There’s just something about working with a published author that gets kids fired up and eager to do some writing of their own, according to Keith Prather, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at St. Michael School in Penn Yan.
Prather speaks from experience. He assigns writing projects every two weeks, and his students write everything from persuasive essays to poems and short stories. Journaling can be particularly difficult to tackle in the classroom environment, and many students who begin journals in classes never fill up all the pages in their books, Prather said.
Last fall, however, local author Angela Cannon-Crothers came into the school and worked with students on a journaling unit. She helped students make their own journals and start writing in them, and these journals did not become paperweights after the unit was completed, Prather said.
"Many of (the students) have already filled them up on their own and made second ones," he added.
The journaling unit was the first of three Cannon-Crothers will teach as writer in residence at St. Michael School this year, according to David Paddock, principal. Paddock said he hired Cannon-Crothers in order to help students become better writers and develop a love of writing.
"We’re trying to emphasize writing in our school this year. We thought having her here would be a great way for us to do that," Paddock explained.
During the 2009-10 school year, Paddock and his faculty decided that although their students were good writers, there was still some room for improvement.
"I challenged the faculty," Paddock recalled. "We need to put a renewed emphasis on the importance of writing for all grade levels, … from just the technical aspects of holding the pencil and writing neatly all the way to creative writing and poetry."
St. Michael’s faculty answered that challenge last year by holding a weeklong celebration of writing, Prather said. Each day was dedicated to a certain type or aspect of writing, and the teachers planned age-appropriate activities relating to those themes.
"One day we had some different authors come in and read to the students," Prather said. "We had a poetry day where we just focused in on writing and reading poetry."
The week in celebration of writing was a success, but this year Paddock and the faculty decided to expand on their efforts and place a yearlong emphasis on writing.
"It’s such an important skill. Communication is everything, and writing is a skill I think sometimes in our modern schools isn’t emphasized enough," Paddock said.
Avid readers often become avid writers, and these days many parents seem to be more concerned about what grade level their children read at than whether their children actually enjoy reading, he added.
"It’s our job to light the spark for a love of reading and a love of writing," Paddock said.
He recalled that as a child he loved writing so much that he considered becoming an author.
"I went a different direction, but I remember now how much I enjoyed it," he said. "Somehow, somebody helped me like writing, and I think that’s important for us to do, too."
Paddock found a way to do just that when he hired Cannon-Crothers, he said.
"She’s great with the kids. She seems to really enjoy working with them. I can’t tell you how pleased we are with her," he said.
The kids love working with the author, Prather agreed. During the first four-week unit in the fall, Cannon-Crothers helped students use sticks, stones and leaves to decorate their field journals.
"She would take the kids out every day and they would explore and she’d help them write about what they saw," he said.
The students did a lot of descriptive writing in that unit, and Cannon-Crothers currently is teaching another four-week unit on creative writing. In the spring, she’ll teach another unit on poetry.
The students love creative writing, but sometimes the classroom setting is not conducive to such writing, Prather said. Cannon-Crothers, however, puts the students at ease and is able to draw out their best work, and in turn the students open up to her in a way they don’t with their regular teachers, he added.
"They’re completely attuned to it and attentive and responsive to her," he said. "I think it’s kind of inspiring to them to see there are other avenues for creativity. Many of the kids are great writers and I think it inspires them."