English teachers at Kapa‘a Middle School are committed to their student writers. For nearly 10 years they’ve encouraged young writers to participate in the Hawai‘i Education Association Creative Writing Festival. For the past six weeks students have been honing one essay or poem to enter in the annual HEA competition. This spring six Kapa‘a Middle School students won awards.
The process of crafting a winning essay or poem is no small matter when competing with the entire state.
“Writing is rigorous,” said Kevin Nunn, sixth-grade English teacher at the school. “They work from rough draft to polished product.”
Nunn described the writing workshops his students attended in preparation for the competition as nothing short of boot camp. Most the kids would agree.
After one intense writing session, sixth-grader Kalia Kaui said her hand was so sore it felt sprained afterward.
The offending exercise Nunn used to get his students to generate possibilities for content was called free writing. It’s an exercise culled from Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” Free writing is where students write for a prescribed period with just one rule: Do not stop moving your hand.
“If they stop I stand behind them and say, ‘Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop,” Nunn said. “They have to keep the pencil moving.”
The idea behind this exercise is to free the writing of premature editing so ideas flow unhindered from the brain through the fingers and onto the page.
Kaui confessed to the success of the exercise. Her award winning essay titled, “Baseball Nerves” came from Nunn’s timed writing exercise.
“Everything just came through,” Kaui said. “Well, a first draft anyway.”
Nunn said early versions went through radical revisions. Kaui said she not only worked on her essay after school but spent hours on her home computer refining and revising it.
Sixth-grader Cameron Williamson said his essay, “Kicking Your Inner Bully,” a personal account of how learning karate changed him, went through four stages.
“My first draft isn’t even close to my second,” he said. “And my second isn’t even close to my third.”
By the fourth draft, though, Williamson’s work needed just some light editing and revising.
Part of the process for submitting something for publication means being open to critical analysis. Nunn said he was impressed with the way his students rose to the challenge of peer reviews.
“This is writers’ group,” he said. “There is no nice — this is out-of-the-ordinary classroom stuff.”
Nunn is a strong advocate of dissecting one’s writing in groups.
“It’s about writers’ workshop,” he said. “Peer pairing, working in a group — they learn from each other.”
His students shared how their teacher would tell them in no uncertain terms when a sentence was not pulling its weight.
“Mr. Nunn would say, ‘I don’t like that sentence,’” said sixth-grader Jenny Paleracio. “So then I just started thinking in pictures and I came up with the line, ‘Dads are like an umbrella on a wet day.’”
Seventh-grade English teacher Rene Relacion used some of the same methods with his students. The first step is brainstorming ideas in a list format, followed by a draft and then having students break into smaller groups for peer review.
“Elbow grouping is where they just listen to the other person read aloud,” Relacion said.
The partner asks questions of the reader and then each student reworks their poem or essay. When they return to pairs it’s for editing and mechanics. Most of Relacion’s students began with essays but then some switched to poetry.
“A lot of people thought it would be easier to write a poem because it’s shorter,” said seventh-grader Maddy Rausch. “But with poetry you have to focus on every single word.”
Rausch’s poem, “Secret at the Shore” transformed altogether during revision.
“By the fourth draft I had totally changed the meaning,” she said.
Paleracio said, “I write a lot of poems already, but it was hard when I thought about the competition because I’d think of winning.”
Seventh-grade poet Ke‘ala Lopez said she always starts with a title and then develops her idea.
Nunn said, even though he knows that students naturally lean toward writing to a teacher’s expectations, he sees the HEA competition as an opportunity for his students to write for themselves.
“They go through what I call a real writing process,” he said. “It’s about the process — win or lose — they learn the process of writing.”
Most of the students commented on how their work went through a period of expansion before that final phase of paring down to the required word count. Essayists had to keep their word count within 600 to 1,000 words.
“I had to cut 100 words,” said sixth-grader Jacob Lockyer, whose essay “Kentucky Morning” won first place in the fourth- to sixth-grade category.
Acting as editor is tricky business. Nunn said he tries to let students decide what must go and what should stay.
“They have to have ownership,” he said. “I tell them they have to decide. It’s their work. I tell them ‘edit carefully so you honor your voice.’”
At the University of Hawai‘i Orvis Auditorium last weekend, students from all over the state gathered to read their winning pieces and receive a bound collection of their work.
“It makes me really proud to see my kids on stage reading,” said Nunn. “I’m so proud of this school.”
• Pam Woolway, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or email@example.com