Monday, June 13, 2011

Author-in-Residence: A Dream Assignment

I have had a great gig this year: author-in-residence at the Michael J. Perkins School in South Boston, a small elementary school set right in the middle of Old Colony Housing Project. Old Colony is being renovated and I was hired to work with the Perkins kids on a blog about being in the middle of a construction zone. I described more about the situation in last October's post.

As the end of the school year approaches, it's natural to look back and access the experience. Having done school visits for many years, I have always been in awe of classroom teachers. Now, I bow down to them. To see what they do every day, day after day, is amazing. To see the pressure to fulfill a state's curriculum--teach X from October 12 to November 3rd and then segue to unit Y on the 4th. To understand more fully how my coming to the classroom with extras means extra resources and richness but extra work squeezing to fit everything in, however worthy it all is.

But some great things happened this year, from K to 5. Some of the highlights:

When the kindergarteners read Mike Mulligan and his Steam Engine, they wondered what the workers on the site had named their machines. They were amazed--maybe a little horrified--when they realized those excavators and dump trucks were just called "it" or "they." That's when the Name That Crane campaign was born--the two kindergarten classes each nominated names, ran campaigns and voted for the name to call the huge crane that lifted the steel (they also learned the democratic process in the bargain, which made the See How They Run author very happy). Voting Day was very exciting, take a look.

Here are the kindergarteners at the naming ceremony--with the Big Giraffe, the newly dubbed 400-ton crane in the background. (A fine name, but I was personally rooting for Mr. Lifty! That's democracy for ya--besides I didn't get a vote.)

For National Poetry Month, one first grade class experimented with acrostic poems, which use the letters in a topic word to begin each line. Then all the lines of the poem relate to this topic. Given what was going on outside their class window, they used the word, CONSTRUCT. This poem above was one of my favorites.
One second grade class is collaborating on a book about the day in the life of a construction worker and what these men and women must do to stay safe. For one week, they spent an hour a day observing the construction site and writing down what they saw.

Then they did interviews; two workers came to their classroom to answer their questions about safety. The kids got to touch and try on the equipment so they could really understand what they were going to write about. In other words, these young kids were learning to research exactly the way we professionals do.

The fifth grade teacher asked me to come in to talk to her class to kick off their nonfiction book writing unit. While I was there I mentioned that I've found that when I'm really interested in my subject, I find that my book turns out better. So this intrepid teacher decided to abandon the "everybody writes about a person in history or an animal" assignment and let the kids pick. Pretty brave for a school where the kids have computer class once a week and no school library, really.

But the next time I came back, the kids were running with it. Give kids a choice and what do they come up with? Books about cancer, profiles of each of the ingredients in pizza, why tears are salty, the history of video games, snakes that swallow their prey whole, New Jersey's role in the Revolutionary war, and a profile of a favorite teacher--among others. Oh, and the Big Bang Theory.

Today I'm going in to show them about dummying up a book. The teacher says it's tough, it's a bit chaotic, but the kids are running with it and have never been so excited about a project. Isn't it the way it should be? Aren't they lucky? Aren't I?

Can't wait for the publishing party.

For anyone who is interested:


Gretchen Woelfle said...

What an adventure for you and the school! I hope it can continue until the construction is done.

Vicki Cobb said...

I just came from a school visit scheduled after all the testing, so that the kids wouldn't be distracted by me from test prep. How did your kids do on the tests? I'll bet they did just fine.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Thanks guys, it has been quite an adventure, And fun. And Vicki, the kids are doing pretty well--but it has nothing to do with me, of course. In the last 6 years, the principal and staff have turned the school around from an "underperforming" school to one of only 8 of the district's schools to receive commendation status. Not too shabby for a school with no gym, no cafeteria, no library--but heart.