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Teacher transforms students' artwork into stuffed animals

Shannon Anderson creates magic with her students' original artwork to spark a love of writing. Not even a pandemic could stop her special reveal.
/ Source: TODAY

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in June of 2019. We updated it with teacher Shannon Anderson's clever way of adapting to the COVID-19 situation.

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. Before the pandemic, she hosted a publication party where students could see their plush toys and books at once. This year looked a little different. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

But having personalized plush toys for her students is more than just an awesome thing to do. It also 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.

“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.”

As a children's book writer, Shannon Anderson loves writing and wants her students to enjoy it, too. Having them write their own books and receive a plush toy of their main characters keeps her students engaged in writing. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

But Anderson knew 2020's writing project would be different and so did her students. When school first closed, the children felt bereft.

"Over half the class was in tears," Anderson said.

They worried that their books and characters would be incomplete without class and the annual publication party. So, Anderson started thinking about a social distancing reveal that involved her delivering the toys to each student and filming their reaction. After receiving permission from their parents, Anderson dropped off 24 different stuffed animals at her students' homes.

"There was only one door that I had to knock on because everyone else saw me coming," she explained. "I would go up to the door set the Budsies back down and then step away at least 6 feet."

The reactions felt even more moving than usual.

"It was the best day ever. I had a blast delivering those. It was like being Santa Claus because I got to give them a little bit of joy in the midst of all of this," she said. "They've only seen me on video for the last six weeks so it was nice to be able to just talk in person."

Joshua's older sister wrote a book featuring a robot when she was in Ms. Shannon's class. When it was time for Joshua to write his own, he knew he wanted to continue the story his sister started. Courtesy of Shannon Anderson

Anderson loves how detailed the animals and stories are. One student, Joshua, has an older sister who was in her class a few years ago. He decided to make a sequel to his sister's book, both featuring a robot main character. When Anderson dropped the toy off, she enjoyed seeing them together.

"I got a picture of the two of them holding both of their robots and smiling ear to ear," she said. "It was just really sweet that he wanted to continue his sister story."

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 25-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.

Receiving their plush toys this year looked a little different than it did in the past. Shannon Anderson had to deliver the toys to each student. But the children still reacted the same, hugging their characters and gasping in amazement after seeing their thoughts come to life. 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.”