Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Fresh ears for young writers

| March 10, 2024 12:00 AM

I remember thinking, I’ve been writing most of my life, this should be a piece of cake. But when the dozens of fifth-graders in Mr. Buzzell’s class at Edgerton Elementary swiveled around to check us out, I got butterflies.

We three writing coaches introduced ourselves that mid-February morning, then set up shop in a conference room, where we each reviewed pieces of informational writing individually with students. Their subjects ranged from football to natural disasters, and donkeys to a “vapor mutant venom”-meets-vampire fantasy. 

After the students read their writing to me, I listened to their ideas and asked questions. Their faces lit up talking about their topics; a few excitedly remembered a bit of research to add and scrambled for the keyboard. Others asked about grammar and organization.

The morning passed in an eyeblink. 

At the training last fall for Writing Coaches of Montana, I realized with horror I had done none of the homework as my fellow volunteers brought out dutifully completed forms. I had watched the required video, at least, but had missed the finer print of the email. 

Thanks to my tablemate and the understanding of the local facilitator, Jeanne Wdowin, I muddled through. The seven other trainees in my cohort included a bank manager who wanted to “get involved and give back a little more” and a help-hotline worker who said, “It’s really sad. I want to do something positive.”

Another trainee said their spouse’s work as a professor led them to believe that the “writing ability of students has diminished.” 

Wdowin made clear the nonprofit’s goal: “We meet the students wherever they are.” This was underlined by Jay Shaver, a board member of the organization, who said with a laugh at a recent Kalispell fundraiser, “You haven’t seen the blank paper yet? — when the student brings nothing. 

“It’s great!” he said. “There’s nowhere to go but up.” 

Missoula-based Executive Director Cassie Sheets said the nonprofit has 75 coaches in the Flathead who served more than 1,800 area students in the 2022-2023 academic year.

Emboldened by Edgerton, I show up at Mr. Macauley’s eighth-grade class at Kalispell Middle School a couple of weeks later to coach with Wdowin and two others, a CPA and a retired attorney.

As part of a unit on the civil rights movement, the students I meet with have written about the Tulsa Race Massacre and sports greats Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. I get schooled by these eighth-graders in important events and people of our past, and we talk about their flow of ideas, word choice and bringing in more details or deleting extraneous ones. I caution against relying solely on spellcheck: It won’t know the difference between “laughter” and “slaughter.”

Communication is key. In a time of bots and AI, the ability to synthesize, organize and clearly convey ideas stands out as distinctly human.

I had asked board member Shaver if he was a writer. “Oh no!” he said. “I hate to write. I’m into the critical thinking part.”

It’s all good. I practically skipped with glee after these volunteer gigs, and the rejuvenating effects lasted for hours — just for bringing fresh ears to new writers.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.