Happy horse: Teaching <I>les etudiants </I>with photos

Karine Nguyen-Tuong has noticed a trend in the children who have come through her French classroom over the past 15 years.

"They're so concrete," says the middle-school teacher at St. Anne's Belfield. "When I ask students to create something, for a lot of them nowadays it's harder than it used to be. Every year, there's another layer I have to pierce in order to get them to think outside the box. Their brains are totally different."

As if on a mission to counteract what she believes are the effects of too much television and computer games, the French native includes a variety of imaginative elements in her teaching. This year, she's using some of her own creative work to hook her students. Her children's picture book, Arnold the Smiling Horse, has just been published by Outer Banks Press.

While on vacation in North Carolina, Nguyen-Tuong, 36, a self-taught photographer, snapped shots of elaborately ornamented fiberglass winged horses that dotted the landscape of the barrier islands in celebration of the 2003 Centennial of Flight. The image of a small, awkward, wingless horse among this collection of more than 100 fancy steeds inspired the story of a young colt who comes to realize his own unique gift.

Although the book was originally written for her three-year-old daughter, Maya, Nguyen-Tuong found that her middle school students could also connect with its themes and images. Known to her students by her French name, Mme. Boulle uses the photographs as a springboard for vocabulary work, then helps students break down the elements they see in the pictures to create their own imaginative stories.

"People say, 'Oh, I'm not really creative, I could never write a book,'" Nguyen-Tuong explains. "If you have to come up with the entire thing it's hard, especially if you're not used to it. But if you're able to look around and really observe what you see and take little pieces from it, then it's a lot easier to connect and make a story out of it."

For another week, the public will be able to observe what Nguyen-Tuong sees. Through November, works from the book are displayed at Sage Moon Gallery on the Downtown Mall. Copies of Arnold with his soaring smile are available at the gallery, too, and at select locations around town.

"Karine is excited about everything," says Sage Moon's Morgan MacKenzie-Perkins. "She has a child-like imagination that really come through both in the book and in her photographs."

"When you read the story, you see the important thing is the smile," Nguyen-Tuong says. "I think we need that so much right now when you turn on the TV, and all you see on the news is so depressing. It's a warm feeling that we all need to be reminded of."

Karine Nguyen-Tuong, aka Mme. Boulle

Karine Nguyen-Tuong with STAB seventh-graders Chaney Detmer-Lillard, left, and Hannah Velie