Grace Pilman carefully folded a sheet of yellow legal-sized paper into four equal quadrants and wrote the letters B, M, M, E down the left side. Beginning. Middle. Middle. End.
The rising third-grader then grabbed a paper with a heart on it that her teacher had provided. Like all the students gathered at Trinity Oaks Elementary, Grace had ideas for stories she might like to tell written in the heart. She homed in on one at the top.
"My idea is going to be about my hamster Rhino," Grace said as she began adding details of the beginning, two middles and an end to her legal pad. "It's going to be about how we got Rhino and what he did when we got him."
All around her Tuesday, a group of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders went through the same assignment. They were 46 of the school's top writers, and they applied to get into the summer writing academy — the school's first — as a prelude to the school year.
"We really felt that oftentimes we spend a lot of time on remediation," principal Allison Hoskins said. "We wanted to provide an enrichment opportunity in a small group setting so we could really focus on what their writing needs are and get them to the next level."
Originally, the school planned to charge families to let kids attend the program, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon over six days. But when Pasco district officials learned of the school's plans, particularly relating to teachers' intention to use the academy as professional training for new ways to teach writing, the district decided to cover the costs and look to the program as a possible countywide instructional model.
Each day after the students leave, the teachers gather for three hours to discuss the children's individual strengths and weaknesses and then determine where the next day's curriculum should go. The school will track the participating students through the year and see if the methods used make them better writers and keep them interested in writing.
"We want to see what works here," said Rachel Powers, district reading and language arts supervisor.
The first lesson for the 46 children involved listening to the book Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street, a short story about a girl named Eva who wants to write about her neighborhood but can't think of anything interesting to say. As Eva wanders, greeting and observing her neighbors, she gets some advice on such things as paying attention to details and describing common things in new ways.
Teacher Michele DiIorio urged the children to listen for tips themselves, stressing that writers can mimic the best skills that other authors employ as they improve. At the end of the story, she again asked the students, "What are some things that (author) Roni Schotter does?"
Hands shot up.
"She used the five senses, describing the smell of the pizza with peppers and stuff," rising fourth-grader Allyson Cole said.
"She used similes. … You compare two things together. It makes the story better and gives it more pizazz," rising fourth-grader Navada Ridge offered.
Comfortable that the children "got it," DiIorio had them begin writing in journals, just to get their ideas flowing and the writing started. The room grew silent as the kids began scrawling in the booklets that the school provided.
Some frowned, their writer's block forming early. The teachers told them it didn't matter what they wrote. Just get started. Maybe something will click.
After a few minutes, the teachers began another round of reading and writing with the children.
Far from complaining, the kids eagerly joined in all the activities.
"I like to write about what I do over the weekend, and some poems," said rising fourth-grader Derick Stager. "I want to be here because it's fun and you get to see all your friends and you get to learn more."
Grace Phillips, a rising fifth-grader, shared that enthusiasm. She said she hopes to become a professional writer, and that J.K. Rowling is her muse.
"It makes me feel myself," she said. "It makes me feel special, like I'm somebody in the world."
Teacher Stacey McGinnis said she, too, was excited to take part in the new program. Teaching writing is fun, but not necessarily as straightforward as teaching subjects such as math, she said.
Getting new ideas and directions on how to use them makes for a better teaching experience, she said between mini conferences with students.
For the remainder of the academy, the students will learn more writing skills while also getting lessons about technology so they can put together a multimedia story. Grace Pilman looked forward to all of it.
"Making stories just makes me feel like I can tell everything to everyone," she said, Beach Boys music playing quietly in the background to relax the class. "You can just write about it and express your feelings. … I like to write. A lot."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.