On the Journey 

news reel: stories of People, places, and learning AT Aspen Country Day School
Learning to love writing: the ACDS literary tradition
Posted 10/09/2017 06:09PM
By Annie Garrett

The Aardvark Review literary magazine is an ACDS tradition that had remained dormant for more than a decade. As we began to re-envision this publication, we had some decisions to make. The school had grown since its last iteration, when classrooms were still only a cluster of cabins and makeshift trailers circling the ponds. Was it realistic, or even fathomable, to follow the time-honored tradition of including every student's work? Did Middle School and Lower School writing belong in an anthology together? How would we arrange the pieces, and how would we embark on the ever-daunting selection process?

We ultimately made the choice to honor our roots as a journey school, devoted to inclusivity and communal participation. With the help of our teachers, The Aardvark Review would exhibit an sample of every student's writing from Kindergarten through Eighth Grade. We decided to display the pieces alphabetically by author's first name, an arrangement that would lend itself to easy navigation yet offer a fresh, unpredictable reshuffling of students. This arrangement highlights the astonishing breadth of content and the scope of skills and intellect achieved each year through the rigorous nine-year trajectory at ACDS.

Whether it is read from cover to cover, or opened to any arbitrary page, The Aardvark Review illuminates who we are as a journey school: a community passionately devoted to intellectual depth, critical thinking, and an insatiable love of learning.

While the magnitude of student growth is starkly apparent, quality, courage, and beauty pervade the collection, as do the students' sense of wonder, love for family, and unrelenting reverence for the natural world. Our current students are already busy drawing and drafting fresh new pieces to fill the magazine this year. In anticipation of this coming spring's publication, here is a glimpse back at the magic that lies inside last year's Aardvark Review. In writing this story, I met with each of our writing teachers and asked them to share some insights into their teaching practices, their students' contributions, and why they love teaching writing at ACDS.

Inside The Aardvark Review 2016-2017

The Journey of Expression: Kindergarten through Eighth Grade

Kindergarten

The students in Shelley Meisler and Christina Smith's Kindergarten class wrote and illustrated "small moments" about their favorite parts of the All-School Play and Outdoor Ed. Christina describes the value of this process as follows:

Teaching my students to reflect in words and illustrations after a monumental school event like the play allows for their writing to be the last piece of their experience to solidify and bring meaning to their memories. In turn, we as readers are offered the chance to see the world through their five or six year-old eyes. What does the Wheeler Opera House look like through the lens of a Kindergartener? What is it like to see the world through the line of sight at three-and-a-half feet tall?

Shelley adds: "I love that something so small in their heads can be the beginning of a story: a fox on the road, eating a frozen waffle in the car on the way to school, spotting the moon on Outdoor Ed, or watching the Eighth Graders rehearse their scene on stage. These details are the ways our students learn to engage with stories and the world."

As these students share their memories, they magnify the impact each ACDS tradition has on their lives. Isabela S-H's piece on her favorite part of the All-School Play last year stood out to me as especially remarkable. Her work depicts a drawing of her class on stage in pink satin costumes, with students watching from the audience. Her caption reads: I liked the song "Love." A detail in this drawing worth punctuating is the red velvet seats in the Wheeler Opera House. These are the same red velvet seats in which her mother, Fiona (ACDS '00), once sat as an ACDS student herself, rehearsing Narnia, Gilgamesh, and The Wind in the Willows in the Wheeler Opera House a generation ago.

First Grade

Cathy Grueter's and Alexandra Hughes' First Grade students extended the practice of personal narratives by writing detailed stories about their weekend expeditions and daily adventures. (A Trip to Carl's, Skiing with my Dad, The First Week of School, My Bus Ride). The students also wrote artistic poems about colors corresponding with objects of similar hues. Although similes and metaphors won't be explicitly introduced until Fourth and Fifth Grade, the First Grade students already innately integrated these techniques into their poetry. 

When asked about her favorite part of teaching writing, Alexandra remarks, "The highlight of teaching writing in First Grade is seeing the students' inventive spelling. It shows that they are taking ownership in their writing so that it doesn't impede their creative practice."

Second Grade

The Second Grade students of Trish Devine's class wrote whimsical poetry about items in the classroom. These richly illustrated pieces are both humorous and delightfully profound, as mundane objects are transformed into magical realms, from space ships to deep sea creatures. Blaise G. writes, "A ruler is a road, or a wing of a plane. It's a string of a balloon that's just been cut," while Dylan F. writes, "I think staplers are tiny sharks under the sea with silver teeth, chat, chat, chat." Through this work the students learn to see the everyday world with divinely wondrous potential; the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

Reflecting on her teaching practice, Trish, relays, "As I teach writing, I am conscious that my students should feel comfortable to be honest in their writing, and the topics they write about should shine through in the most natural and organic form. They should be nurtured to express themselves in the same way they so freely and curiously explore the world around them." 

