“You would have to be nuts to trust a magician.”
This phrase is one of the first things I heard during a recent visit with Middle School humanities teacher Kate Cunningham’s fifth grade girls, who were learning the importance of a powerful opening sentence in their writing. Middle School librarian Mrs. Carolyn LaMontagne encouraged the class to share the first sentences from books they were reading and react to them. The girls shared sentences like, “The king is ready for war,” and “All I could see was water.” What ensued was a spirited discussion around the things that make an awesome first sentence. The class agreed that a strong first sentence makes you go, “Hmmm,” and makes you want to read more. They acknowledged that a great first sentence draws you in as a reader. LaMontagne wisely advised that you can not always judge a book by its first sentence, because sometimes you have to give it another chance and read further.
To demonstrate the importance of strong first sentences, LaMontagne led a “Build a Story” activity. This involved every student creating a first sentence to a story, and then passing it to their left for the next person to add to the story. The girls’ listened intently to the instructions, passed out pieces of paper, and got to work. The sound of pencils on paper filled the air, as well as whispers and the crinkling of paper throughout the Reed-Gumenick Library classroom. With desks in a U-shape to encourage discussion and sunlight streaming through the windows, the girls embraced the challenge. The girls loved this activity and were laughing and enjoying themselves. They spent a few minutes jotting down their masterpieces and passed them to their fellow classmates. The passing brought around another jolt of excitement as they got to read and add to the story. I could hear comments of “What does this even mean?” followed by more laughter. LaMontagne reminded the girls that there is “no judgement” in story writing. She also reminded the class that their job was to continue the story and be creative.
When I asked LaMontagne why she chose this activity, she said, “I like to get them to write fun things that encourages the girls to enjoy writing. Anything that gets them to associate why they like to read what they read and demonstrate how they can create it themselves is good. Plus, they were all working together.” Cunningham added, “My goal for my English students is to see the natural connection between reading and writing. My hope is that the good books that they read will serve as excellent models for their writing.” As the activity was winding down, the students actually said, “We want to keep doing this” and “This is so much fun!” It was nice to see students really enjoying their classroom environment without the pressure of AP/Honors classes, SATs, and upcoming exams on their shoulders.
During my visit to the Middle School, I realized how much I miss fifth grade and being able to enjoy everything that goes on in the classroom. In the Upper School, sometimes it feels like people are just trying to get through a paper that is due or prepare for an enormous test. The fifth grade girls seemed to really live in the moment, which I envied.