By STEVEN NALLEY
When children engaged in the “Magic Sentence” activity at Mississippi State University’s Writing for Radio Camp, it was actually the children themselves that the teachers saw as magical.
Richard Graves, camp leader with the National Writing Project, said some children demonstrated an intuitive understanding of how to use nominative absolutes during this activity. Nominative absolutes are short subject-verb phrases which, for lack of a helping verb, do not qualify as sentences but do qualify as modifiers, Graves said. Examples include “her eyes darting” and “her smile intriguing me,” he said.
“We have theorized that this is latent in the grammar of young children,” Graves said. “It’s almost as though the mind is hungry to understand order and all aspects of rhetoric.”
Students entering grades 3-7 have spent the past week getting in touch with their creative sides at the MSU Writing for Radio Camp at the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute, preparing pieces to submit for Rural Voices Radio.
Mississippi Public Broadcasting airs Rural Voices Radio daily at 3:38 p.m. on its eight stations, broadcasting stories of Mississippi and other places close to guest readers’ hearts. Another camp leader, Sherry Swain, said once students are accepted to Rural Voices Radio, coaches will help them practice reading their submitted piece before they go on the air in the fall. All students who submit to Rural Voices Radio are allowed to revise and submit again, and Swain said if a student’s piece is not accepted, she and other camp staff will help the student revise.
“Kids ask, ‘Does this mean we’re going to be on the radio or we might be on the radio?’” Swain said. “We said to them, ‘You’re going to be on the radio, because we are going to keep working with you until your piece is accepted.’ Rural Voices Radio has been going on since 2003, but we’ve never had a camp specifically to help kids get published.”
Swain said camp activities included a “writing marathon,” where children watched people in public places and wrote descriptively about their actions, as well as music and dancing. She said the children also wrote three stories on three topics: a place, a person and an event.
“They will choose one to flesh out and polish,” Swain said on Wednesday. “Early Friday, their parents will come in ... to hear them read.”
Campers also painted canvases or Styrofoam crafts to create artistic representations of places where they feel most creative, Swain said. The students then reduce that picture to a single word, she said, which they called the picture’s “essence.”
“They’ll put that word on a single page and write about how the place in their art brings that (essence) out for them,” Swain said. “Some of their places are literal places, and some of them are places in the mind.”
One of the campers, Sarah Rendon, said art is one of her favorite subjects. In fact, she said, she loves art so much that her picture of her creative place became meta-artistic.
“I ended up drawing an easel with a skyline painted, and behind it there’s a skyline, just to show that’s one of my happy places, because I like drawing,” Rendon said.
Graves said the “Magic Sentence” activity lets students add verb phrases to the end of a simple sentence. For example: “Today I remember my mom” becomes “Today I remember my mom washing dishes, cooking dinner, humming to herself.” These phrases modify the noun “mom,” and Graves said this mode of thinking is a breath of fresh air for the children and a window into the way children think about grammar.
“We don’t pay as much attention to rules at this stage so we can focus on the possibilities of writing,” Graves said. “We also include some rhetorical aspects of writing that are appropriate for their age level so they can become interested in rhetoric and sentence structure and composing.”
Rhetoric isn’t always taught in schools, Graves said, but children love it. When building magic sentences, Swain said, children were excited to discuss the relative merits of placing only commas, only “ands” or combinations thereof between the verb phrases.
“Kids eat it up,” Swain said.
Rendon said she enjoys writing and the MSU camp largely because of the freedom they afford. Writing is an outlet for her emotions, she said, allowing her to get sadness, anger or other feelings out of her system.
“I like that they let us write whatever we want, and they don’t tell us what to write like in school,” Rendon said. “We get to express ourselves in our own way, and we don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.”