At first glance, Judy Maki, a retired high school English teacher, and Luke Blewett, a second-grader at Marguerite Montgomery Elementary School, wouldn’t seem to have all that much in common. Up until a few months ago, in fact, they’d never even met.
But they’ve since learned they share a love for pizza, puppies, cars and more; and they’ve written a book together, focused primarily on their favorite things.
Maki and Luke are writing buddies, brought together by an unusual program that pairs community volunteers with young elementary school students for one-on-one writing practice.
Robbie and Tony Fanning brought the program to Montgomery at the beginning of the school year, after having run successful writing buddy programs in the Bay Area for 15 years.
Robbie Fanning said she was a little nervous about starting the program in Davis, worried that she wouldn’t find enough volunteers.
She needn’t have fretted — in no time, she had the 23 volunteers she needed for the 23 second-graders in teacher Amy Teaford’s class, plus three substitute volunteers. The adults ranged in age from their late 20s to mid-70s and included several retired teachers like Maki, as well as a retired nurse and a nursing student. A contingent of University Retirement Community residents participated as well.
“Davis really stepped up,” Fanning said. “We actually have a waiting list.”
The program began with a two-hour training session for the volunteers back in September, followed by four weekly writing sessions. The adults would be given their writing topics ahead of time, so they could bring their already written stories to each session. There they would read their stories aloud to their young buddies as a way to inspire them. Then the youngsters would write their stories.
“Some kids would struggle a little,” Fanning said, “so their mentor would write a sentence and then have the student write one.”
Others zipped right through their stories. And all enjoyed illustrating their work, though some of the adults approached the drawing with trepidation.
“But we told them they only had to draw as well as a second-grader,” Fanning said.
Story topics ranged from favorite foods to favorite places to favorite toys. For the latter, Maki wrote about a colorful kite she had as a child; Luke about a special truck. Turns out both of their favorite places were out in nature, while Maki’s favorite food was macaroni and cheese and Luke’s was pizza.
For Teaford, bring the writing buddies program into her classroom — and giving up that instruction time every week — was a leap of faith, Fanning said.
But Teaford says it was well worth it.
“The students really enjoyed spending time with their buddies,” she said. “And it’s really nice to have one-on-one tutors for their writing. I would definitely do it again.”
The program concluded at the end of October with a celebration and “publishing party,” after which all of the participants went home with a book containing their own work as well as their buddies’.
The books also included personal letters from the adult buddies to their students.
Maki used her letter to remind Luke that he could use drawing to inspire his writing.
“The drawings that went along with your stories filled the entire space and were radiantly colorful,” she wrote. “I think the drawings helped us to think of ideas and words to use in our stories.
“If you ever get stuck and don’t know what to write about, you might just start drawing and see where the lines and colors take you.”
Maki so enjoyed the experience she has already signed on for the next session, which will pair the volunteers with third-graders in teacher Marsha Raney’s class in January.
“I thought Robbie and Tony did an incredible job,” said Maki, who was motivated to sign up for the program in the first place, she said, because she missed working with kids.
She also wanted to give back to the community.
“And as a retired high school English teacher,” she said, ”I’m glad we’re emphasizing writing.”
The program is looking for more adult volunteers for the next session. Volunteers must be at least 25 years old and fluent in English. They also should be able to hand-write a story and love sharing with children. To sign up or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy