Helping kids find their inner authors

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO Third grader Kenzie Montoya with writing mentor Christine Pelletier at the 2Rs4Fun program at the library.

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO Third grader Kenzie Montoya with writing mentor Christine Pelletier at the 2Rs4fun! program at the library.

Kids have big imaginations and they are often natural story tellers.

But getting those stories down on paper can be challenging, especially for younger children who are just starting to develop their writing and language skills.

That’s where “2Rs4fun!” comes in. It’s a writing program that pairs Shelter Island third and fourth graders with adult mentors for 10 weekly sessions each fall and spring at the Shelter Island Library.

On Wednesdays after school, the children, who keep journals, read assigned texts and share their innermost thoughts in poetry and prose, meet one on one with adult mentors who guide them through the writing process. The mentors come from a wide range of professional backgrounds and it’s their job to help the students find meaning and significance in their thoughts and, through their written work, come to understand the power of the words they use.

The program was created in 2008 by Mary Dwyer, an Island resident and retired elementary school teacher. Described as “literacy learning,” the approach is modeled on an educator training program Ms. Dwyer took part in at Columbia University in the 1980s, while she was teaching in East Williston.

The idea is to encourage original expression, not through the imposition of strict rules and specific parameters on how writing should be done, but by giving children freedom to explore their ideas and feelings through words.

It’s an idea Ms. Dwyer firmly believes in to this day.

“Children need to be freer, I think, or they won’t get to their soul,” Ms. Dwyer said in an interview with the Reporter. “I feel very strongly about that.”

Ms. Dwyer explained that when she was teaching, many educators didn’t embrace the way in which reading and writing was being taught at the time. Literacy learning programs represented a different way of thinking about the writing process.

“In the 1980s, it was a bit of a revolution,” Ms. Dwyer said. “Even though I taught at a public school, it was very experimental — particularly in creative writing. I was very involved.”

After she retired from teaching and moved to live on Shelter Island full-time 12 years ago, Ms. Dwyer was searching for a way to give back to the community when it occurred to her that a writing program modeled on literacy learning might be something useful she could offer youngsters on the Island.

“I taught this program as a teacher for 17 years and so I figured I could adapt this,” Ms. Dwyer said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get people from the community to meet once a week and work with children on a one-to-one basis?”

That’s exactly what she did. The program, which is funded by the Shelter Island Public Library and the Shelter Island Educational Foundation, is now able to pair 12 students from ages 8 to 11 with mentors each fall and spring. The program also has a roster of 18 or so substitute mentors who are able to fill in when needed.

With the spring 2016 session now well underway, “2Rs4fun!” recently released a bound paperback booklet featuring stories, poems and illustrations created by the children who took part in the fall 2015 session.

The booklet represents the culmination of the program’s 15th workshop and while unicorns and rainbows are well represented in the writings, there are also tales of monsters, explosions and scatological emojis within its pages. While the subject matter may make some people squirm, Ms. Dwyer emphasized that the program is about free expression. No subject is off limits for the young writers, though she admits that on occasion, some stories do have rather unpleasant plotlines.

“If you read the stories, there’s lots of violence, especially with the boys,” Ms. Dwyer conceded. “We run pretty much everything they work on.”

Ultimately, that may be part of the appeal for some kids. Ms. Dwyer, who prior to each session offers a pitch at the school to entice new kids to enroll in the program, often brings along a past participant to provide testimonials.

“One little kid, Charlie Murray, said, ‘We can write whatever we want,’” Ms. Dwyer recalled.

From the mouths of babes.

The fall 2015 “2Rs4fun!” authors were: third graders, Janet Carbajal (mentor Bill Zitek), Johanna Kaasik (Roger McKeon), Kenzie Montoya (Christine Pelletier), Charlie Murray (Barbara Silverstone), and fourth graders, Alfie Brigham (Wade Badger), Hayden Davidson (Jean Lawless), José Frausto (Lydia Martinez Majdisova), Kaitlyn Gulluscio (Mollie Numark), Christopher Heins (Margaret Colligan), Marik Mulcahy (Joe Murphy), Cooper Renault (Frank Emmett), and Jaxson Rylott (Teri Piccozzi).
Substitute mentors were: Peter Berger, Brenda Bergman, Becky Cole, Kate Cunningham, Carol Galligan, Steven Gessner, Cathy Kenny, Vivian Lindemann, Suzanne Louer, Pat Lutkins, Joe Messing, Maryann Moderelli, Jack Monaghan, Lois B. Morris, Barbara Olton, Chuck Olton, Sue Peebles, and Peter Vielbig.