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Simply Understood: Using Children’s Literature to Convey Complex Ideas from Psychology

by Nick Endicott

In Professor Marcus Rodriguez’ classes Internships in Psychology and Dialectical Behavior Therapy at Pitzer College, students had a unique alternative choice to the typical final term paper: they could write and illustrate a children’s book. This deceptively challenging option was unanimously favored by his students, bringing forth a range of new educational materials aimed at 4-8-year-olds. These stories are not merely cute and enjoyable reads; they are imbedded with powerful lessons, such as the value of sharing or the importance of bravery.

To facilitate his teaching, Professor Rodriguez was granted a Course Development Award from the Hive, which he used to purchase children’s books. At the end of each class, he would read one of these books aloud to his students. The merit of this assignment is made evident by the following quote from Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Students were challenged to take the complex concepts from their undergraduate psychology courses and package them in a way that young children could relate to and understand.

Furthermore, Professor Rodriguez saw this as an opportunity to engage the hearts of his students as well as their minds, working towards a project that would be more memorable and rewarding than a standard essay. Speaking about the prompt, Julia Ho (PZ ’21) notes that it, “awakened and excited my imagination. Although it was a little uncomfortable to venture out of what I’ve been used to for most of my years in secondary school and college, it was refreshing and quite fascinating to browse the bookshelves at home, flipping through old children’s books of mine, while thinking of my own story.”

Her story would become When Indigo Lost Fleecey. The book is about a young rabbit named Indigo, who lives in a rainy town, but is terrified of the rain. Everywhere Indigo goes, his fleece blanket, Fleecey, goes too. Fleecey protects Indigo when it rains, but one day, a mighty storm passes through, and Fleecey is whisked away. While searching for Fleecey, Indigo encounters a deer who shows Indigo the beauty that rain can bring.

[Image: Julia Ho]

“It can be difficult to lose something so valuable,” Ho explains, “such as Indigo’s sense of safety that came from his fleece blanket, which protected him from the scary rain. But when you realize that scary things will happen no matter what, accepting this fact can make it a little bit easier to cope.”

Sandy Ahumada (CMC ’21) was a little more hesitant to write a children’s book. “Given the importance of research in the field, I believed a research paper would best serve me in my academic and professional goals. However, as the deadline of the final approached, Professor Rodriguez led a brainstorming session where I realized that almost all of my classmates were going to write a children’s book. This, along with the many stories he read to us in class, encouraged me to push myself out of my comfort zone and write a children’s book.”

[Image: Sandy Ahumada]

Ahumada looked to her younger sisters—ages 5 and 7—for both inspiration and feedback. Her final product is called Feary and Me, and follows Clarissa, a young girl who begins to rely on her bike helmet, Feary, to mitigate her feelings of anxiety. But one day:

“It was a beautiful sunny day and Feary protected Clarissa from the sun. But, she really missed feeling the sun’s warmth.

‘A bit of sun won’t hurt me, right?’ thought Clarissa, as she slowly took off Feary.

Clarissa took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a couple of seconds as she raised her head towards the sun. Oh, she had missed the sun’s rays! She realized how much she had missed out on because she wore Feary all the time.

From that day on, Clarissa only wore Feary when she rode her bike. She was finally able to enjoy the sun’s rays and playing with her friends, but Feary was always there when she really needed it.”

It is easy to overlook the merit of children’s literature in an academic setting, but Professor Rodriguez’ students prove that it is an especially poignant means of approaching some of life’s most enduring challenges. In his book 5 Simple Steps, Yusef Pierce (PZ ’21) tackles the issue of fairness between two cousins, Nyah and Marley.

“When the girls would play, Marley would always decide what games they would play and what the rules would be. Marley played the spoiled baby or the demanding Queen, while Nyah played the attentive mother or servant. In every game the roles seemed to be the same.”

Noticing what was going on between the girls, one day, “their grandmother called them into her room and spoke to them about playing fair and being considerate. The girls were both very confused. But their grandmother simply finished explaining what she had to say and let them run off to play…

“The story was a joy to research and to write,” Pierce reflects. “I constructed the story using my mother’s story about my two nieces, Prof. Marcus Rodriguez’s anecdotes from class, and Interpersonal Effectiveness handouts from Dr. Marsha Linehan’s DBT skills training book.”

[Image: Yusef Pierce]

Professor Rodriguez, who is also a children’s book author, began structuring this course thinking about how “most of my students are not going to write term papers in their future careers, unless they go on to be scholars. But most of my students, regardless of their career choice, will use writing to try to promote their ideas or persuade others to change their behavior in some way.”

The spirit of this is echoed in the Hive’s uniquely rigorous Course Development Award application, which requires—among other things—that courses be ambitious and ambiguous, bringing in never-before-seen and breathtaking ideas. “The process of filling out my application is actually where this class was created,” Rodriguez says. “People think that what the Hive offers is the reward, but I think the process of applying for this grant was the reward. That helped me to crystallize ‘what is it that I really want?’”

The financial incentive plays an important role in bringing courses to the next level, as well. “It gives us the extra compensation for the extra amount of time and creativity and heart we pour into a particular class.” And for students taking on the extra work of such an ambitious project, they “get to think creatively and outside of the box, and they get to see how hard it is.”

[Image: Marcus Rodriguez]