Taken to Heart: Book prompts author visit at Morningside Elementary

May 13, 2019

Morningside Elementary School got the VIP treatment on Thursday courtesy of children’s author and rapper Shawn Elliot Russell.

Morningside has taken Russell’s book “Be Still Little Tree Be Still” to heart, using its message of calm in the face of life’s challenges as a counseling and teaching tool.

In a presentation that brought out everyone from pre-kindergarten students to cafeteria workers Russell rapped the book to the younger students, then told third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students his story.

Russell was born in the Rio Grande Valley but moved with his family to South Florida when he was 6. He returned to the Valley in 2006 to be close to his uncle in Weslaco, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

Russell was in the middle of pursuing his dream of becoming a rap artist and hip-hop musician. Once back in the Valley he renewed the pursuit, to which he added the hope of appearing on TV before his uncle passed.

He partly achieved the goal by appearing in a cameo in a YouTube video that was part of an online contest by the rapper Logic.

Meanwhile he continued working on the book. He said the central idea came to him in a dream in which the similarity between a tree and its roots and a person and their lungs presented itself. Russell’s uncle also appeared in the dream.

Using the analogy of a tree weathering fierce storms that eventually make him bigger and stronger, the book counsels calm in the face of life’s challenges. At the end it tells readers to face their fears like the little tree. “Be still. … Observe. Feel the energy of the storm moving around inside you. … Breathe in and out” and feel the storm pass, it says.

Marby Sweeney, a counselor at Morningside, said the school had been preparing for Russell’s visit for months. She and fellow counselor Laura Calderoni have made presentations to all of the classes and by now students are familiar with lines in the book and how to put them to a rap beat.

“ We learned to be still and weather the storm,” student Carlos Mesas said.

At the beginning of the first presentation students rapped in unison, “We are brave, we are strong. We are awesome. We can do anything.”

“ It’s tremendous,” Calderoni said. “Each one of those kids didn’t know what to do when an emotional storm hit them. Now Mr. Russell has shown them to be still, breathe deeply and the storm will pass.”

Music teacher Kim Vause is also sold on the book.

“ It’s an amazing opportunity for our kids to learn life skills,” she said. “It’s why I love teaching here, because we teach beyond the test.”

Sweeney said the strategies in the book might well have helped some students get through the recent storm of STAAR testing. The counselors gave each class presentations about how to overcome anxiety, fear and worry using the strategies in the book.

After finding out about the book from first-grade teachers who encountered it during a literacy conference, Librarian Angelica Piña turned the book into a project. She fundraised just under $3,000 to purchase a mini book version for each student. Russell’s appearance came as part of the purchase.

“ You’re not the only ones who go through that,” she said to the students, speaking of fear and anxiety. “A lot of us adults go through that, too.”

Russell had his hands full after the presentation autographing copies of the mini book. He called Morningside an amazing school with fantastic energy.

“ I’d completely do this all over again,” Piña said about the fundraising effort. In fact she plans a similar effort next year.