“This is a feel good place.” ~Debbie Goldsworthy
March 15, 2011
Written by TC Heather Hollands
Poets and storytellers head toward a lunchtime gathering place, where they will participate in an open mic reading. They see a sign outside the door, listing their names. Music draws them in, and they are seated at a specially set table for “Featured Writers.”
For most adults, public speaking ranks number one on their list of fears, even ahead of disease or death; however, these writers are fifth and sixth graders, and although some might feel nervous, they are eager to share their words. That’s why they have signed up to participate in Gilbert Elementary School’s Word…to the Mic program.
Fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Debbie Goldsworthy got the idea for Word…to the Mic while attending the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Orlando in November. Over 1,300 teachers from around the country gathered there for interactive workshops, information sessions, and lively conversation about teaching writing. Debbie was taking notes about an open mic session for high school students held at a coffee shop in a larger city when she realized the idea would work in a smaller setting for younger students.
“Later, I came up with the name to describe how our words in writing go into the microphone for all to hear,” she said.
When Debbie returned to her school in Gwinn, she approached the principal and got support to hold a monthly gathering during lunch in the school library.
“There has never before at Gilbert been a venue for students to share writing or appreciate the ideas of each other,” she said. “This new opportunity allows them to have a voice and be noticed.”
Students can read at Word…to the Mic if they first apply and audition to be a featured writer. A few additional students from each grade are invited to listen and respond. Some teachers and other adults are invited as VIP guests, too.
Mrs. Goldsworthy starts the program by telling students, “It’s kind of like watching a show in a restaurant.” The room is set up to feel intimate with the idea that sharing writing in this way keeps it small enough to handle for shy readers; it’s not as intimidating as being on a stage with a gym full of people. The ambiance – from the marquee to the music, from the floral centerpieces to the microphone – is set to let the students know they are special and valued.
“This is not a contest,” Mrs. Goldsworthy emphasizes to the young writers, as she explains how the celebratory event will unfold. “Don’t worry about being the best writer.” She tells them their writing doesn’t have to be perfect; it doesn’t even have to be finished – perhaps they are just looking for feedback.
“After each student reads, there is a time to ask a question or say something nice,” she adds, noting, “This is a feel good place.”
The first reader at this particular session on Friday, March 11, is fifth-grader Cydni. She starts on a shy note. “Do we have to use the microphone?” she asks.
“Yes,” answers Mrs. Goldsworthy, emphatically, “because this is Word…to the Mic.” She tells them this is good practice for when they have to give speeches.
Cydni gathers up courage, and shares two emotion poems: “Frustrated,” about getting too much homework, and “Irritated,” about bullying in the halls. After she read her poems, Mrs. Goldsworthy asks for comments.
VIP guest Amanda Noel, a fifth-grade Writing Project teacher, says, “My favorite line is ‘blah blah blah-ing.’” Her comment validates Cydni, bringing a smile to the young girl’s face.
Fifth-grader Gavin reads a story called “The Cupcake Wars,” about fattening cupcakes in a battle against more healthful muffins.
“Sprinkles and jam were flying everywhere,” he says. Gavin speaks loudly, with onomatopoeic “BOOMS” and “BAM BAM BAMS” firing out of his mouth. As the audience claps, Gavin gets caught up in the emotion, and jumps and claps for himself. He says he likes to write stories about food.
Fifth-grader Heidi shares a story called “Sad but Funny Halloween” about a funeral on Halloween night. “When the zombies were done eating,” she says, “they started dancing some more. They loved the pop music, so they danced all night.”
Fifth-grader Ben reads, “The Fall of 2005: A Turkey’s Last Days.” He builds suspense in his story by saying, “Then I saw it, a bright fall turkey. It was hiding, scaredly, behind a mighty, strong, giant white pine…”
When Ben finishes reading, Mrs. Goldsworthy comments that she likes the part about the “hard metal arm of the tree stand.”
Fellow storyteller Gavin agrees, saying, “You have a gift.”
The final reader during this lunch break is sixth-grader Noah, who presents a six-page short story, “The Mouse and the Sailboat,” about a woodland mouse named Hezicciah.
“Right behind the clear, warm waterfall was a little sailboat,” reads Noah, “and it was tied on a sprouting willow in a crack in the rocky floor of the gray, empty cave.”
Later, he reads, “The next day, there was not a cloud in the sky, and he could hear the chickadees, and he could smell the smell of spring and anxiousness.”
When Noah finishes the story, the students clearly are impressed. “How long did it take you to write that?” someone asks.
“I don’t know,” Noah said with a shrug. “About a week.”
“Where did you get that idea?” asked Ben. “You’re a good writer!”
Mrs. Goldsworthy notes that at first Noah didn’t want to share his story, but she’s glad he did. She thanks the students for participating, they applaud, and Word…to the Mic concludes until the next gathering on April 15.
“The biggest highlight for me with this event is the fact that it has engaged students in writing,” Debbie said, “and it has engaged students in support of hearing the words of others.” As more students see their peers involved in sharing, more are willing to step forward.
She introduced the idea to the student body by having her students create commercials for the morning announcements. Some commercials were about how to sign up and some were about not being afraid to share your writing.
“My advice for teachers who may want to start this is to begin in their classroom by celebrating writing on a regular basis,” she said. “Have students come to the front of the room and read a part of their work. Point out the good parts and ask questions. Sell the idea to your class first. Have them be your ‘word of mouth’ for you.”
Word…to the Mic isn’t the only new idea Debbie gathered while attending the NWP conference in Orlando; she also collected information for starting a summer youth writing camp. She took many notes at a session on youth writing camps, and when she returned home, she applied for and received a $500 Excellence in Education grant from Great Lakes Center for Youth Development.
The “Writing in Unexpected Places” camp, for 4th-6th graders, will be held June 13-17. Each student will receive a copy of How to Write Your Life Story by Ralph Fletcher, and their very own special Writer’s Notebook. The camp will include field trips to the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, the new Marquette Regional History Center, and the historic Wells Fargo bank building.
Debbie is running the camp for free because she loves writing and wants to share that with area youth.
“I have taught for 26 years,” said Debbie, “and I still love what I do!”