Teaching Approach piques Kids’ Interest: Consultant peps up eighth graders for upcoming test

By Jennifer Booth Reed

Fort Myers, Florida

It’s time to grow up, writing consultant Erik Cork told North Fort MYERS Academy for the Arts eighth-graders Friday morning.

He flashed a list of words on a movie screen. Good, bad, Happy Sad. “Some of you are 14 and 15-years-old. These are words they use in first grade,” Cork chided. Adopting his best, first-grad voice, he squeaked, “I am happy, You are sad…” Try “elated,: “ecstatic,” “delighted,” “melancholy,” “despondent” or “sullen,” Cork said. Or how about any one of 24 synonyms for “said?” “Dig a little deeper into your brain,” Cork urged.

Cork, a Houston-based writing consultant, travels the country trying to inspire young writers. He calls the program “Rap, Rhythm & Rhyme: Rebuilding the Writing Foundation.” As the name suggests, Cork teaches writing skills through rap and movement. His stereo pumps rock music during the workshop, enlivening the potentially bland topics of punctuation and syntax.

North Fort Myers Academy hired Cork to motivate students for the February 12 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test Writing Exam. Cork repeated the program for the school’s forth-graders Friday afternoon.

“How many of you like poetry?” Cork asked. A few hands reached up. “How many of you like rap?” Nearly all the hands raised. “Alternative? Old school? R&B?” Gospel?” Students cheered. It’s all poetry, he said. “A rap is simply a poem with a beat.”

Cork’s lesson, crammed into about 90 minutes, encompassed everything from grammar to word choice to helping students overcome their fear of the blank page. The workshop may also help defeat a growing side effect of the standardized testing movement. Some teachers and testing critics complain the exams stifle creativity prompt formulaic, stilted essays.

Fran Mallory, a Dunbar High School teacher who helped establish a chapter of the National Writing Project in Lee County, spent the summer encouraging teachers to let their students’ words flow. “I see kids sometimes limiting their growth,” Mallory said. “Creativity is vital, and letting the kids find their voice as a writer is essential.” Standardized test responses don’t have to be mundane, she said. One of her students wrote a persuasive essay in the form of a letter asking his brother to take out the trash. The writing pitched the idea in a way that his brother wouldn’t realize he was being asked to do a chore.

North Fort Myers Academy teachers said they hoped Cork’s workshop would inspire creativity, in addition to reminding them that good usage and proper sentence structure was crucial. “Standardized testing stunts creativity in writing. Now we’re seeing a real trend in getting back to creativity in writing,” eighth-grade language arts teacher Chris Hoper said.

She wants her students to know good writing skills are essential for real life – not just for passing the FCAT tests. “The danger is turning students into robots, and all of the writing looks the same,” Corks said. “I want students to see writing as a form of healing as a catharsis,” Hopper and reading teacher Merla Patrick said they hoped Cork’s musical approach grabbed student interest in ways that traditional classroom lessons can’t do. “That’s something they value – rap and rhyme,” Hopper said.

Some students had heard Cork’s message before, but they enjoyed the way he presented it. “It drew you into it,” said Justina Cross, 13. “It was cool,” said Raphael Carter, 14. “I like the way he put the rhymes with words.”

Tiffany Dean-Wright