Students Turn Water Education Messages Into Storybooks for Kids

A Write-Off Contest in a California water district lets middle school kids tell and illustrate stories about water conservation and water quality.

Students Turn Water Education Messages Into Storybooks for Kids

Malea Ortloff displays a number of the books and related materials that have been produced as part of the Write-Off Contest. 

Water droplets Gobi and Aguat live in a cloud as best friends. They fall as rain and get separated, Gobi happily living in a fishbowl and Aguat spilled from a hose on the lawn by the Water Waster. In the end, the Water Waster reforms and the friends reunite in the fishbowl.

That’s the plot of a winning story from the Write-Off Contest held annually for middle school students by Eastern Municipal Water District and Rancho California Water District in Southern California. Kids write and illustrate storybooks for elementary-school readers on a variety of topics including water quality and water conservation.

Now in its 11th year under the leadership of Malea Ortloff, public affairs officer for education at Eastern Municipal Water District, the contest draws entries that sometimes number in the hundreds. Each year’s contest has a topic theme — for 2018, it was honeybees and water-wise gardens.

The contest dovetails with the Eastern Municipal Water District’s multifaceted education program, which reaches about 67,000 students per year through the writing contest, a poster contest, a theater assembly program, presentations, field trips, career days, community events, Student of the Month programs, workshops, and other activities. 

Vital messages

The Eastern Municipal Water District delivers water to some 804,000 residents in a 555-square-mile area of western Riverside County. More than 600 employees operate facilities that include two freshwater filtration plants, two groundwater desalters, 28 wells, 78 water storage tanks, four water reclamation facilities with a combined 70 mgd capacity, and a recycled water distribution system.

Water is a precious commodity in Southern California, and that makes water education vital, starting at young ages, Ortloff observes: “I’ve been with the district since 1985. In 2004 when I got my current job, I wanted to do something for middle school kids because sometimes they get left out. That’s when they start changing classes, and field trips are more difficult to organize. So I created the Write-Off Contest.”

The district invites students from about 50 middle schools in its territory to submit illustrated stories of 500 to 1,000 words, written for grades K-5. Stories must include a central character. Students can work alone or in groups of up to four. The stories are judged by Ortloff and her assistant Ailene Earl, Rancho California district representatives Meggan Valencia and Grace Cardenas, teacher Teresa Barnett, and volunteer Vicki Owens.

They typically choose one winner but sometimes select more. Designer Jennifer Wahl puts the winning books together; the district does the printing in-house. Ultimately, hundreds of copies are printed.

The winning authors, illustrators and their teachers are honored at a Student Recognition Event. The students receive an iPad mini or Chromebook, copies of the book, and a trophy; teachers get books and a gift card. The winning books are distributed to elementary schools and libraries and are available as e-books on the district website.  

Beyond publishing

The Write-Off program doesn’t end there. “After the contest, I take the books and develop a curriculum packet around them,” Ortloff says. “Then I go into the elementary schools with the stories and do presentations.” Besides the book, the packet includes worksheets; pages to color; an educational CD, word jumble and maze; and other activities.

Along with that, Ortloff engages a company called Exceed, which employs developmentally disabled adults, to create a plush character based on the books (for example, Gobi the water drop and the 2018 character, Beatrice the bee).

“I include the plush character as part of the packet,” Ortloff says. “The kids sign up to take a character home overnight. Whatever the topic is, they share it with their families and then write about the experience on journal sheets. The teacher sends all the journal sheets back to us. We copy and bind them and bring the booklets back for the kids.”

In all, the Write-Off Contest and related presentations touch about 50 schools and 4,000 students each year. Past years’ themes have included the water cycle, groundwater recharge, water conservation, and tap water quality.

The 2018 contest connects water-wise gardens with honeybees, in keeping with the district’s policy of protecting bees in view of their declining population. “If we go to a tank site or other work site where there are bees, we won’t exterminate them,” Ortloff says. “We contact a beekeeper to move them. We’re teaching kids that bees are not something to be afraid of. We had about 500 students from 12 schools participate, and we received about 300 stories.”

In the winning story, a young girl who was stung by a bee in second grade wastes water spraying bees in her yard to get rid of them. Her dad tries to get her to stop. That night in a dream she becomes a bee, and another bee named Beatrice teaches her about the importance of bees and saving water. She grows up to become a beekeeper.

The authors were Natalia Fernandez, Jude McLean and Paulina Ortega; illustrator was Vanessa Ycu, and their teacher was Juan Jimenez, all from Vista Verde Middle School.

Bigger picture

Ortloff sees the Write-Off Contest as part of an education program based on building blocks: “I like to see the kids when they’re in kindergarten and first grade start building their knowledge, so by the time they come out for a field trip, they understand the whole water portfolio — not just that they need to save water, but that saving water impacts everything down the line.”

Field trips, so popular they are booked two years in advance, include a tour of the Eastern Municipal Water District’s San Jacinto Valley Regional Water Reclamation Facility, including constructed wetlands that are part of the treatment process and also provide a habitat for birds. The kids also visit the Education Center on the property, view demonstrations involving nonpoint source and groundwater pollution, and take part in hands-on activities.

Ortloff is gratified by teachers’ embrace of the entire education program: “We get very good word-of-mouth, and this program has been going on for a long time, and everything about it is free. Teachers see the quality of it and are pleasantly surprised. It makes me feel really good that they keep coming back year after year. It’s a really nice thing we get to do for our schools. We have a great board that supports education.”


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