Getting early writing start

Program: About 150 elementary-age children make a field trip to a conference of the Young Writers' Institute to write and to learn from those who write in their work.

March 19, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A field trip to Howard County schools' professional development center might sound dull, but last week 150 elementary school children couldn't hide their enthusiasm.

The center in Columbia was decorated with balloons. Rooms were renamed after favorite authors such as J.K. Rowling and A.A. Milne, transforming the building into a conference for beginning authors.

The conference was part of the Young Writers' Institute, a yearlong program that is included in some elementary schools' Gifted and Talented (GT) curriculum. Children meet weekly to write and learn about the writing process, from brainstorming to final editing.

At the conference, adults in a variety of fields met with the pupils. On hand were a cartoonist, police officer, media specialist, songwriter and others, all of whom use writing in their work. And that is the point organizers Noel Richman and Kim Eubanks hope to make.

"We think this variety of people really gives kids a broad perspective of what writing is," said Richman, a GT specialist at Swansfield Elementary.

Before the institute began in 2000, "a lot of teachers were in their own schools individually trying to figure out what to do with the gifted writers they had," Richman said.

At a conference, "a bunch of us got together and talked about what we were doing for the gifted writers," she said. "From there we thought, `Wouldn't it be great to bring them together and expose them not only to each other, but to practicing professionals.' "

Eubanks, GT specialist at Dasher Green Elementary, said, "Many schools have taught creative writing, but this was the first time that it was formalized. ... We tried to make it something grander."

Five schools participated in the first conference, with about 60 children attending. Now in its third year, the program has grown to 14 schools.

Fourth-graders and fifth-graders who attended the conference had a chance to apply what they were learning. A software engineer from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had them do an experiment and write a report.

A sports copy editor gave them newspaper clips about a basketball game, player statistics and a team information sheet. From those they compiled a sports column.

Michelle Green was one of the keynote speakers. The Upper Marlboro resident recently published A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie Peanut Johnson, a biography for young readers.

"I love giving back to young writers," Green said. "For children, I talk about the importance of finding their voice [as writers] but also as individuals."

Lindsey Bass, 9, a fourth-grader at Waterloo Elementary, said, "I like meeting the authors 'cause it's fun to actually see the people that have written some of the books you've read."

After Green's speech, the pupils broke into smaller sessions. At one of these, Louise Wall, library media specialist at Waterloo, noted that fantasy authors use stories they heard as children.

"There are authors who are living today who are nothing but downright thieves," Wall said in mock alarm. "They have stolen ideas" from folk tales and fairy tales.

"The first question that children ask authors [is], `Where do you get these ideas?' This way they can see ... many authors get their ideas from ancient oral traditions."

Sean Anderson, 11, a fifth-grader at Northfield Elementary, likes to write fantasy and mystery stories. "I'm learning how to express my ideas better than before, and I'm learning how to write better stories," he said.

Later in the year, each school in the Young Writers' Institute will honor the voices of these young writers with an anthology of their work. The program concludes when schoolchildren gather again to share their writing. Funding through the county's GT office pays for the course, including the conference and an anthology for each child.

"It elevates the children from their daily writing tasks to what the future can bring ... that the writing can take wings, that it can be a part of your life," said Jackie Benner, GT teacher at Pointers Run Elementary.

"By putting on this very adult, very businesslike formal conference, it gives the children the sense that we value them as writers because they come in acting very professional, very excited," Eubanks said. "They get this sense that what they do is valuable."

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