Dimon Fellow Cristina Romeo Presents First Elementary School Session at SPI Summer Institute ☆

On July 11-14, TC hosted the Student Press Initiative (SPI) Summer Institute, where 75+ educators of all disciplines gathered to learn about teaching writing, project-based curriculum, and the process of publishing student work.

The event program included a selection of in-service teachers who gave presentations on their own personal SPI experience, including what did and didn’t work, plus practical (and inspirational) tips on how to get the project off the ground in your own classroom.

A stand-out session was hosted by incoming English and Education Ph.D. student Cristina Romeo, who has taught second and third graders for five years at PS 152K.  Romeo is one of six James and Judith K. Dimon Fellows, and the first to run an SPI program in an elementary school.

In talking about how she got involved with SPI, Romeo rewinds the story to a year and a half ago, when her interest in exploring a Ph.D. program began.  She visited TC and became acquainted with Deb Sawch, English and Education M.E. student, who introduced Romeo to the SPI program.  Sawch, who has a long affiliation with SPI, was working on an after-school pilot program.  Romeo was hooked and wanted to bring this SPI program to her school, though it was initially conceived for older students.  She applied for the fellowship, which came through in the summer of 2010, and Romeo was granted the opportunity to do this pilot SPI program with her second and third graders.  The Dimons—important advocates for the education of inner city school kids—provided Romeo with professional development plus the printing of her student’s books (a costly part of the process).  Without the Dimon Fellowship, Romeo would not have been able to launch the SPI program at PS 152K, and she is grateful for their support.

In her SPI Summer Institute presentation, Romeo praised the flexibility of the program, and its adaptability to resonate with students as young as eight years old.  She shared her experience of running SPI with grade-schoolers and broke her presentation down into different sections—each with actionable tips and anecdotes from her work.

Romeo began by identifying the steps and process of the project, including choosing a theme.   She noted that while her students had diverse cultural backgrounds, they were united in a similar pride for their national background.   She put that commonality to good use by identifying the theme of her student’s book as what it is like to grow up as a child in a particular culture.  To go a step further, she included the notion of comparison:  how her student’s childhoods differed from that of their older family members.  Romeo saw this theme as a great community builder:  kids would get to know each other better, and they’d have the chance for meaningful exchange with family members of different generations.

Romeo kicked-off the project with asking her students to fill “cultural backpacks”, or paper bags that they added words to that felt key to their background.   “Tacos”, “church”, “rice”, “everything together” and “respect” were backpack favorites.

Romeo next had students bring into class meaningful photos and significant family artifacts (dresses, headpieces, toys) that spoke to their unique culture.   The students brainstormed writing topics and identified key themes:  holidays, school, hobbies, and entertainment.  Students were next immersed in mentor texts of the genre.  Romeo employed memoirs, oral histories, and books from the SPI “Speaking World” series.  The next step was to have kids practice interviewing techniques, then take their skills home to get information from family members.  Her students did drafts in notebooks of their findings, then went into the computer lab to type.

As for Romeo’s students’ book, “Now and Then (The Stories of Our Childhood) by the Third and Fourth Grade Students of PS 152K”:  Each chapter was dedicated to a student and his family member.  At the end of each chapter was a photo of the young author.  Romeo wrote the introduction and acknowledged everyone who had a helping hand in the project.   It was published by Classroom Authors, an educational publishing site that gives users design tools to create books with themselves.

Romeo shared a poignant story of a talented student who had difficulty slowing down and focusing.  When he engaged in this writing project, he was calmed and settled.  In his story, “Halloween,” he wrote, “I love getting candy from people whom I don’t even know!”.  Romeo applauded the honesty and openness of her students and the 100% support and participation of family members.

Romeo was excited to share what her students—and what she herself—gained from the experience.  There were unexpected (yet welcome) outcomes:  She thought it would be an exploration of what it meant to be “me”, but it turned into a relationship building exercise between teacher and student, student and student, student and their families, families and teacher.  She explained that they all learned about each other and that in fundamental ways, no matter the age or culture, they are all similar.  She saw the exercise as deepening her students’ skills as writers.  In creating a book that would last their whole lives, they had a real purpose.   Romeo shared a video of the process, which is housed on her school’s website.  She recommended making such a slide show, which took about 20 minutes to make on Windows Moviemaker.

Romeo offered clear suggestions to fellow teachers with hopes for launching their own SPI program, with “projects change, adapt!” at the top of the list.  She offered thoughts on editing the work of young children (give them a deadline; step in; share your own story; watch for content that may be hurtful to others).  She also urged that every student should be involved in some way, no matter how small.  Her final directive was simple:  celebrate!  Romeo explains that at the end of an SPI project, TC offers to host an end of the project celebration reading.  She didn’t think family members would be able to make the trip, so she hosted a part in the library during the school day, where invites were sent out, food was plentiful, and kids got to read portions of their chapters on a microphone.   The event was a huge success, with families and children beaming in event photos.

Romeo ended her presentation by sharing how proud she is of her kids, then urged her fellow teachers, “try to make it happen for your students!”.