Friday, January 14, 2011

Jessica Martin, far right, trains two students how to write.Teacher Sionni Bongiovanni takes notes while learning.

By Diana L. Chapman
“I believe every child can write,” Principal Bonnie Taft, Point Fermin Marine Science Magnet Elementary School
 So do I.
 That’s why I was thrilled to  watch the kind woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, a pen perched over her ear, telling the first graders: “Today, you’re going to write a story,” immediately grabbing the wiggling students’ attention.
 The marine magnet first graders began oohing-and-awing with anticipation.
 “Writers, writers, writers,” said Jessica Martin, “everybody pick a writing partner and turn to them and share your story idea. “If you say: “I don’t know what to write about,” then one way is to think about it is the places you’ve been. I love to go to the park. I love to go to the beach. I love to walk in the sand and make a sand castle.”
  After watching her do quick sketches illustrating her own story, students scurried back to their desk to draw their own tales on three page booklets. What emerged were tales of victorious soccer plays, shopping trips to Target with parents and a shark and fish escaping from the BP oil spill searching for a castle where they could find safety. First, the students sketched out their ideas and afterward  wrote the story beneath the drawings.
Having for years believed we taught writing the wrong way in schools, I was as stoked as the kids to have a writing expert like Jessica Martin come in a series of workshops on campus where children will learn to provide content first and then come to understand grammar and spelling skills along the way. But Martin’s job is more about supplying teachers with new strategies than to teach students.
And it’s often done teaching teachers right in the classroom – alongside their kids.
Immanuel Huertas, 7,  right and Jhai Yarbough, 7, left share ideas about their stories. 
 Martin, and her partner, Renee Houser, who both trained with the Columbia Writing Project, are now visiting schools -- charter, public or private -- through their program --- . The whole point is to supply teachers with new and inspirational ways to teach the precious skill, strategies that will supplement the current instructor’s curriculum.
“I saw the program demonstrated at another school,” Principal Taft said, “and I jumped on it. I saw it as a very workable strategy that would complement teachers in the classroom, give them a foundation and the work begins in kindergarten. They (Martin and Houser) don’t preach to the teachers. They work alongside them.”
Martin, who instructs kindergarten through second, and her partner, Roundhouse, who teaches third through fifth, have showed young writers a process that seems to work while revealing to teachers how the craft can become exciting and lifelike in a child’s mind.
“I’m so excited about this,” said second grade teacher Sionni Bongiovanni after Martin finished working with her students. “I have a thousand more strategies.”
As visitors clopped out the door, Bongiovanni turned to her class with a bold gusto in her words: “Wow, was that cool or what?” with the students screaming yes.
Ten teachers out of 13 at Point Fermin readily agreed to undertake the program, said Taft who believes it will enhance students work – and bring out writers in all of them.
Principal Bonnie Taft watches as Jessica Martin teaches a kindergarten class.
I can’t help – as a long time writer – agree that this new approach will aid would-be writers to come out of their shells, some of whom might be hiding due to their fears of  making a spelling or grammar mistake. Many students, as they grow older, dismiss their writing skills early on, often after they’ve received a paper back clotted with red ink.
Teachers don’t always look at content, but the precision of the grammar and spelling. This strategy flips that process around.
When Taft told me about the writing workshop, I was eager to see the interaction. On my own, I teach children the joy of writing at the local Corner Store – and what pleased me most with Martin’s work was the idea of making the skill fun – something a child can not only get a handle on, but embrace. The women model it by doing their own drawings and story first.
“I try to choose stories they can relate to,” Martin said. “I tell story and add dialogue to make it fun and playful. Stories start out with dialogue and settings. So they sketch first and then plan.”
On one visit, Martin – who always called the students “writers” first asks them to listen  – and then removes her trusty “writing tool” – a pen -- from above her ear. To illustrate, she’ll  quickly sketch it out on three pages using stick figures.
“One day,” she muses …”my family went to the beach” -- the beginning of the story which she draws on page one.
 Then, on the second page, Martin illustrates how she and her family built a sandcastle and put a feather on top – the middle of the story.
 On the third page, she draws  the family looking proudly at their work and  then announces and “do you know what my baby girl did?” – she jumps on it and ruins it (the end of the story)! The students giggle loudly.
Once she demonstrates, the students share their ideas with each other and then begin their own booklet. This system ingrains the idea that each story  must have a beginning, middle and an end.
Immanuel Huertas, 7, and Jhai Yarbough, 7, eagerly and happily begin sketching their tales out along with scores of other students showing off their work proudly.
 In other classrooms Martin visits, students follow suit. Little dramas unfolded on paper – and for those who struggled, Martin was able to show teachers how to pull  those students aside and work with them in a small group. Martin would   get them started on their beginning.  One boy told a story about playing soccer with his brother playing on a red team, but he was stuck on the first page.
Martin sat on the floor and guided him by saying: “What’s next?”
Finally, he tells her his brother kicked the soccer ball and ended with the red team winning. With his writer’s block eliminated, he was able to draw out and tell the remainder of his story.
No one can be more thrilled with the new process then teacher, Nichole Sakellarion, who teaches a fourth-and-fifth grade combination class. Sakellarion, who was coming to the end of the program with her fifth graders, said she bonded better with students and learned  how to write better herself alongside them.
“I didn’t feel slighted or out of place one bit,” Sakellarion said outside a classroom about having the experts come to her classroom. “I was open to the idea and now I’m writing with the students. I have a notebook just like theirs. It’s the idea that we are learning together.
“What I like is that this is content. Before what I would get was perfect grammar, but there was no substance. I just know my kids are getting so much more now.”
It appeared so as the students piled story after story high on teacher’s desks and many showed their work off proudly.
Both Martin and Houser were trained at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. While the university brought to the classrooms lines of books to give teachers guidelines to teach writing – a large public school asked in 2001 how the strategies could be worked successfully in a busy classroom.
Born out of that question was the program, FirsthandHeinemann.  Lucy Calkins and many of her colleagues (such as Martin and Houser) streamlined the essence of books, developed strategies, and then began to show teachers how to  integrate them in the classroom.
When Martin decided she wanted to move back to California – and Houser later joined her, the two built their own program here.
Locally, the “buzz” started after Park Western Avenue Elementary School, using the initially developed program, found it exceptional. Since then, the local team has visited Bandini, Barton Hill, 15th Street and White Point elementary schools.
Los Angeles school officials have been so impressed they are considering using it on a much wider scale. To aid teachers, Martin and Houser also give Saturday workshops directly to instructors.
“It’s to support teachers to build confidence in their writing ,” Martin added that “Writing is often a sore point for teachers.”
Writing has become a focal point in education as student test scores in the area have plummeted. But if you teach students to enjoy writing, then they will learn the rest, Martin said.
“If you are going to love to write, then we can give you the mechanics. It’s a balanced literary approach.”
Nothing can be more true than that.