A sign on Carol Charismas’ door at Paseo Academy says “No Gum Zone,” and a “Welcome” mat catches each foot that enters Room 226.
It’s not an accident that the written word jumps at the seventh-graders and attempts to excite and inspire them in Charismas’ four classes. On the board she had written questions from which the students were to craft essays: “What is the greatest and most significant gift you have ever received? What is the greatest gift you could give to someone else?”
The teens reviewed the assignment that day as each in succession stood beside his or her essay projected on the smart board. The best lesson in writing is to string together words, sentences and paragraphs about familiar subjects.
Charismas and other Kansas City Public Schools teachers are having students read and write a lot to boost English scores. It’s part of district efforts to gain full accreditation.
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The words on one dry-erase board change, but the theme for the students is the same: “I will score at or above eighth-grade level in reading by May 15. No doubt about it.”
Charismas wants students to feel that confidence when they enter her classroom, and she has invited me in to witness it.
With each essay the teens share Charismas offers praise, coaxing, coaching and tips to enhance their writing. Nascotia Brooks volunteers in one class to go first.
“She worked really hard on it and she’s proud of it,” Charismas said to the students. The essay was about her younger sister being her greatest gift.
“Now as a teenager, I continue to take pleasure in the companionship of my precious little sister,” Nascotia said, reading her essay to the class.
A second girl shared her essay but realized her writing mistakes when she tried to read the sentences out loud.
Charismas said to the class: “Your verbs have to agree in number and agree in tense.” From the examples on the smart board, the students could see that clearly. One student in class said the assignment was difficult because it was easy to overthink what she wanted to say.
Charismas called on me as someone who writes for a living to tell whether it’s possible to overthink when writing. I said an easy way around the problem is to write what immediately comes to mind first. Then go back and edit it. Have someone read what you wrote and offer input. Rewrite your piece, and then edit it again. That way you methodically think your way through assignments.
Alice Oliveros wrote that her birth was the greatest gift that her parents gave her.
Charismas pointed to the first sentence as being “the greatest most significant part of your paragraph. Other ideas flow from it.”
Reading his essay, Angel Castrejon explained that his family is his greatest gift. He said he is “blessed with two of the best parents.” He said he was grateful for his friends. “I appreciate all the mistakes and failures that I have gone through to become the young man I am today.”
Diamond Brown talked about the earrings she gave to her mother as a birthday present. Jessica Crawford wrote of her singing, dancing and acting talents, which bring joy to her family and friends.
Charismas prods the students with questions, bringing out a rich discussion on the value of intangible gifts such as love and family, handmade items for special occasions and money spent on things the students purchase at stores. Helping the teens see the deeper meaning in what each as writers wanted to convey will improve their comprehension in everything they read — especially come test time.
The students started to pack up their things as their time with Charismas that day came to an end. “This was a quick day, wasn’t it?” Jessica asked.
The teacher just smiled. That’s how all classes should feel when the teacher teaches and the kids crave more.