MEADOW POINTE — About 80 fourth-graders knelt on the Sand Pine Elementary media center carpet, attempting to shoot marbles just like Teddy, the girl in the book they'd been reading.
After the kids seemed to get it down, teacher Melody Welt called them back to their seats. Time to make a lesson of it.
"This is writing camp," she reminded the 9- and 10-year-olds. "We're going to show you a really cool new way to plan."
First, teacher Amanda Jordan talked about the old way. It involved lines and graphs and phrases like "climax" and "solution." It looked generally not fun.
"We are going to be creating storyboards," Welt said, turning the first paper aside.
That's a method where kids come up with quick beginnings, endings and "grabbers," and then get to draw pictures to organize their thoughts. They talk about their stories together and share ideas to improve the tales.
"Now this is fun," one boy whispered to another as the students clamored for attention.
That's what the teachers hope all the fourth-graders will think about writing by the end of the weekly after-school camp.
"The goal for us is really to instill a love of writing," reading coach Angela Westbrook explained. "We want them to think of writing as a daring way to express themselves."
All too often, writing for Florida students has become formulaic as educators try to help them score well on the FCAT writing exam. That can dampen children's enthusiasm for writing, not to mention their ability to fashion prose in any other form.
That truth was not far from the Sand Pine teachers' minds as they decided to offer the writing camp to the fourth-graders, who will take the state writing exam for the first time in the spring. If they can have fun while writing, and get accustomed to quickly planning stories using a mix of words and pictures, then perhaps the test will seem like just another writing camp activity, Welt said.
The kids agreed.
"It's good because we get to learn how to make our stories better," said Dominika Burbul, 9. "It's going to make me less nervous."
Here's how this all started. The teachers asked principal Ginny Yanson if they could add the new method — which also involves students sharing their ideas through talking, doing and explaining — to the daily curriculum after attending a summer seminar by writing instructor Melissa Forney.
Yanson liked the concept but told the group that because of all the state mandates for reading, math, P.E. and more, there wasn't enough time in the day.
She suggested a fee-based after-school program.
"They said, 'Oh, no. We want to do it for free. We just want to do it,' " Yanson said.
So she let them put together the camp, wondering how many students would attend. The numbers exceeded anyone's expectations. About three-quarters of the fourth-grade class signed up.
Some explained they did it to avoid being bored at home, or to put off doing their homework. Some said they wanted to be with their friends longer into the day. Two weeks in, though, all interviewed expressed excitement at learning how to write better.
"I like to write because it inspires me to think big," said Willy Chrispin, 9, as he drew his storyboard about his favorite teddy bear. "There's so much to write about."
The students were preparing stories about their most treasured item.
Danielle Otte, 9, chose to write about her own baby doll. She frowned when explaining the planning chart she used to have to follow, saying she much prefers this new model.
"You get to draw and do squares and everything," Danielle said. "I think it's better this way."
Feedback from parents astounded the teachers, even after just one session.
They reported that their kids wanted to stay up late playing marbles and writing, Welt said.
Now they're all looking forward to the coming months, which will include more fun activities leading to a big celebration at the end. They're also finding ways to get the method into their classes whenever possible.