I went to teach but I came away learning

I went to teach but I came away learning

by Joanna Massey

Sounder copy editor

It’s not every day you’re asked to correct other people’s spelling. And simply providing casual grammar lessons to friends has been eye-opening ­— mostly that it results in fewer friends. But in fact, as a copyeditor for the Islands’ Sounder, Journal of the San Juans and Islands’ Weekly, correcting spelling is much of what I do. And when the goal is learning proper English, I’m up for the task of teaching.

When I emailed Orcas Island Elementary Principal Lorena Stankevich expressing interest in volunteering with students, it was coincidental that I was placed in the spelling and reading section of Bill Alsdurf’s — or Mr. A, as the kids call him — mixed third and fourth grade class. When he learned I work for the Sounder, he asked if I could come in for the writing portion also, where the students write and “publish” their own stories. I couldn’t help but be amused when he said the kids would be excited to have a “real industry professional.”

What immediately surprised me when I began was the numerous ways in which the students have to learn: putting lettered blocks together like Legos; using fingers in shaving cream; spelling to their friends by walkie-talkie; using string to form words; pushing around playdough; and by using the internet and learning to type. It’s organized because it’s a class, and it’s chaos because it’s 8- and 9-year-olds. But not erratically so; the kids are impressively autonomous, choosing their preferred method of learning as soon as class begins, and Mr. A asks that they use at least five different methods during the week. The kids test themselves by using dictation tests – only one allowed a day – where one student reads sentences to the other that include their words of the day or week, depending on how fast the student is progressing.

For their writing assignment, the children are asked to put together a story, and encouraged to focus on nonfiction, since what we already know is generally an easier place to start. Story topics range from highly desired Nike shoes to the description of planets in our galaxy. The students have four different parts to their writing process before they publish: prewriting, drafting, revising and editing, and I have had an absolute blast helping them through it.

Kids saying the darndest things is the icing on this volunteering cake, and it would be hard not to honor them here. One girl paused her dictation test to ask me if I knew of the lead actress in a TV show. She told me she used to have a crush on the actor’s ex-boyfriend, but she was on to some other famous boy now. Another student was writing about his dog and said that she was at a dog trainer’s home during the day. A girl listening in asked him concernedly if he and the dog were able to “hang out” in the evening. Without missing a beat, the boy said he was. Phew!

Giving my time to the island’s young learners has been rewarding on many levels. If you are interested in volunteering, there is a wonderful opportunity this summer. The Early Reading Intervention Project at the Orcas Island Elementary School starts on July 15, lasting for four weeks and involves 15 children struggling to learn to read. Contact Stankevich at lstankevich@orcas.k12.wa.us for more information.