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Camping in the gym: a writing workshop at St. Stan's (10/07/2012)
By Emily Buss

Photo by Emily Buss
      St. Mary's University student teacher Jason Horstman and children's author Katie McKy pretend to be bears during a fun afternoon of reading and writing to promote the school's Read-a-thon.

Campfire wood, check. Oversized tents, check. S'mores, check. Uninhibited imagination, check. Children’s author and kid enthusiast Katie McKy got the students at St. Stanislaus Middle School to think a bit outside the box Thursday and use their imaginations to turn their gymnasium into a camping adventure.

McKy, a spunky and extremely energetic Eau Claire native, was invited to participate in the school’s Read-a-thon fundraising event to get kids excited about reading and writing.

McKy, who has been a teacher for 25 years, has had her hand in shaping the lives of more than 300,000 students, she said. McKy used her degree from Harvard to teach in higher education for several years. But her love of reading and writing children’s stories took her out of the college classroom, and into elementary and middle schools throughout the Midwest.

“We’re going camping today,” McKy said to a gym full of first through third graders—and fourth through sixth graders during a later program. “And we’re going to make this fun. We’re going to make this so fun that when you tell your parents what you did today, they won’t believe you.”

Memory games and short story exercises warmed up the young minds. McKy unpacked a duffle bag full of camping supplies and divided them into categories such as fire supplies, water purification equipment, and animal protection gear. She placed her hands over one girl’s eyes and asked her to repeat the items in the order in which they were placed on the gym floor.

After several attempts to name all 11 items, the girl just couldn't remember the sequence, so McKy raised the stakes.

"If you can remember all the items in order, every student here will get an extra s'more on the way out," McKy said. Anxious and excited students perked up, and shouted out words of encouragement to their classmate.

With a little concentration, the student named all the items. The thunderous applause sparked an ear-to-ear grin on the girl's face. McKy thanked her for being brave and praised her for solving the problem.

“We allow the opportunity to fail and then we stress the importance of recovering,” McKy said. “They don’t need to be afraid to make mistakes. They know they have the tools to complete the task, they just have to keep working at it.”

Next, McKy picked six students to demonstrate their power of control. She told the students no matter what, they couldn't laugh. Now, we all know when someone tells you not to laugh, all you want to do is laugh.

"I am found in the woods, I am big and hairy, and I sound like this," McKy roared over the shoulder of a young girl. Her bear impression was uncanny.

The girl remained quite calm. However, the same could not be said for the student audience who was howling at the impressions of a wild cat, cow, and woodland creatures subjected on other students.

In an attempt to “keep the brain stimulated,” McKy began the main exercise, which got the students moving and writing. However, just as they settled into writing their stories, a faux windstorm blew through their camp in the form of Black and Decker leaf blowers.

“Do not look up, do not react,” McKy shouted as she ran through groups of students who struggled to suppress their laughter.

Teachers advanced on the writing areas with the blowers set on low as to not destroy the students' papers. Those who were able to contain their laughter were sent to a mountain—one of many raised soft mats strewn around—or one of three large tents in corners of the gym. The other kids stayed put until they succeeded.

“This gives the kids the opportunity to reboot,” McKy said. “You can talk at someone all day and they will just be thinking about what is on their shopping list. You have to expose them to other senses and then bring them back to refocus.”

Mother Nature's fury literally rained down on the kids again when McKy and teachers attacked them with squirt bottles full of water.

"Rain storm!" McKy yelled as she aimed straight for a group of girls. This time, the children weren't as stoic. The group of girls laughed as they tried to use their papers to shield their faces. Boys cheered and giggled as the sudden burst of water flooded their workspace. One boy even opened his mouth to try to catch a droplet or two of water.

Finally, a very fuzzy bear, which was really a colorful duster, sneaked up on unsuspecting kids. The fibers of the duster tickled the students' ears and noses, causing some to burst out in laughter.

All the while, students were writing and having fun, the purpose of McKy’s teaching methods.

“These kids are eating out of the palm of her hand,” teacher Jody Berhow said. “I mean, talk about interactive. Her huge sense of humor and teaching style is so great for these kids.”

The hour-long session ended with a show of hands of who wrote more than a sentence, a paragraph, or a page of words. Many students raised their hands and shouted at the top of their lungs that they wrote the most.

“I wrote a story about a campfire and a swamp,” Ruby Hetzel, 8, said. “It was really fun because you can imagine lots of things and see where the story could go.”

When the students got up to leave, they were comparing stories with one another, laughing about their hair being messed up from the leaf blowers and commenting on how different the lesson was.

“They are talking about reading and writing and it being fun,” Berhow said. “That’s amazing.”

Before the fourth through sixth graders stormed the gym, McKy got the teachers together for a quick meeting to reflect on what had occurred. She told teachers how important it was to let imagination run wild and to never forget that being a teacher is the best job. McKy left the staff of St. Stan’s Middle School with one last thought: “Teach like a Pit Bull Terrier. Once you grab onto these kids, don’t let go.” 


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