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Middle school book project uncovers gems in El Dorado

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Students from Washington Middle School in El Dorado will sign copies of their year-long literary arts project Thursday. It culminated this year in a 32-page book titled “Why El Dorado?”

The inspiration came from art teacher Katie Harwell who, about four years ago, returned to live in her native El Dorado. When she moved from Dallas, she says, she got the question a lot: Why El Dorado? It formed the basis of a multidisciplinary project that melded language and fine arts. She secured grants to carry it out.

“We presented it to my fifth and sixth grade children and asked them: What is it that makes El Dorado special or unique? Actually, we ended up with a list that was too long. We had too many topics,” Harwell said.

Students created 32 posters about unique attractions in El Dorado. Harwell says some of the children’s observations are deeply personal: a family planting sugarcane together. Harwell collaborated with arts consultant Maria Villegas. The students conducted interviews and wrote essays about their topic. Villegas helped them with pen and ink drawings of their subjects. The art formed the basis of the book.

“Because of this research, kids get acquainted with their surroundings. They don’t take it for granted. That’s our desire is for them to know the importance of family and the importance of community. How can we grow altogether?” Villegas said.

Harwell often finds that adults become jaded about where they live, but, children have a very different opinion.

“I think they see it as wonderful. We just need to remind them of how wonderful it is so that they’ll remember that,” Harwell said.

That reminder is wrapped up in the book “Why El Dorado?” A signing is set for Thursday, Nov. 5, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the South Arkansas Arts Center, 110 E 5th St.

The books cost $12 and proceeds benefit Washington Middle School.

Chuck Smith brings more than 30 years' broadcast and media experience to Red River Radio. He began his career as a radio news reporter and transitioned to television journalism and newsmagazine production. Chuck studied mass communications at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and motion picture / television production at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has also taught writing for television at York Technical College in Rock Hill, South Carolina and video / film production at Centenary College of Louisiana, Shreveport.