The class drew original artwork to accompany the text of the book. (Text and artwork by Sophia Armstrong’s class) 

The first challenge was co-authoring a book with a class of first graders. Now, one Haines teacher is trying to get that book professionally published.

“One of my student’s from last year said ‘I remember making that, my fingers hurt I was coloring so much,’” says first grade teacher Sophia Armstrong.

Last year, Armstrong was challenged to teach her first grade class about Tlingit civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, who lived in the early 1900s.

“She got the Alaska civil rights law passed, she helped get it passed 20 years before it did in the nation,” says Armstrong. “That’s really impressive and she was a woman and things were a little less progressive up here, just because it was a new place to be. She’s just an incredible woman.”

But when Armstrong started looking for children’s books to help teach her class about Peratrovich, she couldn’t find any.

“There’s only like oh a page about here in this whole book about civil rights,” says Armstrong. “Or there’s a page about her in this book about Native Alaskan leaders or something. There’s just not anything that I could share with first graders.”

So she decided to fill that gap.

“I thought well, we are writers, we can write this,” says Armstrong. “And so I got all this boring adult information and I would read a couple sentences to my students and they say, ‘okay tell me what I said, what do you remember?’ and they were trying so hard to piece it back together for me. And then we wrote some sentences and they’re very simple but it’s a children’s book.”

Then they grouped the information about her into different categories.

“Into her early life and teen years and college, and then after that and being married and then the kinds of discrimination that she felt and then what she chose to do to solve that,” says Armstrong.

Creating the book was a collaborative process and Armstrong says she distributed the tasks among the students.

“So this person’s really good at drawing people, okay you’re going to draw Elizabeth on this page and this person’s really good at drawing houses, you’re going to draw houses on this page,” says Armstrong. “Lots of my kids I’d say okay draw a couple totem poles and we’ll throw those in places where the pictures don’t quite match up right.”

She says the students were really proud of what they were able to create, even though it wasn’t easy.

“It took so much work and they saw how much work it took, coming up with just each sentence that had to sound good,” says Armstrong. “And then grouping all the sentences and coming up with the pictures. And I am really tough on art in first grade.”

Armstrong says she didn’t let mistakes slide. Instead, she redirected the students so they could make the best product possible.

“Nope that’s not good enough, go back and do it again,” says Armstrong. “Nope that person needs feet, that person needs ears go back and do it again. So there was a lot of sending them back to the drawing board to improve, improve, improve.”

Last month, the school librarian had copies printed for local use. But Armstrong says she wants to get it published for real.

“Hopefully it will be published, it will be sold and it would be great if whatever money came from that if that did happen could turn into a scholarship,” says Armstrong.

And, she hopes it could become a resource for more teachers looking for a way to tell the story of an important Alaskan leader.

The book is available for loan at the public library, and to download as an e-book through iTunes.