Instead of sitting in the back taking notes as Carol Charismas teaches seventh-grade English at Paseo Academy, I sometimes get to work with her students on writing assignments.
Creative teachers use every resource at their disposal to boost students’ reading, writing and comprehension. My being put to work with the kids wasn’t unexpected when Charismas invited me into her classes this school year in the push by teachers and Kansas City Public Schools to earn full accreditation in 2015.
The school district last year won provisional accreditation, avoiding a threatened state takeover and a ruinous transfer of students to surrounding districts. This year Superintendent Steve Green’s aim is full accreditation.
It’s no slam-dunk with 70 percent of the district’s 16,000 students performing below proficiency in core academics. Charismas changes the wording to attract the students’ attention as they enter Room 226, but the goal stays the same: “I can work diligently with the necessary commitment and perseverance so that I will score at or above eighth-grade level in reading, composition and comprehension by May 15, 2015. (No doubt about it!)”
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On this Wednesday morning, I worked in a small group with Keelron Hooker, Jessica Crawford and Raimya McLaughlin on analyzing an essay and answering 12 accompanying questions.
In the class that followed, Charismas had me work with Liam Symes, Asia Howard-Brown, Mikayla Witcher and Aaliyah Cann. My partner, Bette, and I see Aaliyah in church on Sundays. Every school-to-community link with young people deepens the credibility and influence adults as teachers have on kids’ success.
We talked about the essay and the assigned questions. These are bright kids.
I found myself coaxing, coaching and cheering them to share their thoughts and answers, and then insisting that they write down what they had said or what their classmates had shared.
The next week, Charismas repeated the drill. But this time it involved personal essays the students had turned in. The walls of Charismas’ room are decorated with essays from the students’ earlier assignments. Such public praise reinforces and encourages more good work.
Before the students were seated, I copied from the board some key things that Charismas wanted the writing assignments to contain. A “topic sentence” — in journalism, we call it the lead.
“Other sentences must specifically relate to the topic sentence,” Charismas wrote on the board. “Each sentence must be grammatically correct.”
Other instructions included be concise, be precise, be picturesque, be coherent, be cohesive, connect each sentence and paragraph, be creative, be organized, be deep and have fun.
Charismas had me work with Catherine Pacatte, Mae Franklin and Philania Johnson on essays each had done on classmates. Because there were an uneven number of students in class that day, Mae’s essay was on Charismas.
I took the time to read aloud what each wrote so they could hear and then analyze how they could make their writing better. I encouraged them to do the same thing on future assignments before turning them in so they could catch the mistakes that my or Charismas’ editing pen wouldn’t miss.
In the next class, Charismas assigned Hector Molina Meza, La Nia White, Kianna Simmons and Samual Thomas to me. Like the earlier class, the students’ essays were filled with their impressions.
I encouraged them to help me understand what the person they were writing about said and what the subject thought so that the conclusions they reached in their essays would be convincing to me as someone who otherwise was clueless. More editing marks in blue ink followed. It’s less harsh than red.
Charismas said the students gained from our working together. So did I.