Adventures in writing: When elementary students go to college

Western Edge
By Erin Huggins
Winter 2013

One student loves geckos. Another is an expert on fish.

This kind of information leaks out when fourth, fifth, and sixth graders put their imaginations into writing—the kind of knowledge overlooked in other learning environments but absolutely treasured by two college professors giving kids professional writing tools.

Adventures in Writing, led by Drs. Katherine Schmidt and Cornelia Paraskevas, invited a dozen elementary students from Dallas, Ore., and surrounding areas to explore alternative approaches to writing through a series of systematic monthly meetings, September 2012 through May 2013, culminating with an author’s chair where the students showcased their work.

“Their imaginations, their fluency is amazing,” said Schmidt, English professor and director of the WOU Writing Center. “I’m hoping that we’re going to help students remember writing as fondly as they remember reading when they’re older.” Schmidt and Paraskevas, a linguistics professor, both teach WR 440—Teaching Writing—at WOU. From their interactions with college students and personal experience, both professors understand the importance of unlocking writing from its traditional prescriptivism constraints, the grammar do’s and do not’s presented in many classrooms.

“We’re really big on just affirming their development,” Schmidt said. “Earliest encouragements, they last longest and sink deepest. Maybe what we do over the course of this year might be the one thing that might help them through the criticism ahead.”

By teaching these kids about writing in “a non-formulaic way, in a liberating way,” Paraskevas said they could present “a disciplined way of learning to write [that] still encourages a lot of creativity.”

Since the parents sat in on the hour-long Tuesday night meetings, too, the message extended its reach a step further. “We’re educating in a way, also, the parents, that you can do a different way of writing that’s just as good,” Paraskevas said.

For Schmidt, personal parenting was a key component of her involvement in Adventures in Writing. “The first [reason] is I love teaching writing and kids. If I didn’t go for my Ph.D., I would teach fourth grade. Second, it’s something I can involve my daughter in. We’ve been writing together since she could hold a pen,” she said.

In fact, Schmidt’s daughter, Waverly, was the youngest of the little writers. By no means shy, Waverly added her five-year-old flair to the group of 9- to 12-year-olds, negotiating her mom’s new role as “teacher” and enjoying the adventure of the writing process.

“It’s interesting to me to see the difference in her attitude towards writing because she still hasn’t gone through a particular system [of learning writing],” Paraskevas said. “She’s very eager to share, to put her work on the overhead. She’s very proud of it.”
In regards to the rest of the students, Paraskevas hopes they will see the possibilities available in writing when “you do it with a hopeful eye. All they get from us is a lot of praise,” she said. “Because to me it’s important for Western to be visible in the community, to be the ‘go to,’ the resource for anything the community needs. When they think of writing, I want them to think of us.”

That community visibility was, indeed, the reason Kim Conolly, a Dallas mom whose daughter, Caroline, was part of the Adventures in Writing program, had initially contacted Western as a potential resource for supplementing her homeschooling agenda.

“I wanted to instill a love of learning and writing in my 4th grade daughter – sometimes that happens best with others and not mom,” Conolly said in an email. “As WOU is a fabulous resource in our community and of course known as a teaching school, I was very curious to see if they would step up and offer something to the community in regards to elementary and middle school writing. Dr. Paraskevas and Dr. Schmidt jumped right in with a great attitude and a can do spirit.”
Despite her passion for the project, Schmidt was not originally thrilled with its name. Waverly, however, loved Adventures in Writing. “You know that is the perfect name because we’re on adventures as writers,” she told her mom. Conolly, who coined the name, listed three main program objectives for her daughter and the other students involved: to instill a love of writing, to learn new writing skills and to have a college experience.

“It’s not often that 4th to 8th graders get to have access to college professors, a college campus, and the ability to take a ‘college’ course while still so young,” she said. “I hope and pray it will help them dream for their futures and find their voice in our world, a world in which we desperately need stories of grace and truth to be crafted.”

On the flip side, it’s not often that college professors tailor their courses for writers so young. “You have to make it really simple,” Paraskevas said. The process of condensing 300-level class content into applicable terms for fourth through sixth graders was “really rich,” according to Schmidt. Working in Western’s Writing Center classroom also lent authenticity to the program. “We treat them like college students. We have really high expectations. The students behave just like college students. There are no management issues,” Schmidt said.
Only a lot of writing.
Although in-person Adventures In Writing meetings took place once a month, students were assigned weekly work via a writing blog. After Christmas, the assignments focused on fiction, building on each other, with the students piecing together information that ultimately led to individual stories.

When the students arrived at the classrooms, Paraskevas and Schmidt helped with issues of fluency and conventions. The professors presented mentor texts and gave the elementary kids tools on how to develop ideas for writing. Practical hints included instruction on the use of Google docs, along with individual face-to-face time with one of WOU’s writing center tutors. As the students finished assignments, “they realized they could do a different kind of writing that pushed them just a little bit in terms of their range of writing,” Paraskevas said.

“Certainly, it was a commitment for these students and their families,” Conolly confirmed. About eight students finished the year-long program. In the end, though, perseverance paid off. “Caroline is very proud of her story, and while it was hard for her to invest the time and energy (she had much on her plate this past year)…her own voice came through, and such a great voice she has. The program required her to push out the envelope of herself and invest in both herself and her community—what a fabulous thing for her and our family,” Conolly said.

“Dr. Katherine and Dr. Cornelia are and were amazing,” she added. “I can’t say enough about how much they invested in the students and also how much fun they brought to writing.”

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