Introduction to Research Project

In June of 2007, Dr. Mary E. Sefranek was awarded funding by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez to conduct a year-long project that would enable her to work with one technology teacher, one English teacher, and a classroom of 19 6th grade students at the Escuela Nueva Elemental Urbana in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. The aim of this project was to support the teachers and students in designing and producing a bilingual and culturally-relevant digital storybook in which the students would document the Festival de la Novilla of San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, their hometown.

The Festival de la Novilla is the primary attraction of the town’s traditional popular (patron saint day) festivals and occurs the second Sunday in the month of January, immediately following Three Kings Day. It highlights the principal figure of a novilla, or calf, that is adorned in garlands of flowers and paraded through the streets of the town (and later raffled off to raise funds for scholarships for local women). Another important attraction of the festival is the performance of traditional scenes from Puerto Rico’s rural and agricultural past on carrozas, or parade floats, which are judged and awarded prizes according to the authenticity of their portrayals. The festival has taken place for 32 years, is based on the historical recreation of events documented in the oral histories and collective memories of San Sebastián elders, and has been attended by over 100,000 guests in recent years.

Dr. Sefranek’s project was specifically inspired by the work of Mexican-American children’s book author, Carmen Lomas Garza, who created two well-known books, Family Portraits/Cuadros de Familia and In My Family/En mi Familia that, in a bilingual format, integrated stories of her family and community histories with visually rich illustrations. In these books, Lomas Garza therefore depicted, in a multimodal format, the historically, geographically, and culturally specific stories of her family and community life while she was growing up. In Puerto Rico, a relevant example of this kind of multimodal story-telling can be observed in the story Vejigante Masquerader/Vejigante Enmascarado by Lulu Delacre (a recipient of the Book of the Américas Award). In this book, the carnival celebrations of Ponce are described through the eyes of a young boy who participates in them for the first time.

The similarities between the above-mentioned texts and the text that the two participating teachers and their 19 sixth graders created is that these stories are culturally, geographically, and linguistically relevant to the local context they depict. Moreover, each was produced bilingually and incorporated rich visual imagery. Variations, however, included that the students collaboratively, rather than individually, authored their story-book, this book was produced through the digital software application PowerPoint, and it incorporated photographs taken by the students themselves (rather than the paintings that appear in the Lomas Garza and Dulacre texts).

In order to produce this book, the students, as its authors and illustrators, engaged in a series of activities in their English and Technology classrooms, as well as in their local community. These included:

1) Reading Carmen Lomas Garza’s Family Portraits and Lulu Delacre’s Vejigante Masquerader in their English classroom in both English and Spanish.

2) Learning and applying the software application PowerPoint through a series of activities in their Technology classroom related to the above-mentioned texts. These included writing text, scanning, uploading and downloading photographic images, manipulating images in Photoshop Manager, changing fonts, and adding textboxes.

3) Participating in a series of workshops. These included:

a. A workshop on the history of the Festival de la Novilla facilitated by Altrusa Internacional de San Sebastián, a philanthrophic organization of women who resurrected the festival in 1976.

b. A digital photography workshop facilitated by the Press Office of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

c. A live demonstration of the process of preparing a local festival parade float and the documentation of this process for inclusion in their book.