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MOORPARK : Students’ Writing Skills, Interest Grow

Moorpark student Oscar Rocha sat impassively last week as his teacher read Oscar’s essay on witchcraft to his eighth-grade English class.

Adults “say that heavy metal (music) is the work of the devils,” teacher Marolyn Stewart read from the paper. “But really it’s just a couple of lousy guitar players.”

Oscar’s classmates burst into laughter.

Getting such spontaneous expressions of appreciation from one’s peers is when “writing ceases to become a chore and becomes a joy,” Stewart said.

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Oscar, who was too shy to read his piece in front of the class, said later that he didn’t think his essay was very good. But after his classmates laughed, “I just thought, ‘I guess it was good.’ ”

Students in the class regularly read one another’s papers aloud. In addition, the students divide into small groups to critique the work before it is turned in to Stewart.

The emphasis on writing is one reason that Chaparral Middle School students dramatically improved their scores on the most recent statewide writing test, Stewart said. The school’s overall score rose from the 70th to the 82nd percentile in 1990, one of the biggest increases in the county.

Stewart said she learned the classroom technique in a summer course at UC Santa Barbara. The method is becoming increasingly common in classrooms throughout Ventura County as more teachers take the same course, she said.

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Students learn more from reading and discussing each other’s work than from just getting back from a teacher a paper marked with red ink, Stewart said.

The trick, Stewart said, is teaching students to criticize constructively.

Stewart encourages students to point out what is missing or what could be improved in a classmate’s work, rather than “pointing and saying, ‘This was bad,’ ” she said.

The students seem to have caught on.

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“If it’s bad, I’ll tell him, like, if it needs something else or something’s missing,” 13-year-old Nora Alvarez said after critiquing Richie Garcia’s essay on football.

Richie, 14, said he also tries to be diplomatic with his classmates.

“I’ll let it to them easy,” he said.


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