The cafeteria was teaming with 6th-graders, teachers, and parents. Cameras were flashing and the waves of sound that filled the room spilled nervous anticipation and excitement over the crowd. This was the very first Writers Celebration at Salmon Bay School, honouring the annual writing achievements of the 6th grade students.
|Notebook tours were a highlight at the Authors Night Writers Celebration.|
My attention was captured by the string of colourful tissue paper flags that crossed the room from wall to wall, in a zigzag pattern above our heads. Each flag presented a hand-written expression of a student's discovery about writing. These expressions about writing revealed that most of the students had also discovered something about themselves over the course of the curriculum.
Every year, Salmon Bay has celebrated the students' learning in a Biography Night with student readings and performance of works created by well-known historical figures and writers. This year was different. This year, the evening was all about the works of the not-yet-known, budding literati.
Three ambitious teachers brought the implementation of a new writing curriculum into their classrooms for this school year. As students of the Teacher's College Reading & Writing Project of Columbia University, they had adapted the curriculum from the Teacher's College Workshop Model to suit the needs of their 6th-graders. The culmination of the year's work in this model was the Authors Night Writers Celebration.
The production of this celebration was given over to the students after a short introduction by two lead teachers; Kristen Eckert and Kathleen Goldfarb. We were told that instead of a whistle, the end of each 15-minute session would be signalled by the sounds of a harmonica.
I was not only impressed by the use of a harmonious transition cue, but also by the organizational leadership roles that these 11- and 12-year olds instantly assumed from the start of the first session period. Picking one of the reading stations, I eagerly sat down to listen to students read their own written words.
Two students stood at the podium and introduced the session and then each reader in turn. As might be expected from anyone not accustomed to presenting to large groups of strangers – never mind presenting something from one's inner-most world of thought and feeling – some of the student readers were nervous and fidgety. Others amazed me with their dramatic physical flourish and verbally emotional punctuation. I couldn't help but admire every one of them. Their courage, pride, and desire to share were inspiring.
As I got up from the reading session, I noticed all the walls of the room were decorated with student quotes and posters made of lined butcher paper displaying students' poems and illustrations. These would have to wait. I was on the move to one of the tables displaying students' "published" essays, narratives, and poetry.
Each written piece on the table was accompanied by a picture of the writer and an explanation from the writer of what writing strategy the reader might observe within the piece. Pens and paper were provided to readers for the collection of comments about the written pieces. The opportunity to comment encouraged the parent readers to fully interact and get involved with the pieces.
At the next sounding of the harmonica, I moved to another table where students sat next to notebooks closed and bound by rubber bands. I approached a student whose essay I had just read at the "published" table and asked if he would give me a tour of his notebooks. With a beaming smile and just a touch of shyness in his eyes, he removed the rubber bands and obliged me by moving down the bench so I could sit.
From the beginning of the tour to the end, I was moved by this student's expressions of excitement and enthusiasm for writing and the work that he had done in this class. The tour of the notebook revealed daily work in the practice of various writing and editing strategies. Captured within the pages was the evolution of this child's learning – from notes about a poem idea, through iterations of the poem, to the final poetic form. And that is just one example.
I asked about his experience as a writer, what he likes to write and why? He told me he has always enjoyed writing, but this class had given him substantial strategies to write from – places to start and tools to apply to the improvement of his craft. He sees himself as a "real" published author some day. The joy of ambition and possibility that flashed in his eyes was palpable and contagious, sparking my own inspiration.
Our connection was broken by the sound of the harmonica once again. I took the final moments to take in what I could from the walls of the room. I found a poem written by the student that had taken me on the notebook tour. He had told me it was one of his best, and so he had chosen it to be on the wall.
This reminder of the adventure of learning, trying, and creating is priceless. I took home a new writing strategy of my own that night – to interact with young writers and for the rejuvenation of my own writing passions.
Author's note: To protect innocence and privacy, I have not specified the names of students.
Penelope Jensen considers herself a citizen of the world, aligning herself at this moment with the purposes of IN, where you'll find her writing articles and interviewing authors, among other things. You can reach Penny at: PenJen@inorbit.com.