The colored pencils are stacked neatly in their bins, the scissors and construction paper are left idle on tabletops and even the two in-class computer keyboards are silent in the Tower Hall Annex in Stephens College.
Sharon Schneeberger sits with Patricia Polacco’s “My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother” resting on her leg, turning the pages of the picture book for a young audience that quietly sips bottled water and sits attentively on the carpet.
“What do you think the narrator means when she says her brother is rotten?” Schneeberger asks.
“Mean,” responds one child.
“Teasing,” responds another.
“Stinky?” one answers, and the others laugh.
For the past two weeks, Stephens has hosted the Young Writers Workshop, a four-hour-a-day program aimed at getting kids entering first through sixth grades interested in creative writing. Schneeberger, co-coordinator of the program and an assistant professor in education at Stephens, began the program because she believes students don’t have many opportunities to express themselves through writing during the normal school year.
“We’re doing this so we can provide an enrichment experience in writing,” she said. Students arrive at 8 a.m. and, after a brief meeting, begin the day by interacting with a story read by Schneeberger.
Throughout the story Schneeberger pauses to ask a question to the students, and she tries to relate the words and the characters to her young audience.
“We try to work and give examples of things they understand,” Schneeberger said of the many stories she and the students have covered in the last two weeks. “Patricia Polacco may not have a great style, but she gives the kids some great ideas.”
When story time ends, Schneeberger and co-coordinator Beth Crittenden lead the students in brainstorming sessions where they list ideas or experiences that could become stories. After that, the five writers get out their personal journals where they play with their ideas, expanding them into stories — some from real-life experiences, and others from the depths of their imagination.
Ten-year-old and soon to be fifth-grader Reagan Dugan is the oldest student in the workshop and is steadily filling space in his journal. After he finishes his story, he’ll type it up on one of the class computers and then get to work on the illustrations.
“I really love to write,” Reagan said. “But for me, the illustrations are more important. Without good illustrations, people can’t know my story better.”
One of Reagan’s completed stories, “The Adventures of Frogs,” tells the tale of a group of frogs trying to make their way home, find flies and defeat a villainous dog with a taste for frogs’ legs. “I like it when I don’t have to draw people,” Reagan said.
The next steps in the writing process are editing and then publishing. The students often look over each others’ work to give praise and advice. “They learn from each other. From there, they just get more and more creative,” said Crittenden, who is working to get her master’s in curriculum instruction at MU. “Publishing gives them that freedom and ownership of their work.”
Crittenden believes that the summer workshop has exposed students to new techniques of learning that will prove valuable as they grow older.
“It’s easy to produce letters and words, but if you don’t ask kids to look at details or the craft of writing early, they will get bogged down with the technical stuff,” she said.
Schneeberger and Crittenden take the students on daily walks, often to the park, where they can learn to write in different settings. “It’s great,” Crittenden said. “They’re free, and they’re out there, trying new things.”
The five students, all between the ages of 5 and 10, have written, illustrated and published more than two dozen stories in the past two weeks. Trips through India, UFOs, radars, and jungle animals are just a few topics that became stories by the end of the program.
At the end of the day Friday, parents came to hear their kids share their favorite selections. The stories were neatly displayed throughout the room and parents had the chance to meet each other and talk with the instructors.
Tim Cundy’s 5-year-old son, Ty, attended the Stephens College Children’s School before going to this summer’s workshop, and Cundy is proud of his son’s interest in writing. Children’s School is a private school for children in preschool through fifth grade, all taught in the same environment.
“He really enjoys getting on the computer and writing about adventures we’ve been on,” Cundy said. “I can’t give enough credit to this school.”
Schneeberger is sad to see the kids go and hopes they continue to write on their own.
“It’s amazing what these kids can do,” she said. “Their creativity, their energy, the way they think, everything.”
Schneeberger and Crittenden plan on continuing and expanding the workshop next summer and hope to offer a range of subjects like photography, math and science.
Crittenden thinks the benefits of the summer workshop are unique from most public schooling.
“It’s smaller, we’re able to spend the entire day on writing,” Crittenden said. “We’re more interested in covering their interests and their ideas, and not what’s listed on the curriculum.”