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Molding teens into heartfelt writers


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I was invited to speak about writing to a class of sophomores and juniors last week.

My friend Sherry Weir, who teaches the research and essay-writing class, asked me if I, “an esteemed, published author, would be willing to come talk to and encourage my essay-writing class.”

How could I turn that down? But I don’t know whether I choked more when I read the word “esteemed” or the class description “research and essay writing.”

I first decided to encourage them by sharing the fact that, although the five-point essay is a conducive structure for teaching organization in high school research and persuasive essays (thank you high school teachers!), I have never seen a job listing nor met a career “five-point essay writer.” My ultimate goal was to have some fun and show that writing and revision can be enjoyable.

The fun began to happen when each student chose a can of neon play-dough — because when was the last time they had the opportunity to squish pliable, putty-like modeling compound through their fingers? I like using play-dough as a teaching tool because it’s entertaining to see smiles form as they roll out lopsided worms, which emit that nostalgic salty-sweet smell throughout the room. And although I never ask, I always wonder how long it’s been since they created something with their bare hands.

Writing is similar to opening a brand new can of play-dough. You never know exactly what the end product will look like when you start. And like changing the shape of the play-dough, revision is the key to good writing. If these astute students learned nothing else, I hope they know it can be fun to play around with the words and paragraphs.

After I read “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, I had them write for a short time — using any form and style they wanted.

I noticed some smiled as they wrote, others looked intently at the words that milked from their brains and expressed from the lead of their pencils.

After notifying them they had a few more minutes, one student needed more time to write. Hiatt Dunlap, a tall future air-traffic controller, looked up for only a second to inform me he needed a few more minutes and returned to plow into his writing — he reminded me of a football player tucking his head before hitting a tackling sled.

Hiatt was brave enough to share his unedited, unrevised writing:

I come from homemade pie, dirt in-between fingernails and ice tea.

Farmer talk is all I hear, but baseball sneaks in now and again.

Wassail over the stove warms my heart inside and out.

A hug and kiss goodnight — every night my mother gives me.

The beauty of fall is now falling in my yard. The rake will get good use whether I like it or not.

The farmers rush to harvest, for the frost is closing in.

Pumpkin patches, cornfields and pumpkin pies are all things my heart is dwelling on.

Campfires and haystacks are all around the town.

Yes, we may say some things funny, but all our intentions are well.

Sunday service everyone arrives and homemade lunch comes after.

It may not sound like much, but to me I call it home.

To me, you ask, “Where is this?” It’s where I come from.

— Hiatt Dunlap

It is said excellent writing touches the heart. Well done, Hiatt.

Well done Mrs. Weir, and Johnson County English and writing teachers.

Well done parents, Glenn and Betheny Dunlap.

Janet Hommel Mangas, the third of seven children, grew up on the east side of Greenwood. The Center Grove area resident and her husband are the parents of three daughters. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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