Edmonton elementary teachers pen back-to-school pandemic picture book

Two Edmonton teachers are adding more firsts to their lists of unexpected back-to-school plans: co-author credits on a pandemic picture book.

We Can't MASK Our Excitement! is a guide to the changes awaiting students

Edmonton Catholic Schools elementary teachers Cassandra Christen (left) and Kristi Chipeniuk wrote a picture book for young students as they head back to the classroom during the pandemic. (Submitted by Cassandra Christen)

Two Edmonton teachers are adding more firsts to their lists of unexpected back-to-school plans: co-author credits on a pandemic picture book.

Back-to-school stories are a bona fide genre in the world of picture books, with hundreds of titles intended to help ease children back into the classroom. But the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated those reliable narratives by introducing new elements, from face masks to physical distancing. 

Despite their searches, Edmonton Catholic Schools teachers Cassandra Christen and Kristi Chipeniuk couldn't find a picture book that tackled those new back-to-school details in a way that would resonate with their Grade 2 classes.

So, they decided to make their own. 

"One way we really like to teach our students about tough subjects or hard things is through picture books," Chipeniuk said in an interview with CBC's Edmonton AM. "We wanted to write a picture book for as long as we can remember, so we decided to collaborate on it."

We Can't MASK our Excitement! is available in paperback through Amazon.

In the book, the first-time authors take readers on an illustrated guide through some of the changes students can expect to see when classes resume.

The cover of the picture book co-authored by two Edmonton elementary school teachers. (Submitted by Kristi Chipeniuk)

The looming return to school has generated plenty of worry and concern among parents, teachers and students alike, Chipeniuk said. If young students expect classrooms to look the same as they did pre-pandemic, she says it will only add to that worry.

"So I think it's really important when there's going to be changes that they get the heads-up. So we wrote the book because we want their anxiety to be lowered," she said. 

The book suggests new ways to say a physically distanced hello. And there is a list of ways to stay COVID-safe. A teacher dressed in a mask and face shield is transformed into a superhero, looking to keep her students safe. 

"I kind of put the spin on it that it's something that we're doing to protect each other," Christen said. 

Illustrator and co-author Cassandra Christen looked to put a positive spin on some COVID-19 accessories, turning a face shield and mask into the makings of a superhero. (Submitted by Cassandra Christen and Kristi Chipeniuk)

The teachers said writing the book helped ease their own anxieties about starting the school year under the pandemic.

"That positivity, it really helped re-frame it in my mind. I have kind of a different perspective going back and I feel less nervous than I did before," Christen said. 

The story isn't just for students returning to the classroom. For families opting for online learning, the co-authors say reading the book can help a child understand why they are staying at home. 

"I think it will really help," Chipeniuk said. "Honestly, I think it's a really good book for parents, teachers and students just to go through it and get themselves ready for the school year."


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