with that, and I thought, 'Well you know, it would be really fun if we could share Maybelle kind of like you do with Flat Stanley [students send pictures of Flat Stanley to other students around the world].'"
Maybelle isn't your typical fiction character.
She's a cockroach.
With a pink bow and pearls.
But this cockroach crawled into the hearts of students and teachers.
This year, Strother and teacher Bryce Kennaugh worked together to bring two books about Maybelle to second grade. And through tech tools, second-graders digitally document their learning adventures with the cockroach.
Maybelle inspired these two educators to start a nationwide digital project that won the SIG Media Specialist Technology Innovation Award last week. And with a cockroach for their companion, elementary school students get excited about reading and writing.
"I didn't expect them to love a cockroach as much as they do, but they're so excited to take the little plastic cockroach home and write about the adventures they are going on," Kennaugh said.
Even the students who are normally reluctant to write fill up four or five pages of their journals.
They're also filling up a wiki with animations, pictures and video clips about Maybelle. The students at Finch don't have many technology resources at home. About 95 percent of them are socioeconomically disadvantaged. And these digital projects often give them their first experience with tech tools.
Through Photobabble, they create voiceovers for the photos they take. And through Blabberize, they use their artwork of Maybelle to create a talking animation of the cockroach.
With Glogster, they showcase their multimedia projects. They spotlight information about the books "Maybelle in the Soup" — which made the Texas Bluebonnet Children's Choice Award nomination list in 2009-10 — and "Maybelle Goes to Tea." And they share links about author Katie Speck and illustrator Paul Ratz de Tagyos.
While these books do have chapters, they're not too hard for first- through third-graders to read, Strother said. Even the fifth-graders want to read them because they see everyone's excitement.
So far, a plastic version of Maybelle has visited all 22 elementary schools in McKinney Independent School District. At one school, Strother dressed up as Maybelle.
"You walk in with this costume on, and the kids start going 'Maybelle, Maybelle.' It's character recognition just like Mickey Mouse," Strother said. "Who would think that you could recognize a cockroach?"
One of the schools hosted a Maybelle tea. And at a Finch Elementary multimedia festival, students earned multimedia awards for their work, ate mock turtle soup and drank tea. On top of that, the author flew in to read her new book to students.
Maybelle has traveled to Allen, Plano and Dallas in Texas. She has also visited schools by mail in Pennsylvania and Michigan. You can see what other schools have done with Maybelle on their wiki pages, which Finch Elementary's wiki links to.
Because so many other teachers are planning lessons around Maybelle, they can piggyback off of each other's ideas, Kennaugh said. She looks at other school glogsters, sees a great idea, and tweaks it for her students.
Kennaugh created lesson plans for her second-grade team to do a three-week unit study on Maybelle. They spent 1 1/2 weeks on each book.
And every day, the students don't want to stop working on their projects. Both stories have vivid vocabulary, and after they learn the words in class, Kennaugh hears them using the words later.
"I think it's exciting to watch where the kids take it," Kennaugh said. "You present these ideas to the kids or these activities, and they take it above and beyond what you even thought they would come up with."