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It's not about the retail: Local school uses American Girl for history, life lessons

Thursday - 9/5/2013, 8:56am  ET

Beverly Vick leads an American Girl club at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. She says it is not about the materials and the retail; it's about learning. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - Several years ago, Beverly Vick received an American Girl book from a friend.

The first grade teacher at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., had no interest in reading the book, and even less interest in the American Girl empire -- an industry of books, dolls and accessories that originated in 1986.

She planned to just look at the first chapter of the book about a character named Addy Walker, a young girl living in the age of the Civil War. But despite Vick's intentions, she "went right through the book" in one sitting.

"I, too, am African American, and I started reading her stories and realized that it was rich historical fiction," says Vick, Ph.D.

Now, she leads an American Girl club for first-through fourth-grade-students at MacArthur, an afterschool group she created almost 10 years ago.

Vick says she fell in love with the books for their historical accuracy and for the characters: animated young girls whose lessons and adventures transcend decades, sometimes centuries.

"I realized how interesting it was to look at the life of a girl at that point and the life of a girl today. And that's kind of what I do with the club. I help them look at parallels between their lives and the lives of girls their age at a different point," Vick says.

The sessions -- which are held once in the fall, winter and spring, and attract approximately 50 students each time -- are comprised of reading time, arts and crafts and an occasional food activity. Vick's lessons for the club are structured around specific topics and characters.

One afternoon, Vick and her three co-leaders discussed Chrissa and how she handled a bullying situation at school. Another lesson focused on American Girl character Saige and how she was able to work through a financial problem.

"Saige was kind of helping her school get back their art program. So it dealt with a school running out of money and what kinds of things kids can do to help revitalize something that is going away," Vick says. "It just depends on who the current American Girl character is and what we like to do with it."

Carolyn Semedo-Strauss had two daughters participate in the American Girl club at MacArthur. Each one of her daughters stayed in the club for a few years. Semedo- Strauss says her girls, who were already fans of the American Girl dolls and books, benefited most from the comradery and from the club's social lessons.

"It was nice for them to be in a forum where they could share a common interest," says Semedo-Strauss, who added that the club's lessons were packed with positive messages on what it is to be a friend and how to be an individual. "(Vick) created an environment where it was safe to be girls."

Despite the club's name and its majority audience, Vick's group, which she describes as being "multiethnic," is not limited to girls.

"One year, a parent asked if her son could participate," says Vick. In that particular session, the group was studying Felicity, the American Girl character set in colonial times. All of the girls wore mop caps and coats, so Vick made a three-point colonial hat for her male student.

"He fit right in," Vick says. "It was about the colonial stories and how boys and girls fit into society and life at that time, and so for him, it was very rich."

While the business side of American Girl is booming -- the 15 stores in the U.S. raked in $567.5 million in 2012, according to a company spokesperson -- Vick keeps the focus of her sessions on history and character lessons, and away from the materials and accessories associated with the series.

After a parent's encouragement a few years ago, Vick makes it a point not to visit the American Girl store -- a 23,000 square-foot retail space at Tysons that sees more than 800,000 visitors each year, the American Girl company reports.

When Vick suggested a trip to the American Girl Bistro with the students, one parent told Vick that her girls had never been to the store.

"In other words, it's not about retail. I thought that was so interesting and it helped me realize that I don't need to bring them into a place where they can be exposed to all of the different things they can buy and for how much. I had got away from what our group was about," Vick says. "I would probably say that this is the most un-retail-based event that you could get It's very educational-based and literacy-based."

That's not to say the MacArthur club does not recognize the dolls. It does, but Vick is careful that all of the students -- especially those who can't afford the dolls, which retail for about $110 each -- feel included.

She keeps an American Girl doll collection in the club's room. It has grown over the years from previous students who are now "too old" for their dolls. Before the school year, Vick also purchases a few dolls with money left over from the $30 voluntary fee that students pay to join.

The club has also hosted some special events since its inception. About two years ago, Valerie Tripp, author of the Felicity, Josefina, Kit, and Molly series in the American Girl collection, visited MacArthur. Tripp, who has since gone on to write a series for boys, brought sketches of how she put the books together and talked about how all the stories came to fruition.

"The girls were just amazed by her as a writer," Vick says.

Another highlight of the club is each session's culminating tea lesson. The students dine in a room of cloth-covered tables, topped with china and flower arrangements. Their fathers, grandfathers and the school's male staff serve tea and snacks to the students, who stay busy discussing what they've learned.

"(The club) is so rich in learning," Vick says. "It's really a very, very enjoyable experience for the girls It's nice seeing girls just be little girls."

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