Fifth and Sixth Grade Students Recognized as Top Writers in State

This is the sixth year in a row Pine Cobble students have been honored by highly competitive Letters About Literature writing competition.

Writing “one of most important skills we can teach,” says head of school.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MA. May 6, 2014. For the sixth year in a row, Pine Cobble students have been recognized by the highly competitive Letters About Literature writing competition. Will McDonough, a fifth grade student, and Merrie Benjamin, a sixth grade student, both won honors designations, ranking them in the top 1% of young writers in Massachusetts. Jack Gitterman, in fifth grade, was a semi-finalist.

During the past six years, a total of twelve Pine Cobble students have been recognized by this competition, which has between 3,000 and 5,000 entrants in Massachusetts alone every single year.

Letters About Literature is a national reading and writing program that asks students in Grades 4 through 12 to write letters to authors whose work has made a significant difference in their lives. It is sponsored nationally by the Library of Congress and Target Stores. The evaluation process includes review by both national panelists and in-state judges.

Pine Cobble fifth grade students took on the challenge as a part of a classroom assignment on writing, with support from fifth grade teacher Cornelia Alden. McDonough wrote to C.S. Lewis about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, noting how the character Peter found strength in the face of disappointment. Gitterman wrote to Tim Green about Unstoppable, the story of a foster child determined to play football.

Last year, as a fifth grade student, Merrie Benjamin won an honors designation (also working with Alden). This year, although it was not a part of her curriculum, Benjamin submitted a letter independently –to JK Rowling about Harry Potter – and won an honors designation a second year in a row.

“Writing is one of the most important skills we can teach students, and it’s one of the hardest things to teach,” said Sue Wells, Pine Cobble’s head of school. “Writing well is never simple; it’s a deeply involved process of finding and trusting one’s voice, articulating complex ideas, learning to hear constructive criticism, editing and revising, self-evaluation…and then doing the whole thing over again.”

Writing well is one of four 21st century skills ranked “most important” by over 400 business leaders according to a study by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills; more than eighty percent of those surveyed ranked high school graduates in America as “deficient” in this skill.

“Teaching writing requires a tremendous amount of support, trust, and one-on-one dialogue,” added Wells. “That’s precisely why it’s so hard for so many schools to do it well.”

Wells notes that the Pine Cobble curriculum emphasizes outstanding writing at every grade. The school integrates writing into all subjects — including math, science, history, and art. Pine Cobble has a dedicated writing coach, Linda Bernard, who works hands-on with students in all grades and leads a school-wide writing initiative for differentiated writing instruction. A beloved fifth grade teacher for many years, Bernard was honored two years ago by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for excellence in teaching writing.

Throughout their years at Pine Cobble, students of all ages are exposed to a broad range of literature, and they are expected to develop skills writing many different styles — fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, plays, letters, expository writing, reports, persuasive essays, biographies, and more. Strong emphasis is placed not only on the initial work, but also a thoughtful, exacting multi-step editing process. Students read much of their work in front of audiences – part of Pine Cobble’s related emphasis on oral communications and public speaking.

“To have twelve students recognized, from literally tens of thousands over six years, is an absolutely incredible honor,” says Wells. Pine Cobble has deliberately small classrooms – between 10 and 15 in any given year – which makes these numbers even more impressive. “It’s a great testament to how hard our faculty work helping each student find his/her voice.”

McDonough and Benjamin will be honored during a ceremony at the State House in Boston on Tuesday, May 27.

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