In Second Grade students are also introduced the ACDS tradition of nature writing, which spirals through Eighth Grade in the classroom and in their Outdoor Ed journals.

Santino W. writes, "A tree's bark is very rough, and its pins, they are pokey sometimes./ But also like a comb." Through his work, he has become a scientist, an examiner of his environment, of textures and colors, poetically using language to capture the intricate and mysterious elements of nature.

Third Grade

Third Grade contributions included winter memoirs and nature-inspired haikus. Katie Goldsmith reveals that she integrates the Lucy Calkins technique of writing "fast and furious," as the kids embark on their initial rough drafts. "In Third Grade," Katie explains, "the kids are transitioning into writing with more details, adjectives, and imagery." Last year Katie and Paige worked on shaping their students' descriptive language while infusing more "spice" or "juicy" words into their prose. From Archer D's Pug in Snow to Vassar T's Hot Tubbing in a Blizzard, the Third Grade memoirs are rich in details, texture, and an inescapable tenderness for their pets and their families.

Fourth Grade

The Fourth Grade contributions range from outdoor expedition papers to the students' first expository essays. These position papers on Tuck Everlasting confront questions of mortality and the ominous perils of eternal life. As Harlan G. so perceptively posits in his essay, The End or Not, "Grownups think that living forever is great...[but] living forever is a curse! What if sharks lived forever? Then that would be terrible!"

Last year's Fourth Grade English teacher, Mary Frances Szoradi explains that her experience teaching writing "was all about guiding the student through an intensive planning stage, then letting their imaginations run wild."

Fifth Grade

Students wrote reports on national parks, European explorers, figures from the American Revolution, and original riddles inspired by The Hobbit. English and Social Studies teacher Adam Hancock explains that the Fifth Grade writing program "offers students a conduit for creative expression and for communicating knowledge on a particular subject." Adam muses, "When writing with Fifth Graders, I am amazed by their enthusiasm for the written word. They are wildly expressive, focused, and determined to hone their craft."

It's in Fifth Grade that students are introduced to the five-paragraph essay format, a mainstay of academic writing and one that they will draw upon throughout their years in high school and beyond.
Sixth and Seventh Grade

As the students progress through the grades, their pieces deepen in complexity and emotional depth, reflecting their own emotional and psychological evolution. Through fictional stories, holiday memoirs, and spoken word poetry, the Sixth and Seventh Grade students were given a nurturing vehicle to explore aspects of the human experience that stretch beyond the confines of their own identities, often discovering that Truth can be captured and illuminated more clearly through fictional prose. 

From dystopian fantasies and science fiction, to realistic fiction and poetry, the Sixth and Seventh Grade excerpts bravely grapple with themes of popularity, questions of identity, loss of innocence, and the ambiguous nature of love.

I was the Sixth and Seventh English teacher last year, and I discovered that the more my students' intellects flourished with knowledge and abstract ideas, the more critical it was for them to ground their thoughts in concrete details, dialogue, and vivid scenes. The same process of bringing "small moments" to life in Kindergarten was now even more essential, as my students worked to distill their ineffable emotions concretely on the page.

Gemma H. begins a thriller story with, "The fridge was open, smelling of cucumbers. Light radiated out from the cold door. The fridge magnets were thrown all over the room, showing all the places her family had traveled without her." Beckett B. delights us with the humor of a rafting adventure, replete with a lunch break at The Olive Garden "because they have the best unlimited breadsticks." Jaidyn H. delineates the landscape of a dystopian future: "Pieces of furniture and building materials lay out in the streets: a porcelain doll, a leg of a rocking chair, ivory piano keys, tattered wall paper, and a piece of a cherry wood staircase. Her once beautiful town now a pile of ash and mud." 

By integrating the skills and techniques they have acquired through the ACDS writing program, these Middle School writers now effectively and poignantly bring a voice to both the hardships and the joys of adolescence, capturing the beauty and complexity of the human condition.

Eighth Grade

The Eighth Grade excerpts are polished and profound, revealing their grammatical precision, critical thinking skills, and fierce convictions as they bravely prepare to take on the world beyond ACDS. After this final year in the journey, ACDS graduates are ready to tackle the many demands of secondary school.

Alumni often report that the preparation they receive in the writing program at Country Day is a key element in their success in high school and college.

Eighth Grade English teacher Susan Benner describes her students' works for the 2016-17 edition of The Aaardvark Review: "Contributions included selections from essays on Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, a reflection on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, poems on baseball and friendship, and a Malcolm X rap. Two students contributed memoirs en francais, another student wrote about Georgia O'Keeffe, and one explored the compelling question, Are Humans Actually Interesting?"

The Aardvark Review is eclectic by nature, yet the enduring themes threaded throughout are inescapable, showing the strength of our writing program, the courage of our students, and the talents of our teachers who devoutly nurture creative self-expression while cultivating clarity, wisdom, and grace through the written word.

LOOKING FOR PAST BLOG POSTS?
For an archive of last year's 
On the Journey, click here;
For the year before, 
click here.

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