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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, June 12, 2008

BKW fifth-graders to be published authors

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — When you have something to say, the world should hear about it.  Writing isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen only when you’re sitting in a classroom. 

Agnes Zellin, a fifth-grade English teacher at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, strives to instill these lessons in her students. 

“From the first day that I have my kids in my classroom, I try to communicate to them that what they have to say is important,” said Zellin.

Thirteen of Zellin’s students will soon have their essays published in Creative Communications’ “Celebrating What Is Important to Me," an anthology of student writing. 

Each year, Creative Communications sponsors writing contests for students throughout the United States and Canada.  This year’s essay contest was open to students from fourth-graders to seniors in high school.  The students’ essays were to be no longer than 250 words and they had to have an original title.

In her fifth year of teaching, Zellin is, for the first time, teaching language arts to fifth-graders.  She got the idea to have her students write for the publication from Jodi Rosenberg, a sixth-grade teacher at Bethlehem Middle School. 

“I had no idea so many were going to be picked,” Zellin said.  “This is the first year I became aware of it, and it’s the first year that I ever…took my kids’ work and put it out there beyond the school and I can’t imagine not doing it from here on in.  The minute I told the kids there was a chance of them being published their attitude changed about writing.” 

The students chose a variety of topics — humans’ relationships to animals and nature, cheerleading, rock collecting, competition in sports, and disconcerting findings in the fashion industry and in fifth-grade test scores.  Some put hard questions to the reader. 

“When we were only 4 and 5 years old, boys and girls played together in T-ball but as soon as we were 6 or 7 we split.  Why?” asked Jessica Rue in her essay “Softball…Why Only a Girl’s Sport?”

Thomas Fisher wrote about fifth-grade math and English test scores. 

He asked, “Do you think teachers are preparing us for all of these tests?”

Fisher said he found the results “very disappointing.”

“I can do that, too”

Earlier this year, Zellin saw that some of her students’ ideas disappeared as they got hung up with spelling and grammar.  Some of them thought they weren’t good writers because writing didn’t seem easy.  She told her students that even the most accomplished writers struggle.

Zellin, who enjoys reading historical fiction, poetry, and editorials, encourages her students to read.  Her students keep notebooks where they write about experiences that matter to them and paste clippings they find interesting or beautifully written.  Zellin shares her own writing with her students and shows them essays written by their peers. 

“I actually started to use essays in the book as samples of what other fifth-graders can do because that’s the other key thing,” Zellin said.  “If you show these kids what other kids just like them can write and how they can write, then that gives them another push to say, ‘Yeah, I can do that, too.  Oh, I can do that.’  And then they hang in there and they try a little harder.” 

Zellin finds it challenging to juggle and balance between helping her students become more skilled at using language but also not letting language get in the way of their ideas. 

“I don’t ever feel like I’ve done a very good job of it, but the kids are so much better.  I mean, they’re great thinkers.  You can see that,” she said. “They have things they care about in the world.  And I always tell them, ‘You’re not writing for me.   You’re writing for a bigger world out there — a bigger audience — and you have to decide what you want to tell that world.’  And that kind of, I think, helped some of these kids be more free about what they chose and more enthusiastic about what they were writing about.”

The writing process

The students’ essays are as diverse as their backgrounds and interests.  Last week, they outlined how they chose what they wrote, difficulties in the writing process, how they overcame their troubles, and how they feel about having their work published.  Some did not like the 250-word limit.  Others found it was difficult to start or to choose a topic.

Some have older siblings who have already been published.  And, for one of the students — Nick Nagengast — this marks the second time his words have been in print. 

Joseph Anthony Collorafi said he got the idea for his essay “Rock Collecting — Getting Started and How” because he has a rock collection and he wanted to let people know how fun it is and to give them tips on how to organize everything and how to get started.

Last summer, Collorafi vacationed in Florida. 

“I didn’t find any rocks there, unfortunately.  I do find some pretty interesting ones around here.  My dad brought some back from Iraq,” he said. 

McKenzie Smith said, “I’m really into the fashion industry and things like that, and I was just looking through my magazines and I realized how unhealthy and gross-looking the models looked.  It was really gross.”

Samantha Flavell read Hope Rising: Stories from the Ranch of Rescued Dreams by Kim Meeder and wrote her essay about her thoughts on the book.  She said, “I’m a soccer player so I was going to do my essay about soccer.  But then I told Ms. Zellin about the book I read and she thought it would be a good idea to write an essay about it so that’s what I did.”

The book tells the true story of a ranch for mistreated children who heal as they work with broken horses. 

Flavell started thinking about things in the book, researched rehabilitation, and got information from the ranch’s website.

Flavell has also written and illustrated a book about Christmas Eve that Zellin is trying to get published. 

Anita Rice said, “My essay was on polar bears because I was really interested in how they’re dying and what’s happening to them.” 

Rice watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and cited the film in her essay. 

Jessica Rue said, “I wrote about softball and I got the idea because I am a softball player.  And I used to play T-ball when I was younger…Then when we got up to 6 or 7 years old, we had to split into Little League and softball, and I just didn’t really understand why.”

She did research on the Internet to find facts. 

“There’s a lot of different things about the two games, but they’re mostly the same,” she said.

Rue said she still doesn’t understand why boys and girls can’t play the game together. 

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