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It was a day for swapping stories

Posted: December 3, 2008 9:33 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2008 4:59 a.m.

Andrea Juarez and Nathan Bunkell, second-graders at Old Orchard Elementary School, react as a Placerita Junior High School eighth-grader reads them "A Trip to Candy World."

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Eighth-grade teacher Connie Howard gave her students something to think about this semester as she and several other teachers at Placerita Junior High and Old Orchard Elementary schools combined to teach interactive creative writing to more than 100 students.

Dubbed "Student-to-Student," the interactive reading and writing exercise pairs eighth-grade students with second-graders. The older kids journey through an Honors English-teaching segment that instructs them how to approach story writing.

Once the story is complete, students design, illustrate and bind their books, then deliver them to their second-grade partners personally.

Combined student bodies gathered Wednesday at Old Orchard Elementary School to share the stories, a little conversation and lunch.

Aided by parent volunteers, the junior high school kids walked to the elementary school and spread out over seven classrooms to read one-on-one to the youngsters involved.

The reading and writing program was the brainchild of Howard, who borrowed the idea after her own daughter participated in a student story-exchange program.

"Years ago, when my daughter was in second grade, her teacher matched her with an eighth-grader who wrote a special book for her," Howard said.

"If you would have seen (my daughter's) eyes," Howard said, "she got this dreamy look on her face every time someone mentioned Tommy's name" - her eighth-grade student mentor.

"I remember how charmed (my daughter) was with the whole thing," she said.

Howard took the story-exchange program one step further by having eighth-grade students create individual surveys for their second-grade partners.

Kids were asked things like nicknames, friends' names, special toys and favorite superheroes.

Second-grade teacher Rebecca Wessel said the reading get-together was "wonderful."

"These eighth-graders wrote, designed and illustrated these phenomenal books. Each one is different," she said. "It was jaw-dropping the way each child was allowed to express their own creative element. And the way these kids wrote these stories and incorporated the interests of these kids and their friends was wonderful."

"This was fabulous for the second-graders and it goes along with the new school district writing program and the California Content Standards," Wessel said.

"The eighth-graders came over and were so mature. They instigated conversations and made the kids feel comfortable," she said.

Magic happens between the two sets of kids, Howard said.

"The eighth-graders are like big brothers and sisters. They're really great role models for the second-graders," she said.

"Kids who think they are too old for this come back (from reading their stories) asking when they will do it again," Howard said. "Even the aloof eighth-graders are happy and give them hugs."

"When the (eighth-graders) came back they were all chattering about the experience and what their little buddies said," she said.

The gathering was good for the second-graders, as well; they got to escort their eighth-grade student around their own classroom and play host or hostess.

Second-graders will now embark on their own learning journey as they question eighth-graders and write personalized stories to be shared with the junior high students before the end of the year.

During the 13 years Howard has led the interactive exchange, lives have been transformed.

One second-grade mother approached Howard one year with tears and thanks. The mother's second-grader said she was sad a lot on the questionnaire.

The child's eighth-grade partner wrote a touching story of a sad little animal who found happiness. The story reached the child's heart the moment it was read, Howard said.

Another year an eighth-grader presented Howard with a crystal seed set in a red-lined box. The student wrote a note to her teacher expressing her desire to become a writer.

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