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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

While third grade teacher Shannon Anderson loves writing, she knows many of her students think it, well, stinks. But she discovered a way to help them be excited about it. The secret? She transforms their characters into stuffed animals.

“I thought, ‘How cool would it be to have stuffed animals?’” the teacher from Van Rensselaer Elementary School in Rensselaer, Indiana, told TODAY Parents.

In addition to turning each student's artwork into stuffed animals, Shannon Anderson has each student draw on her dress so she has a keepsake at the end of the school year. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

But having personalized plush toys for her students is more than just an awesome thing to do. She also hopes it encourages her students to “see that writing is a joy.” To do that, she works with them on a long-term book project. Each student writes a story and illustrates it. She then takes the illustrations of the characters and submits it to Budsies, a company that makes custom stuffed animals.

Then comes the big reveal. Anderson allows them to un-box their toys and records their reactions. Even the toughest of children coo in excitement when they see their fictional characters have come to life.

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“Every single student’s instinct is to be in awe, to hug it and love on it,” she said. “It is something very special that they created. It is powerful.”

Being able to see their words and drawings turned into a stuffed animal is a 'powerful' experience for Shannon Anderson's third grade students. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

Anderson loves how detailed the animals are: One student created a story about a sea turtle that carried a blanket with it. When it arrived the turtle was clutching a blanket. What’s more, students feel impressed by seeing something they once only imaged become tangible.

“Students just create these characters that came from their brain,” Anderson. “The kids absolutely love and treasure the animals."

Even though toughest student becomes excited when they see their artwork as a stuffed animal. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

Throughout her 24-year career, Anderson always encouraged her students to write. When she taught first grade, the students wrote a page with a picture for a class book. Third graders are more advanced so they’re able to write an entire book with drawings. While she’s only been making the stuffed animals for three years, she knows her former students still keep their creations.

“I have had some siblings that have done this project and they have pulled out their stuffed animal to show me,” she said.

While providing about 20 stuffed animals can be expensive, Anderson applies for grants to offset the cost. She wants all the students to have one even if their families cannot afford an extra expense.

“Things like that help the parents out and help the kids not feel different if they don’t have resources,” she said.

While students love having a stuffed animal that they imaged and designed themselves, Shannon Anderson also hopes that this experience will help them enjoy writing. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

But more importantly, Anderson said working on the book with the children creates lasting memories.

“It is just a very special project and I love that we are able to do it over time,” she said. “It gives them a lot of ownership and excitement.”