HORSEHEADS — Jennifer LaViola enjoys writing so much, she just might turn it into a career.
“Someday I can become an author. I just like writing,” said Jennifer, 10. “It allows me to express myself and let other people know about myself.”
Could Jennifer, or one of her fellow fifth-graders at St. Mary Our Mother School, emerge as the next Agatha Christie or one-time Elmira resident Mark Twain? Teacher Marianne Watson is helping improve those chances by including book-writing in her curriculum.
Jennifer and her classmates develop their books over a period of several months. The final products’ pages are printed out and inserted between covers. Though their actual lengths more closely resemble short stories than books, these nonetheless count as the first “published” works for virtually all these students. Hundreds of examples can be found on shelves in the rear of the classroom: Watson has formed a library of all books written since 1994. She added that her young authors sometimes read their finished stories to children in younger grades, and other years she has assembled an anthology of student-authored books.
Watson said fifth-graders get to choose their own subjects, which can be “everything from skateboarding, to soccer and dance, to trips to Virginia.” A brief sampling revealed such themes as one youngster’s visit to Old Forge; a pet pony named Casino; a trip to the American Girl doll store in New York City; a girl’s recollection of having received a stuffed dog as a 4-year-old; and a boy reflecting on the glory of winning his first youth soccer tournament.
Watson said good writing skills can often be sparked, as the above examples show, by recapping real-life occurrences.
“I tell them their best writing comes from their own experience — their own ideas, what happened to them,” Watson said. “They learn they can be writers. Everybody has something they just have to identify with.”
This would hold true for many of the current fifth-graders as well. Recently, Mary Claire Spaulding was developing an account of how her family celebrates Christmas. Jennifer was working on recounting her trip to Williamsburg, Va., and also was considering a story about the class’s recent service project at Food Bank of the Southern Tier.
“I like writing about events that really happened,” Jennifer said.
Jenna Gordon, 10, agreed that nonfiction works best for her because “it could be easier than to make up something,” she said. Jenna’s book-in-progress involves her bus ride to New York City in December “because I had a lot of fun when I went to New York.”
Yet some St. Mary Our Mother fifth-graders also have tried their hands at fiction. Among the more inventive and imaginative works were one boy’s account of what our transportation system would be like in the distant future, with cars being replaced by such vehicles as water crafts and sky boards; and a young lady’s unusually lengthy piece about a horse, Thunder, that was destined for the glue factory but ended up becoming a champion racer with the help of a little girl.
Fiction or nonfiction, the important thing is to offer plenty of detail — “make it interesting so other people can picture it,” Jennifer said. For instance, Jenna’s book offers lengthy descriptions of sights and sounds in New York City because she was instructed “to tell a lot of details,” she said.
Watson emphasized that reading is a major factor in furthering strong writing skills. That fits nicely for Jennifer, who said she enjoys reading fiction as well as learning about the presidents of the United States. She also gains writing experience by keeping a journal at home.
Jennifer may well end up authoring a number of books someday: So many ideas are floating around in her head that she said her biggest challenge is narrowing down a focus to put on paper or computer.
“I like to write about anything. It’s hard to choose one topic to write about,” she remarked.