The Experience

Monday: Charles R. Smith arrived at Northside Elementary School bright and early Monday morning! He first gave a presentation to the 3rd through 5th graders. He talked about his life, his books, and his latest accomplishment: being picked to be an American Ninja Warrior!

Charles then met with the fourth and the fifth grade writing groups and began the week’s exercise. He told them that the overarching topics they’d be focusing on were “Observation,” “Details,” and “Wordplay.” Day one focused on observation and details.

Writers played “Eye Spy” in the library and looked for words based on categories Charles had assigned. Charles encouraged the students to “use your eyes like photo lenses!” and to get up close or far away from objects to see them differently.

The next activity focused on building comparisons and metaphors using objects the writers saw in the library. “I see a …, it looks like a…” One notable comparison one student found was, “I see a toy, it looks like a neuron connection.”


When reporting back to the group what they wrote, Charles told the writers to be confident: “You wrote it, then it’s right!” He told the group that writing means being vulnerable and we need to support each others’ vulnerabilities and writing.


Tuesday: On Tuesday, the writers worked on more exercises to build their observation and detail skills, as well as turning that observation inside themselves. After a warm-up activity of “Eye Spy,” Charles began an exercise called “What’s in a Name?”

Students chose one of their initials and thought of as many words as they could think of that begin with that letter. Then, they chose their top three words. Charles worked with the group to figure out what ordering of those words sounded the best out loud.

The last activity was making “Top Five” lists. The students chose five topics and wrote their favorite five things in each of those categories (favorite cars, foods, people, memories, etc.). This activity was used to transition into working on the deliverable for the week: an “I Am” poem that students write to describe themselves.


The “I Am” statements didn’t have to be literal, Charles told the writers. The Top Five lists are a starting point to get students thinking about how they can describe themselves.



IMG_2318As students got used to Charles and their writing community, they started to get giggly and a bit distracted. Charles set them back on track. He told them that he expected perfection from them. Not that their work needed to be perfect, but that their behavior and writing needed to reflect concentration, dedication, and effort. He told them that he knew what they could accomplish and he expected them to accomplish much!




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Wednesday: After a warm-up activity, the students spent almost all of their time on Wednesday working on their “I Am” poems. Charles explained how all the exercises leading up to today were meant to get the writers thinking about different things they like, and especially parts of themselves that were totally unique. He told them to shy away from general statements like “I am nice,” and focus more on unique statements that can only be said about each individual students. They rose to the challenge:


“I am Tar Heels wrecking their way to the top.”


“I am natural curly. I am a pit bull.”

“I am nutella bagels every morning,” one student wrote. “I am long dirt roads with leaving,” wrote another.

Some of the writers struggled to focus on this final deliverable. Charles incorporated his philosophies on the importance of body, mind, and spirit, in order to get the writers focused.



Thursday: Thursday was about revisions. The writers looked at their lists of “I Am” statements to see which ones were specific and precise, and which ones were generic and could be edited out. Statements that fell somewhere in between, Charles worked with the students to make them as specific as possible.


Charles R. Smith and Kathryn Cole working with the writers.

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When revisions were done, the students typed up their poems and prepared them for the presentation and celebration on Friday!


Friday: On Friday, the 5th grade students focused on presentation and the 4th grade students focused on polishing their poems. Charles was concerned that they were still stuck on literal descriptions of themselves and so he spent time with each student individually honing and crafting their poems. By the end of their session, Charles and the students were pleased. They did it!

Parents and teachers were invited to the final celebration of the writers’ efforts. Charles gave the students a choice: they could read their poems aloud, Charles would read the poems out loud, or the poems could simply be spread out for individuals to read.

Most of the 4th graders chose to read their poems aloud. Their families and teachers cheered loudly!

Most of the 5th graders preferred Charles to read their poems, but this did not diminish the power of their writing.

The students presented Charles with UNC National Championship gear, thank you cards, and asked him to sign their books. Teachers thanked him for the incredible week.

Charles remarked that while he had seen a remarkable change in the students from the beginning of the week to the end, they had also helped him change and grow as an educator. “Some of the things I was trying to teach them just weren’t getting through. There was a barrier. They challenged me to see how I needed to grow as a teacher.”

The “I Am” poems that the students created can be viewed by clicking this link or by clicking on the “‘I Am’ Poems” tab in the dropdown menus. This compilation was created by Kathryn Cole.