Kids writing program thriving in 9th year

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Long-time writing mentor Roger McKeon with former participant Johanna Kaasik.

Long-time writing mentor Roger McKeon with former participant Johanna Kaasik.

Mary Dwyer believes children are born unfettered by restrictions on what they can achieve.

That’s why Ms. Dwyer wants to bring them into the “2Rs4Fun” program before anyone can impose limits on them.

After 25 years of teaching elementary school, mostly in the East Williston School District, Ms. Dwyer retired to Shelter Island and launched the program designed to inspire young students to read, write and stretch their imaginations. Starting in the fall of 2008, she motivated a group of adult mentors to latch onto her vision and work one-on-one with 3rd and 4th grade students at the Shelter Island Library.

Free of grades and criticisms, she believed the students’ creativity would flourish, and the youngsters have proven her right. What’s more, starting as an independent program that won funding through her grant applications to the Shelter Island Educational Foundation, 2Rs4Fun is also funded by the Library.

The thriving program — which runs for 10 weeks in the fall and winter — is heartily supported by Library Director Terry Lucas and school Superintendent Christine Finn. Individual Shelter Island teachers have embraced the work done by their students.

“I’m amazed that it has lasted this long,” Ms. Dwyer said.

This fall, she has some students who are in their third enrollment in the program, and said she’s seeing the rewards of writing that is funny and imaginative.

The freedom Ms. Dwyer felt for many years in her own classroom to encourage students was gradually waning in the latter years of her teaching career, she said, as the state began imposing more and more restrictions.

“This is my revenge,” she said with a laugh. “I can see the children are thinking more.”

She described sessions where participants become animated and somewhat noisy, exchanging ideas with one another before quiet sets in and they begin work on their individual writing.

Besides students sharing their own work with one another, there has always been time set aside for mentors to read to them. This year, Frank Emmett, a retired Shelter Island elementary school teacher, has been reading from the novel, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” the story of a china rabbit given to a young girl by her grandmother in the 1930s.

The china rabbit falls overboard while the girl is on a trip aboard the RMS Queen Mary and ends up being netted by a fisherman. It’s a tale of a life transformed and is proving delightful for both the children and their mentors, Ms. Dwyer said.

One shy student told her he thought the story was about love — rather profound for a young lad, Ms. Dwyer said.

Mentors are also taking time to read poetry to their young charges and opening discussions on the meanings of the poems. “This is an unusual group,” Ms. Dwyer said about the current crop of 13 students.

Bonds formed with mentors are revealed in the writing of 4th grader Betzaida Campos, who works with Mary Ann Moderelli. Betzaida writes of Ms. Moderelli: “A nice woman, really likes purple, Young at heart, Awesome, Nice, Never gives up.”

Ms. Moderelli embraces the qualities Ms. Dwyer looks for in her mentors and substitutes — “people who love literacy, love writing and love children.” Mentors “share their lives with the kids” and Islanders have some very interesting backgrounds to share, Ms. Dwyer said.

Among Ms. Dwyer’s pleasures is watching children who arrived here speaking little English and have “grown so beautifully” in their ability to express themselves in their new language.

“It’s a very exciting experience,” Ms. Dwyer said. “We all get so much joy out of it.”

2Rs4Fun students have their say

In the spring of 2017, “2Rs4Fun” founder Mary Dwyer was sidelined following an accident and turned over the reins of the program to long-time colleague and mentor Roger McKeon, a former translator with the United Nations.

A booklet produced by the 3rd and 4th grade students in each semester included a tribute to Mr. McKeon for carrying on the program during Ms. Dwyer’s recovery.

She wrote that Mr. McKeon “quickly took over the planning of the sessions, the rhythm of the program and the many other things required to make the 2Rs a good experience for everyone. Like all good teachers, he added his own touch.”

His love of poetry, Ms. Dwyer wrote, brought that to the program so children “learned to listen to the sounds of poetry and to get the feel of it.”

