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Clever twist enlivens "literary buddies" project

Three elementary schools feed seventh graders into Vergennes (Vt.) Union Middle School, and each year the staffs work together on a transition activity. In 2004-05 they decided to do a multi-school "read" of The Revealers, linking the transition work with their effort to address bullying—and using a creative, two-way journaling approach to connect the young readers across grades.

"We developed 'literary buddies,'" explains Alyson Cota, prevention coordinator for the school district. "Teachers at each of the schools were reading this book aloud with the students, and then the students would write their thoughts into a journal. Each sixth grader at an elementary school had a buddy in seventh grade, in the middle school—and their journals would be sent to those students, who would write a response and send it back."

The key was that no students knew the identity of their "literary buddy."

"Some students were excited about writing back and forth, as well as trying to figure out who their partner was," said Jay Stetzel, a middle-school guidance counselor who ran the project. "Sometimes they would send little clues, or ask questions about their partner. Some students complained about having to write, but overall the students seemed to enjoy hearing the book, and liked reading what their partner had written." The journaling idea came from teacher Jenn Lawson.

The project culminated with a special day when the three elementary schools sent their sixth graders to Vergennes Middle. Author Doug Wilhelm did two question-and-answer sessions, then the students all came together for small-group discussions of the issues that The Revealers had raised for them. In those groups, they met their literary buddies at last.

"The majority of the students were excited about meeting their partner on the day of the visit," said Stetzel—"and those that took the journaling seriously were excited to talk about the book with their partner." Each discussion group had a teacher or a counselor assigned to lead it; the groups sat, to talk, in various spots on the floor of the school gym.

Overall, the project "was difficult to organize and pull off, because I was attempting to be mindful of who I was pairing together," Stetzel reflected afterward. "It may have been possible to pair students up randomly, but I tried to take personalities into consideration.

"Another challenge was getting every teacher onto the same page, as far as the ideas and goals behind the journaling project. The latter started to come together as we moved through the project."

Asked for advice on making a similar project succeed, Stetzel said:

"Write out a journaling schedule, so that all teachers know when the writing needs to be completed. We had language arts teachers journal with the students one time, then social studies teachers, etc., so that one teacher was not having to take all of his/her class time. The students journaled about twice each week, one in each journal. (There were two journals between each pair, so that each student was writing every time.)

"I collected the journals after each writing, then organized them for distribution. It was beneficial to have one person coordinate the project."

"My feedback was that it was very successful," said Alyson Cota. "I really didn't hear anything that was not positive. People felt that the kids really got something out of it."

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