Is this author smarter than fifth-graders?

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2010 - 4:04 PM

An unusual collaboration at a Burnsville elementary school helps students read like writers, and award-winning author John Coy write like his readers.

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Kids author John Coy visited Echo Park Elementary School fifth-graders in Kim Coleman’s class, where he got feedback on the latest book he is working on.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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No way, the students said. No way would Jackson say, I'm not even in the building yet, and already I don't like middle school. Write "hate," they urged author John Coy. Write, "already I hate middle school."

Coy pushed back a bit. "That's a real strong word -- hate," he said. "I mean, Jackson's not even in the building yet."

"Kids are quick to judge," said Kylie Maxfield, with the certainty of a fifth-grader who's made it to the top of the elementary-school food chain.

Her terse verdict also explains the value of an unusual relationship that Coy, 51, has developed with a group of students at Echo Park Elementary School in Burnsville. What began as an author-in-residence program has, over the years, become a students-as-editors program. "Love of the Game" is the third book that Echo Park students have read in the draft stages and critiqued. On issues of logic, credibility or the validity of cultural references, many of their suggestions will become immortalized in a bound book.

On this day, for example, Fritos got the heave-ho in favor of trendier Hot Cheetos.

Some fist bumps were nixed in favor of side bumps. Bumping knuckles is fine for greeting someone in the halls, the boys said, but between athletes, it's all about jumping up and knocking ribs.

The reference to Matchbox cars? The students actually seemed a little embarrassed for him. Sorry, Mr. Coy, your age is showing. Better change that to Hot Wheels.

Catch a falling reader

Coy's current manuscript, "Love of the Game," is the third of four sports-themed books geared toward what the publishing industry calls "middle grade" readers. While ideally appealing to all students, the books are written about boys in the fifth and sixth grades because that's the age at which many of them stop reading for fun, said Coy, of Minneapolis. The first book, "Top of the Order," was named a "best book of the year" by the nationally respected Bank Street College of Education. "Eyes on the Goal" followed; all are published by Feiwel and Friends, a division of Macmillan.

The collaborative process between Coy and Echo Park is far more than the usual "author visit," said Robert Nistler, an associate professor of education at the University of St. Thomas. He happened upon Coy and some students at the Red Balloon bookstore where Coy, of Minneapolis, was doing a book event.

"I wanted to know what is happening to these kids as writers," Nistler said. "Their ownership in the process is critical. They actually negotiate with John, who's opening himself to get qualified input."

In sharing the writer's process with the students, Nistler said, Coy helps them become members of "the literacy club" -- a concept developed by Harvard educator Frank Smith. The idea is that we learn not by imitating others, but by "joining the club" of people with whom we share a common interest, and becoming engaged in their work.

By asking the students for help with his manuscript, Coy demonstrates how a writer keeps the reader in mind, and then how a reader absorbs an author's insights. "You learn to read like a writer, and write like a reader," Nistler said.

On a recent morning, Coy arrived at Echo Park hauling boxes of manuscripts that the kids had taken home and marked up. There were many great ideas, and there were a few bad ideas, he said. For instance, you can't change a character's nickname from book to book.

Luke Baldwin suggested changing a sentence in which Diego gives a stuck locker door "a strong pull" into him giving it "a muscleman pull." Coy gave that change the thumbs-up.

The kids debated how to use the adjective "ginormous," determining that it can describe an object, but not a person.

Coy singled out Maria Emilia Nichtova, one of teacher Kim Coleman's students, for her care in editing for continuity. "She paid attention to the way the characters would talk about their feelings all the way through the book."

Jack Rosenthal, noting how budget cuts are eliminating sports programs in some middle schools, wondered if the book's football program was realistic. Coy blinked at this detour into current events. "I'm going to keep it in the book because it's the way we want things to be," he said.

The students are learning the nuances of writing well. "One of the constant chores for a teacher is getting kids to revise their work," said teacher Dan Dudley. "Working through the manuscript process with John has shown the kids what revision looks like, what questions to ask, what comments and observations to share with their classmates when peer-editing.

"And it's not just the kids who have benefited from the process. I am a better reader, writer and literacy teacher, as well."

For their efforts, each student gets a book. As Coy signed an earlier edition for one of the students, he mentioned that, beyond the creative satisfaction, there is one other great thing about being an author: "You get to write in books."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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