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Getting Kids Excited About Writing

Mr. Longoria asks himself the same question almost every day, "How can I get my student's creative juices going?"

One winter day, the wind was blowing, it was cold and I started imagining what if birds had no feathers. This was the inspiration for the story "How Birds Got Their Feathers". The story began to unfold as I asked myself "if birds didn't have feathers, what would they have to do to keep from getting cold?" Although Mr. Longoria new that eventually the birds would have feathers, he developed the story question by question. He eventually recounted the story to his students and then explained the process that he used to create the story. For years his students have asked him to write his stories so that they might be better preserved. Mr. Longoria is a story teller and uses stories to promote an interest in his students to create their own stories. He changes his voice to match those of the characters in his stories allowing his students to better picture each character. It is generally assumed that everyone posseses the same level of ability to create images in their mind. For whatever reasons this assumption appears to be incorrect. A great story teller, like Mr. longoria, does everything possible to leave the listener with the correct images.

La llorona (La-yo-rona) is a popular folk story among his Latino students, most have heard the story in one form or another. Even students who are not Latino have heard of La llorona. "I've written two versions of this story myself", he says. Ever the teacher, he asks you to enter "La llorona" into a search engine on the web and view for yourself the large number of web pages dedicated to this story. While you are there, read the many versions of this classic story. He uses it to evoke a sense of using your heritage as a form of inspiration in writing.

My mother immigrated from Mexico when she was 14 years old and my father was 5 years old when he immigrated. I am still amazed and very proud of my mother as she taught herself to read and write. I remember growing up in migrant fruit camps because my parents were migrant farmworkers and worked in the orchards harvesting fruits and in the fields harvesting vegetables. In 1960 we moved to the state of Washington from Texas, hoping for a better life. We kids didn't have toys to play with, we made toys out of whatever was handy and no longer useable, we also made up our own games using our imagination and excess energy. I would go out to the orchards with my parents and they would assign me a job to keep me busy. But, often I would just make a game of it. I share stories based on some of those experiences with my class. "The Cherry Crate Kids" a story of lining up fruit crates and letting the imagination create a train or bus that needed to be filled with fruit and passengers. "The Apple Bin Boys", a story that takes place during the Vietnam War about a group of "traviesos" (mischievous kids) pretending that the apple orchard was actually a jungle in a far off land and that the apples were handgernades.

My mother was instrumental in teaching me to read and write, she would take me to the library and foster my appreciation of the use of words. I attended Washington State University from 1977 to 1981, at that time there were only 157 students of Hispanic origin on campus. My major was Spanish with a minor in Communications. Later, I received a Post Baccalaureate degree in Teacher Education from the University of Arizona.

I am a teacher at Utterback Fine Arts Magnate Middle School. Fine Arts because the school stresses orchestra, drama, band, etc., Magnate because students are bussed in from all over the district. I teach Social Studies and Language Arts. This is my second year of teaching at this school. On the first day of school many teachers are so excited about teaching their subject that they begin instruction right away, I spend almost three weeks getting kids excited about coming into my classroom. I tell them that I grade on attitude because good attitude generates more work. I don't grade on misspelling, grammar, or style although we will come back to work on that later. With this the students breathe a sigh of relief.

The bilingual program has been very political, a new law in Arizona prohibits bilingual education, but if there are at least twenty kids in class and their parents have signed consent forms, this law can be worked around. It is a compromise between politicians and the Latino community. Until this loophole was discovered, I was asked to teach all my classes in either English or Spanish. I asked for the Spanish teaching resources for geography and I received a single book 20 years old published in Nogales, Mexico. I would have to photocopy the book to have copies to distribute. The geography book in English was brand new and I could have as many copies as I had students. I immediately protested, this was not equal education. Latino students have been in a system where they speak "perfect" English and still request a bilingual class, they are using this as a crutch since the English speaking classes have more to offer. I feel that these students become functionally illiterate in both spanish and english. I counsel them to move on because they need to be challenged. For my spanish speaking classes I read from the books in english then I conduct discussions in spanish.

I teach five classes two of which are "bilingual" one of the two is Spanish for Spanish Speaking the other is Social Studies. The other three classes are Language Arts taught in English. There are 20-22 students in each class, 15 in the "bilingual" classes.

Sometimes we read out loud in class but some kids are "too cool" to actually follow along. I tell them "I know you don't want to read this, I give you permission not to read along with us, but in exchange you must pretend that you are reading by keeping your eyes on the book and turning the pages. By granting him/her permission not to read, he/she keeps the "too cool to read" status but now he/she can actually read if he/she wants to and nobody can tell the difference. We were reading Harry Potter, and after a couple of weeks, a couple of those "too cool" kids were asking me if we were going to be reading Harry Potter today, in confidence of course. I knew then that I had reached them.

I share a story with my students called "Bigfoot", this story relates more to Native Americans. I show slides of pictures taken in Bigfoot country, places that I have been. I ask the kids, what has happened in your life that was a scary situation? Some of the kids relate camping stories or home alone stories. The "Bigfoot" story itself, like many of my other stories, is a springboard to get them to start the thinking process and stimulate their imagination to the many story possibilities available.

One of the tools that I offer my kids to help them in formulating their stories is the cluster chart. I draw a large oval shape and then a few smaller ovals around it. Then I help them to define the main focus of their story and place that in the large oval. Then I have them place a supporting piece of information and place that in one of the smaller ovals. Then I have them link the small oval to the large oval by drawing a line between them. I then have them create an outline from the cluster chart.

Giving them a tool is one thing, getting them to fill in the ovals is quite another. They want to come up with meaningful ideas but their limited writing experience prohibits them from taking a chance. I tell them, "I give you permission to tell me a lie." I tell them a story about my daughter's "big lie." One day, I reminded my daughter, to brush her teeth before she went to bed. Later I went to the bathroom, to see if her toothbrush was wet then, like a detective, I smelled it for that minty fresh flavor. I went to her bedside to say goodnight and asked her if she had brushed her teeth. She said, "Yes daddy", then I asked to smell her breath and she pulled away. Immediately, all of the kids begin to smile because they know exactly why she pulled away, each of them have had a similar experience.

"Tell me a lie!" I challenge them. Then write the lie in the large oval, you see, you have just started your first story, it's called fiction.
Some students have this mind set "I don't want to do this", I tell them I know you don't want to do this but do it anyway. END

MMPublishing has asked for a response from some of Mr Longoria's current students, their parents have authorized their responses to be published. Read Their Comments.

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Students Respond

 Students offer some
 insight into Mr.
 Lonogria's creative
 teaching style.

 Click on "Read Their
 Comments" at the end
 of this interview.

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