By Lisa Britton
For the Baker City Herald
This writing lesson didn't start with words.
First, it started with ideas - author Nancy Coffelt wanted to hear what character the third-graders had created, and the problem facing that character.
The students were ready with answers:
"A polar bear doing too much jumping."
"A dog that dances too much."
"A cheetah that runs too fast."
"A tweety bird that wants to eat a whale shark."
Next came ... nope, no writing yet.
She asked the students to draw a picture of their character.
"I'm talking stick figures," she said. "Don't be afraid to make it funny; don't be afraid to make it weird. And don't worry about it being perfect."
She demonstrated a few for the class, creating a dog, a monkey and a bird with just a few circles and lines.
Coffelt, an author who has written or contributed to about 20 books, moved to Baker City last year.
This week she worked with Brooklyn Primary students as an artist-in-residence. Her visit was organized by Kathy Mitchell, and during the week she led an assembly and worked in each classroom. She ends her week Thursday by working with kindergarten.
She tailors each writing activity to the class - lower grades work on classroom stories and building vocabulary, while older students try their hand at writing.
In third grade, after drawing their character, she asked the students to write - but just a few words to clarify the character's problem, such as "this dinosaur needs to go on a diet."
To develop their main character even more, Coffelt then asked the students to describe their animal with interesting "salsa words."
"Or I like to call them 'fabulous words' because I like to say fabulous," she said with a smile.
These fabulous words are descriptive, such as "humongous" or "enormous" instead of "big," and "microscopic" instead of "small."
These are the words that spice up a story, words that almost sound like what they describe.
"Everybody say 'swift.' It's hard to make that word sound slow," she said.
After brainstorming a few fabulous words, Coffelt guided the students into writing a few sentences from the perspective of their character.
"You are T. Rex," she said. "What do you feel like?"
"This is where you bring the story to life, writing from the point of view of your character," she said.
And action - of course you need action.
Nathan James knew just how to introduce action for his story about a bird eating a whale shark.
"Then Tweety grabbed a fork and a knife," he read from his paper.
"Nice - I'd want to read that," Coffelt said.