Editor’s note: This is the first week back to school for many students across the state. (Though, in New York City and a number of other districts, the first day of school for students is not until Sept. 9.) Regardless of when that first school bell rings, teachers have been working to get their classrooms ready for students to have a great year of learning. So, as we gear up for a new school year, it’s appropriate to start off with a look at just one of NYSUT’s many successful teachers, who is willing to share some insights with his colleagues.
Adam Osterweil not only gets his students in a small rural school of about 700 K-8 students reading and writing, he gets them so excited that they get published.
“Even though I hadn’t kept in contact with him, Mr. O was the first person I emailed after I got an article published in an anthology,” said Victor Giannini, who was an eighth-grade student in 1996 in the Springs School District in East Hampton. His novella, Scott Too, was published in December by Silverthought Press.
Already an aspiring writer, Giannini still remembers Osterweil’s classroom management style that encouraged writing for a real reason.
“I don’t remember the critical analysis of the books we read, but I do remember the many ways that creative writing was snuck into English lessons and that storytelling is communicating ideas and how important proper grammar and spelling and punctuation become when you tell a story,” Giannini said.
Osterweil knows about getting published.
He’s just published his fifth children’s book. Here’s a link to find out more about Cooper and the Enchanted Metal Detector, The Comic Book Kid, The Amulet of Komondor, The Lost Treasure of Talus Scree and The Baseball Card Kid.
Most of my efforts connect to the real world,” Osterweil said. “The assignments are about more than something a teacher asks you to do. I want to show students that writing is real and has a function in life.”
Some examples include:
- Local newspaper or community contests. Check out service organizations that sponsor essay contests.
- Write a business letter to a celebrity. They make a wall mural of all the responses they get back, which increases motivation to write more letters.
- Ray Bradbury project. The entire class will write a short story in the style of Ray Bradbury. Each student’s specific assignment is to write one to two paragraphs on a particular aspect of the story. For example, your assignment is to describe the T-Rex eyes using two similes. Later, the segments are put together like a jigsaw to create the entire story.
- Lego Instructions. Students have to build a car that will survive a head-on collision. (Survive means the wheels and toy person remain intact.) Then they have to write an instructional manual describing how to build the car.
Osterweil’s advice for new teachers?
“This is probably not original, but I think of the three Fs: Be firm, fair and focused,” he said. “Getting kids to love writing and your class doesn’t mean that you have to appear as the fun or lax teacher. In fact, the opposite is true.”
- Be Firm: Kids need and like clear parameters. The joy of writing will come out in the projects they produce. I am actually very strict in my classroom, even during the Lego project.
- Be Fair: At the junior high level where I teach, students are very perceptive about how rules are applied, and they pick up very quickly if you bend or change them frequently.
- Be Focused: I believe in teaching writing in a very specific manner. We all write a thesis essay at the same time, or a fiction story, or a business letter. I don’t have one child write a memoir and another write a play. I also provide a lot of models of good writing for that particular unit and I micro-manage their writing by showing them a particular usage of a transition, or certain academic vocabulary, or a type of analytical phrase, requiring them to all use that element in their finished piece. Later, they must underline or color code the required ingredients to show that they used them. Junior high students are incredibly creative and, even in a focused, structured environment like this, their voices will be heard.
Giannini, who taught for three years in The Young American Writers Project, agrees. You can read a blog post Giannini wrote about teaching here.
“I’ve had a lot of great teachers and now, when I am working with my own students, I realize how difficult it is to do what Mr. O did with us,” Giannini said. “I remember how he noticed that I was writing something else during class, not taking notes on what he was going over, he bent down and read it. Then he said, ‘This is great and I’d like to read more but could you do it after class.’
“That made more of an impact instead of reprimanding me,” Giannini recalled.
Another lesson he remembers was based on The Wallflowers song “One Headlight” and how the class concentrated on the lyrics.
“Everything starts with putting pen to paper,” Giannini said. “It’s hard enough to be able to do it yourself, but then to be able to teach someone else how to do it? Well, that’s … well, it had a pretty big impact with me and it’s something I try to use now with my students.”
Do you have any classroom strategies to share? Comment below or post to the award-winning It’s What We Do website.