April 9, 2010

The Write Stuff

Students at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School
participate in a First Annual Writing Day
Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – Politicians and salesmen are the product of both nature and nurture, if you consider Jerome McColligan, a sixth-grader with a punchy vocabulary and a way with people.
He was focused yesterday on writing a persuasive speech, his workshop of choice during Gilbert H. Hood Middle School's First Annual Writing Day.
“I'm really good at twisting words and making people do what I want,” said Jerome, fine-tuning his prose while acknowledging that politics was on his short list of career goals. Using a worksheet as a guide, Jerome started his persuasive speech “with something interesting” as instructed:
“Know what I hate? When everyone comes to school all depressed and whiny about, 'Oh, I need to get up early...” began Jerome, whose topic was the importance of getting enough rest.
Ross McLean, eighth-grade language arts teacher, explained that the idea was actually created by the National Councilors of Teachers of English to help students discover the joy of writing across various disciplines.
“The actual day was October 20, but scheduling conflicts prevented us from actually using that day. Since then, the school's language arts department has been putting together activities for all grade levels in preparation for our own writing day,” McLean said.
By mid-morning the creative juices were flowing, along with the Oreos and Chips Ahoy cookies. Kate Bellefeuille, sixth-grade language arts teacher, wanted to set the tone for the day with positive reinforcement, snacks and a looping medley of Miles Davis tunes playing softly in the background.
“I like it to feel more like a celebration of writing rather than torture, which it can be for some students,” said Bellefeuille. She said challenges for the modern-day English teacher include teaching kids that abbreviated “text talk” is not proper English, and while 10 minutes may be long enough to enjoy a complete episode of “Sponge Bob,”, a good story takes time.
“Attention span is an issue for sixth-graders. Even those kids who are trying dramatic writing today. They have no trouble writing a good scene, but it's hard to impress upon them the value of spending time developing a story,” Bellefeuille said.
Nick Williams had filled the front and back of a sheet of paper to more or less complete his play, “The End of the World As We Know It,” in which a child, roughed up by a teacher and hospitalized, is released from the hospital and decides to celebrate by stopping by a carnival, only to be greeted by aliens, who destroy the planet.
“Yeah, I guess it's kind of dark – in a cool way,” he says with pride in his conceptual work of dramatic art.
Across the pod sat Stephanie Bartles, who was wrapping up her love story, “Falling In Love at the Movies,” involving a cowboy and a talkative girl. There is some movie theater drama and a lot of dialogue which ends, happily, in marriage.
Next to her, Catie Brown was expanding on a myth she'd penned outside of class, “Why It Rains,” about Amphitrite, wife of Greek god Poseidon.
However, it wasn't all aliens, cowboys and mythical creatures.
Students at the Picture Writing pod nicknamed themselves the “Comedy Central” table, creating fanciful and funny stories based on absurd photos.
“Mine is about mad crow disease,” said Shamus Doherty, laughing out loud at his inspiration, a photo of a man in sunglasses wearing an odd hat with a crow on top.
Nearby, Tyler Dow was struggling through a haiku about socks – a topic selected for him using a flip chart that scrambles up words and emotions, resulting in this:
I'm afraid of socks
Socks with holes scare me a lot
That is my worst fear
Nick Gravel was at the Expository/Procedural Writing pod, composing step-by-step directions on how to make a “robot fighter thing.” He had a small Lego model he'd constructed, and was using graph paper to neatly and precisely reconstruct his creation on paper.
“I like this kind of writing. It's actually fun,” he said.
Brook Wilson and Meghan DeCosmo were working hard at the Journalism table, a choice based on their mutual interest in writing factual stories as opposed to fiction.
“We like writing true stories. It's not hard,” said Brook, who flipped through a folder filled with writing prompts.
Ultimately, providing an opportunity for students to select a writing genre that sparks their particular interest, and then give them space to explore that interest is an ideal jumping off place for middle schoolers, who are still learning who they are, both academically and socially.
“I've tried to impart some real world connection for them as to the importance of writing skills,” Bellefeuille said. “As a language arts teacher, I may be biased, but this is critical, maybe the most important thing they need to be successful in their lives.”

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