Mentor Sue Peebles said of Mr. McKeon that he’s “been the man behind the scenes” in keeping the program alive and “his work has been terrific. With his typical good humor, he led every spring 2017 session brilliantly.”

What follows are excerpts and recaps from student writing during the spring 2017 semester.

Mae Brigham worked with mentor Mollie Numark and offered an interview with Mrs. Claus:

“Wake up Shelter Island. Today I’m going to interview Mrs. Claus.
“Mrs. Claus, how did you meet Santa? In the North Pole making a snowman.

“What was your opinion when Santa got the elves? I hoped he got enough of them to make all the toys for children.”

Mae also wrote about Queen Sassy, “one of the sassiest girls in the world” and of a woman, Jollie, who lost her husband in war and devoted her time to nursing others who had been injured. She tells an involved tale of meeting the ghost of her husband.

Betzaida Campos and her mentor Mary Ann Moderelli worked together. Betzaida writes about the importance of saving the earth:

“Instead of lying around and throwing garbage on the land, start cleaning it up to make it a healthier and more beautiful place.”

Noting that she was aging out of the 2Rs4Fun group since she would be entering the 5th grade this fall, Betzaida said of her mentor, Ms. Moderelli, that ”she helps me when I need her most.”

Nathan Cronin working with mentor Joe Murphy, created Jay, an ant and an inventor, who created a portable anthill and antbot. Nathan also wrote about “the Evil Cashew” that wanted to rule humanity.

Lauren Gibbs worked with mentor June Shatken and wrote a four-chapter story about her alter ego, Ella, a 4th grader who created a painting that hung in a gallery. When Ella tried to take the painting, she was grounded by her mother. She tells of her dad bringing a special gift for her birthday, but one she can’t open for two days. Then she leaves us as many good story tellers do with a cliffhanger, saying that we’ll have to wait for the sequel in the fall to find out what her dad brought and what would come of her grounding by her mother.

Daniel Hernandez worked with mentor Wade Badger and wrote a story of an apple and a muffin that came to life. He entertains his readers with dialogue between Apple and Mr. Muffin.

Victoria Hernandez working with mentor Jane Gereghty, wrote about Sweet Island, “the sweetest place in the world,” in a two-chapter story about a girl and boy who couldn’t stop eating candy and eventually ate a gingerbread house.

Lexi Jernick, working with mentor Sue Peebles, writes about getting a dog, and spins a tale of a family trip to Tennessee.

Sebastian Martinez Majdisova, working with mentor Frank Emmett, wrote a story of NASA astronauts who landed on Stickwood, a strange planet with trees made of cardboard and two-dimensional inhabitants. The astronauts’ adventures include saving a two-dimensional figure from a monster. He also wrote stories about Stuart the Bee and Mr. A.N.T.

George McDonald, working with mentor Joe Messing, wrote about the importance of friendship, writing that “best friends are funny, nice, dependable, friendly and someone to look up to.” He offers advice on how to develop a friendship.

Kenzie Montoya, working with mentor Christine Pelletier, tells a sad story of the death of Dreambig the Rabbit at the hands of a killer clown. She also wrote other adventures of Dreambig.

Charlie Murray, working with mentor Pat Lutkins, offered “The Cat Wars” in which in the year 10, cats ruled the world and were divided into clans, with the Milky Way Clan emerging as the best. Another piece deals with practical advice on how to get rid of an annoying person.

Charlie concludes if none of his suggestions work, to become annoying yourself and “join the annoying army.” But the “real way,” he wrote, is, “Tell them to be quiet and leave.”

Leonardo Napoles, working with mentor Jim Gereghty, showed his talent for character development by writing about a mad scientist, Microphone Boy, Flowey, Mr. Super Swaggy Awesome Fish and Rat-man. Their interactions and adventures are told in seven chapters.

Elena Schack, working with mentor Margaret Colligan, knows dinosaurs are extinct, but she tells us they still have a secret island called Dino Land, where the dinosaur Parasaur lives. Parasaur can glow in the dark.

The spring booklet also contains poems written by the students.

Copies of each semester’s booklets are kept at the library for those who want to read more.