Collaboration and Character Development: Fall 2016 Water Inquiry

As temperatures and leaves begin to change in Western Massachusetts, members of the Water Inquiry project are commencing their time at Smith with awakened fervor. Summer months did not stymie our productivity; in fact, group members collaborated online to work on character development and illustrations for our forthcoming narrative– a compelling account of a duckling rescue that is rife with opportunities for reader engagement and problem solving.


Group members used storyboards like the one pictured above to consider character development. Photo courtesy of

 Just as rivers flow disparately into the ocean, so, too, do we find ourselves in the midst of a greater community this year– a storytelling “ocean” in which the Water Inquiry team is a subset of the overarching Teaching as Storytelling project chaired by professors Carol Berner and Al Rudnitsky. Together, we are joining similar focus groups to share writing, editing, and knowledge building techniques that strengthen our individual stories and allow us to interrogate “story form” thinking.

Our inaugural meeting occurred in Neilson Library’s new Knowledge Lab– a space that simultaneously provides structure and freedom in the pursuit of collaboration. Brightly colored beanbag chairs and large projector screens are just some of the tools that comprise this intellectual “clubhouse,” a space in which think-tanks like ours may refine developed projects or nurture nascent ideas. After sharing our work and listening to others’ stories, we were attuned to the subjectivity and commonality of our narrative research, considering that which is unique to Water Inquiry while engaging with intersecting goals and challenges that span all subsets (or all rivers, if we indulge our previous metaphor) of the Teaching as Storytelling research project.

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Students work alongside Professors Al Rudnitsky, Susan Ethridge, and Carol Berner in the Knowledge Lab.

To ground our creative work together, we have researched the import and efficacy of story form to greater understand the neurobiological and developmental merits of its interdisciplinary presence in classrooms.  Why, in other words, should we care about stories, and what makes them powerful tools for learning?

In doing so, we have found Kieran Egan’s Teaching as Storytelling and Kendall Haven’s Story Proof particularly useful resources in understanding narratology– a field of study that examines stories’ effects on perception– and the role of binarisms, schema theory, and cognitive development in story reception. Haven (2007) writes, “[stories create] context and relevance…evoke prior knowledge, provide details, [and] improve comprehension.” Did you know that the brain releases oxytocin, a neurochemical responsible for empathy and compassion, when one listens to (or reads) a story? Or that babies are born with a neurological predisposition for understanding the world through narrative formats? Our culture has utilized stories for so long, they have become genetically encoded in our species. Sounds like a powerful educational tool, if we do say so ourselves!

Story Proof and Teaching as Storytelling were helpful resources when researching narrative science.

Story Proof and Teaching as Storytelling were helpful resources when researching narrative science.

We approach our work this year with a desire to scaffold scientific thinking and action in our readers; we hope that our stories transcend the page by inviting students to problem-solve, collaborate, and explore the world around them– creating “context and relevance” that excites and ignites. To meet these goals, we are using frequent group meetings to refine our creative methods and challenge our own schemas, rethinking the role of stories in students’ lives so that we may target our readers, not as passive recipients, but as active and engaged scholars who may intertwine their thoughts and ideas with our texts.

The Water Inquiry team gathers to revise its forthcoming duckling rescue story.

The Water Inquiry team gathers to revise its forthcoming duckling rescue story.

The efficacy of our work is best gauged by young readers, and it is with great excitement that we await the piloting of our duckling rescue story in classrooms. In the coming weeks, first grade students will put our newly strengthened characters to the test, and we look forward to a new method of collaboration– the reciprocal exchange between reader, author, and story.

Joining the Water Inquiry team this year are the following student participants:

bio-7Brittany Collins is an English and Education double major from Westhampton, MA. She attended the Smith College Campus School for three years and loves going to college on the same campus she explored as a child. In addition to her Water Inquiry work, she is the Editor in Chief of Voices & Visions, a literary journal sponsored by the Kahn Institute, and she will soon join the Jacobson Center tutoring staff. Outside of the classroom, Brittany enjoys dancing, powerlifting, and hiking; she completed her first 39.3 mile Avon walk after freshman year and has a special affinity for the trails of Northampton since her training process. Distance walking reawakened her love of nature—a love that she hopes to channel into Water Inquiry stories, inspiring young readers to explore books and backyards alike.

bio-1Anna Wysocki is a first year of Smith College who is from a small town called Hoosick Falls in upstate New York. She is undecided right now, but is considering to major in Neuroscience. She is excited to add her own interesting perspective to the water stories. Just this past year, Anna and the rest of the citizens living in her town discovered that their local water supply had been poisoned by a pollutant known as PFOA, which can have serious side effects overtime by accumulating in the blood and causing serious illnesses and cancers. Everyone had to stop drinking, cooking, and even bathing for long periods of time with the water. Anna represented the student body at a local press conference to bring about social change and ease the hysteria. She is excited to use this insight in the stories, and looks forward to what can stem from them!

bio4Sarah White is a first year student at Smith College, and is excited to be working on the Water Inquiry Project. She is planning on majoring in studio art or the Study of Women and Gender. She is from Burlington, Vermont and spent most of her childhood exploring the forests and water around her home with her sisters. Before arriving at Smith she took a year off to road trip around the United States, camping and farming as she went. She is interested in writing and art, and in her free time can usually be found reading, cooking or outside.


bio-2Zoe Dong is a junior Studio Art major at Smith from Akron, Ohio. She’s very excited to be working as the illustrator for this project. You can view some of her work at





To learn more about the characters who create our characters, please visit our About Us page.

Stay tuned for more exciting news from the Water Inquiry Team!


by Brittany Collins on behalf of the Water Inquiry Team

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