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    Tales of a third-grade author

    Nina Mastridge, now a published writer, used to hate to write - until she got some encouragement from her third-grade teacher.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Nina Mastridge shares a light moment with Carrie Markley, her fifth-grade teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary .

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000


    Kim Mastridge says living with her daughter is a bit like living with Doogie Houser, that boy doctor from the television show.

    Nina, 10, has been in the gifted program since she was in second grade. She does math problems in her head and is reading her Harry Potter series for the fifth time.

    But despite her potential, she hated to write.

    Nina's third-grade teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary, Bonnie Lewison, was determined to change that. Lewison boosted her confidence and showed her that writing could be fun.

    Now, one of Nina's stories has been published in a national textbook and serves as a model for students across the country.

    "Ms. Lewison made me see another side of writing. I like it because it's fun and you get to express what you feel," Nina said.

    By third grade, Nina had developed a bit of a complex. She refused to write because certain teachers told her that her left-handed cursive sloped the wrong way.

    "You practically had to hit her over the head with a stick to get her to pick up a pencil," her mother, Kim Mastridge, said.

    Lewison knew Nina was positive and artistic, but she also knew she was a dreamer who needed some focus.

    "She had so much potential, but she had to be pushed," Lewison said.

    Little by little, Lewison helped Nina recognize her strengths.

    "She was always complimenting me, telling me how much I improved," Nina said.

    For one assignment two years ago, Lewison asked her students to write stories about a bad day. Nina knew right away what she was going to write about.

    She picked up a pencil and began jotting down a story about the day she thought she lost her favorite pair of powder blue sneakers, but later remembered that she hadn't lost them at all. She had traded the sneakers with a friend.

    Nina had fun with her story and used a bit of artistic license, making up a list of things she found while looking for the shoes.

    After she and her classmates finished their stories, Lewison asked them to edit their own papers using a red pencil. They walked around the room checking instructions and examples tacked on the walls.

    Did they use punctuation properly? Did they capitalize words at the beginning of sentences? Did they spell words properly? Did they use descriptive examples?

    After editing their stories, Lewison told the students to read their essays aloud.

    The stories were so good, Lewison told them, that she planned to submit some of them to a national textbook company because a representative had contacted her requesting samples of excellent student writing.

    A few days later, she told Nina that her essay made the cut.

    So Nina worked on her story a bit more. She typed it at home on her computer.

    It was hard work, because "I type as slow as a slug," she said, rolling her hazel eyes.

    Finally satisfied, she brought her essay to class and Lewison sent it off. Then, Nina and her family waited.

    By last November they had almost forgotten about it. Nina and her family moved to Palm Harbor for a year. But Lewison tracked them down. She told them that Nina's story was chosen and the publishers wanted information for a mini-biography to accompany the story.

    Houghton Mifflin editor Patricia Weiler said Nina's story was selected among hundreds of submissions for a third-grade reading textbook. Weiler was looking for a "good narrative" that was also funny, and Nina's story fit the bill.

    When Nina heard the news, she couldn't contain herself.

    "I was just bouncing around the house for days," Nina said, flashing her toothy grin.

    But several months passed, and they still hadn't seen the book.

    The family had returned to the area and the Sandy Lane school zone. This fall, Nina was starting fifth grade, and Nina and her mother stopped by the the school to say hello to all of Nina's teachers.

    That's when her fifth-grade teacher, Carrie Markley, told her the story had been published.

    Nina went back to her bouncing and her mother started to cry. The news caught them off guard.

    "It was in the back of our minds, but we really hadn't thought of it much. Two years is an awfully long time," Mastridge said.

    Mastridge and her husband, Chris, were thrilled with the news, but said they knew their daughter was an exceptional child all along.

    "Nina doesn't need to be published in a book to be special. She's always been special," Mastridge said.

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