Spill and Thrill
Steve Tutunick knows how to inspire students to write. First he gets them interested.
Throughout his childhood, Steve Tutunick hated writing. That’s why he teaches it.
“As kids, we never learned how to write—you were just told nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and that was really it,” says the educator, who teaches 4th grade at Hunter’s Creek Elementary School in Orlando, Florida. But in his class, writing is more than the sum of its parts. It’s about expressing things animatedly. “I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to have some kind of emotion when I’m reading these papers.”
To that end, Tutunick’s students learn writing in a way his boyhood teachers wouldn’t recognize: Set aside sentence diagrams and act out a narrative. Use the karaoke machine for accompaniment if it helps. Reach blindly into a box and write a story involving the voodoo doll, the lava lamp, and the Eiffel Tower model you pull out. Play Writing Roulette, rotating an image among three peers and yourself to produce four interrelated stories.
The suite of tactics seems to work, even for the wary. “I couldn’t stand writing in the 3rd grade,” notes student Chad Prom. But now, he adds, “I have five stories at home that I’m working on just because it’s fun.”
And making writing enjoyable, his teacher says, is the key to making it good. “I have kids in here that literally write like adults,” Tutunick exults. “If I had some of them in here with their parents, they could outwrite them.”
Still, Tutunick sees a shadow hovering over his burgeoning writers once they leave his classroom. He knows what the creativity-quashing combination of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the 5th grade’s shift away from writing instruction can do to a child’s prose. So he’s now creating a teacher kit to help replicate his program in other classes. “It’s really sad to see them work so hard all year to get to a certain point, and it kind of goes downhill,” he explains.
Vol. 17, Issue 01, Page 72Published in Print: September 1, 2005, as Spill and Thrill