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Lawrence teacher turns ‘magical’ classroom event into inspirational book

A few years ago, Jessica Brown experienced a teachable moment in her Hillcrest Elementary classroom that would forever change her teaching practice.

Brown had grown concerned about students who seemed withdrawn and weren’t sharing their feelings.

She started asking how she could better help her students and connect with them by meeting them on their level. She delved into a concept known as Conscious Discipline, a program designed by Dr. Becky Bailey. Conscious Discipline is a trauma-based approach that “equip(s) educators to integrate social-emotional learning, discipline and self-regulation,” according to its website.

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So the day a student pulled out of their backpack a simple, brown paper bag and eagerly introduced it as their “friend,” Brown seized the opportunity for her and the rest of the class to connect with the student. She described the moment as “magical.”

“It was a teaching moment I will never forget. And I thought, ‘I want to write that down. I want to use this moment in my own classroom.’ I can use this to help with noticing, to help with social-emotional learning and to also allow kids to see that some of us have big feelings, and that’s OK!”

On April 27, the story came to fruition in “Alone” — a 37-page paperback picture book whimsically illustrated and self-published by Brown. It’s available to borrow from the Lawrence Public Library or for purchase through Amazon. She’s also self-marketing “Alone” through her Facebook and Instagram accounts. Here’s Brown’s LinkTree, which provides links to purchase, borrow or learn more about “Alone” on social media.

In the book, the student finds acceptance from their peers. Brown marks the good vibes that come from feeling “seen” with bright fireworks.

“When we feel noticed, and we feel loved, we feel connected, it’s like we have those fireworks — that joy juice in your brain,” Brown said.

Although Brown said she’s not interested in leaving teaching for a career in writing, the book has received favorable reviews online so far, especially from fellow teachers, including this one on Amazon from Alysha Schendel:

“Love what she did with this. It brought up great conversations about friendships and emotions with my 4th graders.”

Brown began her teaching career in Emporia. She spent six years at Hillcrest Elementary before switching to Sunflower Elementary a year ago. She teaches first grade.

During her undergraduate studies at Emporia State University, Brown took a children’s literature class. An assignment to write a children’s book that semester rekindled her love for picture books.

“It reminded me of why I loved picture books. I have fond memories of going to the library with my mom and picking out picture books.”

To Brown, picture books have no age restrictions. “When you’re studying to be a teacher, you realize the impact a picture book can have on any grade level.”

Although publishing a book within her lifetime has long held a place on Brown’s bucket list, the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the opportunity for her to focus on it.

“I remember sitting there on the couch one day thinking, ‘I want to get these words in my head from this story that I’ve kept with me … even if I could print off just a paper book like I do for my students, I could use this myself.’”

After a colleague reviewed Brown’s first draft, she encouraged her to spread the message further and pursue publication.

Brown researched her options and submitted the book to several publishers, receiving at least one offer for her consideration. But after a couple of meetings, Brown learned that publishing a book can prove very costly, especially for a first-time author. Brown chose to self-publish the book through Amazon, which prints each copy after purchase.

Some of the best advice Brown learned, she said, was to let as many people read the book as possible and encourage honest feedback. So Brown’s cousin, friends, colleagues, family — and even students — helped usher her through the process of editing and rewrites.

“I passed it around and got so much feedback,” Brown said, noting patterns that emerged. “It’s the same story. It’s just little tweaks.”

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Brown called the process “fun” and talks about it with vivid enthusiasm. “I kept my kids informed all year. Every time I had a new version I’d read it to them and I’d get a little bit of their feedback.”

She said she knew the story resonated with young readers when her first-graders picked up on words — almost like Easter eggs — that she’d hidden in the layered illustrations.

In December, Brown earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in teacher leadership. She’s still working on a second master’s degree in educational leadership.

When she returns to Sunflower in the fall, she looks forward to using “Alone” in her classroom with a new group of students. She said she’ll incorporate the book into noticing activities, writer’s workshops and morning meetings.

“I wanted to write this book for me, to teach from. If I want to teach from it, maybe other teachers will want to teach from it,” Brown said, noting an Olathe educator has already shared their classroom experience with the book. 

“This is something I want to show my students and say that I did. Now I feel like I have a stronger sense of the writing process and what I can do with that.”

Brown had a simple wish when she turned 30 recently. She asked for 30 sponsors to buy “Alone” for donation to Children’s Mercy Hospital. Her wish came true. She’ll sign the books and deliver them this summer.

Sunflower Elementary teacher Jessica Brown poses with her first-grade class and copies of her new book, “Alone.” (Brown covered the students’ faces for privacy.)
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