Students freed to dabble in creative waters
A writing program at Weightman Middle gives them a fresh approach to the FCAT essay part.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published February 2, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - The moody new-age sound of Will Ackerman's guitar flows through the classroom. It's called Sound of the Driven Rain.
Teens drag their fingers through bowls of water. They flick it, rub it on their skin.
"Dabble in the water," teacher Greg Clapp encourages them. "Is it smooth? Cool? Refreshing?"
He has them drink. He shows them posters of a secluded river and a guy in a wet suit running through waves and sea mist.
"Now here's our task as writers," Clapp says. "Your title: Water is ... . You go from there. It can be poetry, prose, lyrics to a song. Whatever you like."
In a state consumed with the FCAT - the writing part takes place next week - students and teachers easily can fall into the trap of writing for the test: expository or narrative, five paragraphs, don't stray too far from the standard.
But here at Thomas E. Weightman Middle School, principal Shae Davis and her staff want students to look beyond the usual. This year, they started a Writing Academy to help the best writers hone their skills.
University of South Florida education professor Pat Daniel, director of the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project, sat in on Wednesday's sessions. She helped train the teachers who run the program.
"What we're doing in here is helping to free them," Daniel said. "It's fun. It's funny. They take off with it. I say, 'Take your voice into the FCAT Writes and show the judges that you have the command of the language that you have.' ... That's what they are looking for. It's really not, and I have this from on high, the five-paragraph essay."
Ryan Jones, one of the eighth-graders selected for the program, welcomed the opportunity to flex his writing muscles.
"Water is relaxing like a summer breeze, gently flowing along with life, smooth and cold going down your throat, some sweet like a candy shop, some bitter as a rancid smell," he wrote.
"I like to write. I guess it's a way of getting out emotion, and it's fun to express yourself," he said. "It's a classroom assignment, but it's like we're not really in school. There is no grade. There is no stress."
Olivia Gans, another eighth-grader, appreciated the extra attention to the craft she likes so much. Bringing students together who share that love of writing, regardless of their other interests or classes, makes it easier to focus, she said.
"I learn so much more since I'm around people who actually enjoy what I enjoy," Olivia said.
How else did they experiment?
Teacher Freda Abercrombie read an essay by author Sandra Cisneros called My Name, then her own poems about her own name. Then the kids had their turn.
"The name no one can pronounce," Mahalia Pierre wrote about hers. "Saying this horrid seven-letter name just seems to be hard for all people big and small, young and old. ... I've learned that I can get something special out of my name because Mahalia Jackson was a strong, confident person who fought for what she believed in and being named after her helps me be that way too."
Meghan Novotny wrote, "From the time I entered school, I always wanted to fit in. Ashleys, Brittanys and Laurens were ever so common. I wanted a common name but, no, I was stuck with Meghan. Not even spelled normally, but like Meg-han."
Teacher Barbara Martin challenged the students to write with humor, giving them topics they might find in a supermarket tabloid. Example: "Due to excessive TV watching, the brains of the people in Indianapolis have begun to ..."
The goal, Martin said, is to get the students to feel comfortable opening up, being funny, being themselves in their writing and other school work.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614.