Children’s author inspires, encourages
By Kathy Chaffin
Something truly magical happened in the media center at Millbridge Elementary School Wednesday morning.
Lester L. Laminack spotted Marquis Rhyne sitting back from his fellow fourth-graders in a circle on the floor and gently prompted him to move up so he would be in sync with the others. “I need to see every student’s face, including yours,” Laminack told him.
When Marquis was reluctant to answer a question about his best writing ó which he identified as a train ride story ó Laminack, sitting cross-logged in his stocking feet, asked, “What makes it your best writing?”
“Actually, I don’t really know,” Marquis responded.
Laminack didn’t give up. “You just like it because …?” he asked.
“I like it because I never rode a train before,” Marquis responded.
Laminack said, “You wrote about riding a train and it’s a good piece of writing. You wrote about something you’ve never done before.
“Are you hearing the question?” he asked as he scooted closer until he was at eye level directly in front of Marquis. “This is big stuff. Go for it.”
“I don’t know,” Marquis said again.
“Tell me what you’re thinking …” Laminack persisted.
Then the magic began to unfold.
Marquis responded, “I’m thinking it’s about everything you want to do on a train.”
“That was important to you because …?” Laminack asked.
Marquis said, “It felt like you wanted to do it.”
Laminack celebrated his breakthrough with a high-five invitation to Marquis, who answered with his right hand.
The children’s author and educational consultant explained his actions later for fourth-grade teachers who observed the model lesson. When a student answers a question with “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he told them, “that’s a mask.”
“He does know,” Laminack said. “He isn’t sure that he knows. It’s like a shield.”
By the end of the hour-long model lesson, Marquis was answering questions without any hesitation.
Laminack began the class by having students sit down two or three at a time, forming a half circle. When one student broke the rhythm and started to sit down at a different spot, he said, “you’re choosing who you want to sit with rather than where there’s a spot.”
He explained his three rules to students once the class was under way. One, “We don’t do rude in front of me,” he said. “You can’t be rude … I’ll shut it down in 10 seconds.”
Laminack was true to his word. Whenever students laughed at another during the class, he called them on it. Once, when some teachers observing the class joined in the laughter, he pointed out that the rule also applied to them.
And when students and teachers laughed when Laminack used a wrong word, he responded, “you just crossed the line.”
The second rule, Laminack said, is “We don’t do unkind. We don’t laugh at people. We don’t laugh at people’s ideas …”
Thirdly, he said, “We don’t raise our hands.”
Laminack encouraged students to use their mouths and speak. “What happens if two of us start talking at once?” he asked. “We have a big old car wreck,” he responded, mimicking the sound of a crash.
Laminack shared what he called his best piece of writing, his children’s book entitled “Saturdays and Teacakes.” It took him a year and 20 to 30 revisions to finish, he said, “because I wanted it to be the best piece of writing it could be. It’s going to have my name on it at Barnes and Noble.
“People are going to go, ‘Ooh, that Lester Laminack can really write or that Lester Laminack needs some help.’ ”
Laminack said he wrote “Saturdays and Teacakes,” which is based on his childhood in Heflin, Ala., in 2004 “It is now 2009,” he said, “and I’ve written five books since then, and this is still the best thing I’ve ever written.”
He also read a section from another of his children’s books, “The Sunsets of Miss Olivia Wiggins,” a poignant story of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease spending her last days in a nursing home.
Laminack explained his use of proximity in interacting with Marquis to teachers after the model class had ended. Research conducted in 1960 showed that teachers’ proximity to students affects their behavior, he said.
As for allowing students to talk without raising their hands, Laminack said he turns away from students who begin to talk at the same time and compliments the student who allows the other to speak.
Laminack said his rules are designed to maintain students’ dignity as human beings. If teachers take that away from them, he said, you can’t teach the child.”
An example of taking away a student’s dignity, he said, is punishing the whole class for one student’s behavior.
Fourth-grade teachers from Bostian, China Grove, Cleveland, Enochville, Knollwood and Landis attended Laminack’s training on helping students to develop writing skills at Millbridge Wednesday. The author and consultant worked with the other fourth-grade teachers in the school system at Rockwell Elementary Tuesday and at Hanford Dole on Monday.
Laminack spoke to students two years ago as the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s visiting children’s author and worked with second grade teachers on helping students with writing skills last year.
He has written several academic books, including “Learning Under the Influence of Language and Literature, Building Bridges Across the Curriculum with Picture Books and Read Alouds” and “Cracking Open the Author’s Craft.”
Laminack is professor emeritus with the department of birth-kindergarten, elementary and middle grades education at Western Carolina University. He is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English and served three years as co-editor of the council journal, “Primary Voices.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.