July 16, 2001
Summer camp at school - where writing is cool
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
It's muggy hot and does anyone care? Not a group of third through fifth graders riveted at their desks and laptop computers on the 3rd of July. This is Summer Writing Camp 2001 and the students in the classroom love every sizzling minute. There were two camps; one held the last week of June and another held the first week of July. Students, ranging in age from nine to 14, are not only engaged in the world of words, but also happily lost in the exploration of it. Under the guidance of their teacher, Sharon Elise Dunn, their creative imaginations are on a mission.
It's a little past 2 p.m. and Dunn leads her class in group story composition. She types the story on her laptop, keys clicking away as the students offer suggestions for story lines. Dunn reads what she has just typed then asks the students what the story character's natural response would be? One student offers, "Would he say, 'Me too?'"
"Yes," says Dunn as she types. "He would probably say, 'Me too.'" Click, click. A student offers the next line for another fictional character. "Then she could say, 'Oh my gosh,' faintly." Several students giggle, amused with the story they're creating.
Finally completed, Dunn reads the short story. At the conclusion, a spontaneous round of applause erupts. The students are totally satisfied with their finished work.
This is Dunn's fourth summer to teach the writing camp at Woodinville Montessori where she has taught for five years. Writing camp, she says, evolved from her school year curriculum. Since many of Dunn's students enjoyed writing so much, it was natural to begin a summer workshop.
"I had, and still have, students who really loved to write," she says, adding that she has continued to teach the summer camp each year at her students' request.
Sixth grade student Meleigha Holt has participated in the writing camp for two summers. She says that Dunn's talent in making writing enjoyable is the reason she attends. Says Meleigha, "Her enthusiasm and positive energy toward writing are contagious."
Seventh grade student Emily Parzybok who also attended the camp says she loves to write because of the power it gives her. "It gives me the feeling I can be whatever I want and make whatever I want to happen."
Dunn comments on why writing is important, "I genuinely believe that words have power and words matter." The written word, she says, can move people in a direction, whether positive or negative.
Her love for the written word has been a part of her life since she was young. At the age of nine, she penned a book of 50 poems. After graduating from Boston University, she wrote professionally for several publications, including the San Francisco Bay Guardian where she won a press club award.
Later, she moved to Seattle and enrolled her child in Montessori, a school concerned with all aspects of a child's personality. Soon after, Dunn trained to become a Montessori teacher. Then her life took a turn. While visiting an art gallery, Dunn noticed photographs of industrial sites illuminated by light and shadow. She was struck by the hauntingly beautiful images of stark buildings aglow in turning colors of light, such as "lemony yellow" and "blue green."
She thought she would like to write an article about the photography.
She located the photographer and asked for an interview.
"He was up for that," she says with a reminiscent smile of the interview. That was last August.
Her article, titled "Dark Beauty," was published in the Seattle Times
'Pacific Northwest' magazine this past January and describes the night
photography that had impressed her. "It's all done with natural light," says
Dunn of the lighting effects. But the photographer who creates the lighting
magic, George Ciardi, also made an impression.
Dunn realized she had much more in common with Ciardi than a mutual interest
in an article. They began a courtship and were married last month. Many of
Dunn's students attended the party given for the couple after the wedding.
During the festivities, there was a slideshow of Ciardi's work. "The kids
were absolutely fascinated with his photography," says Dunn. Soon after, the
idea of incorporating her husband's photography with a writing project came
to her. She brought Ciardi's slides to writing camp. "I just brought in a
light table and they worked off it," she says. The night images on the slides
evoked imaginative tales of suspense with titles like, "Bob the Rainier
Brewery Owner," and "Alone In the Dark."
The objective of the two camps, says Dunn, isn't tutorial. "The goal is to
experience the intensity of a writing workshop and the joy and passion of
genuine writing experiences." Students work on short stories and Dunn
compiles them into a book at the end of camp. They also learn about
re-writing and share what they write with the other students. Dunn teaches
with various other mediums besides photography. For example, she plays a CD
of Louis Armstrong singing, "What a Wonderful World," and asks her students
to furnish a room according to the mood of the tune. "Flowers in vases" "big
fluffy comforters" "brass bed, oversized pillows" "open windows"... students
suggest. Dunn plays different selections of music, such as Bulgarian or a
Cajun piano piece. "I tell them to just write what comes into their head."
She also incorporates hands-on art into writing, linking poetry with
kinesthetic experiences. "Getting their hands into something is a really good
idea," she says. The students write their poetry on dark mat board with gel
pens and then wire the pieces of board together to form a bridge, a house or
other creative structures.
Not abandoning her own writing endeavors, Dunn is currently working on a
novel about a homeless teenager. "When I write for myself I go to pretty dark
and serious subjects." But it's the delight in the work, whether dark or
light, which Dunn believes will produce engaged independent adults. "My hope
in my writing, and in my student's writing, is that the reader will have some
moment they are touched."
Witnessing the transformation the camp has had on her young writers, Dunn
says, "Students are in another place when they come back to school [in the
fall] because they've taken their writing to a deeper level."
Many of her students, though, don't plan on becoming professional writers.
Among the ranks are a future racecar driver, baseball player, biologist and
photographer. However, many say they will have the joy and skill of writing
all of their lives. For now, the students are moved by their love and
excitement for story writing‹inspired by Dunn's fresh approach.
Sharon Elise Dunn can be reached at email@example.com