Catawba Math Professor Develops Writing Contest for Local Fifth Graders
April 30, 2010
The contest writing prompt from Dr. Baker:
Fighting back tears, Michelle blindly ran. When she could no longer ignore the pain in her side, she turned into an alley and hid behind the dumpster. Leaning against the rusted green metal container, she gasped and choked as she filled her oxygen-starved lungs. Surveying her surroundings with dark eyes that appeared larger because they were dilated by the dim light, Michelle realized she was lost. "David! I want you!" The twelve-year-old cried out only with her mind for her older brother, because she was afraid the man would hear her and discover her hiding place.
By Susan Shinn, Catawba College News Service
Here's an easy math problem for you: What do you get when you add one Catawba College professor with seven eager academically gifted fifth- graders?
Answer: A lot of good writing.
In mid-March, Dr. Paul Baker, mathematics professor at Catawba, attended a Meet the Author event for Donna Rymer '93, who teaches AIG students at Bostian Elementary School. Rymer received her master's from Catawba in 1999.
He was so impressed by the students that Baker, the author of six books, developed a writing contest for students who wanted to participate.
Seven of Rymer's students took him up on the offer.
The prize? Dinner for the winner and her family with Baker and one of Catawba's English professors.
Baker was happy to visit Rymer's class. He knew Rymer at Catawba, and knew her husband, Rodney, the college's director of systems and networking, when the latter was in high school. "He was an amazing computer guru even in high school," Baker remembers.
At Bostian, Baker fielded myriad questions from the young students, who'd researched different authors and put together displays. "They were so enthusiastic," Baker says. "I thought there must be some way to read about authors and do some writing."
So he put together a prompt for the students — the first three short paragraphs of a short story, and encouraged the students to finish the story.
"It was very interesting the different approaches they took," Baker says. "One girl wrote in Nancy Drew style. Another wrote just a short bit, but it had the twist O'Henry has in his stories. It was a real surprise.
"I enjoyed reading the stories. It was not an easy job picking them."
The winner was Sydney Smith. Baker appeared on the school's morning announcements show on April 21 to deliver the news. "She kept the action going," Baker says, "and she kept some suspense. For a fifth-grader, it's remarkable. Donna Rymer really challenges the students. She stretches them."
"This was a wonderful opportunity because it encouraged students to explore creative writing without having to be locked into a specific mode of writing," Rymer says. "My AIG fifth-graders love to 'think out of the box' and this creative writing opportunity allowed them the opportunity to do just that."
Sydney also recently won a contest at The Corner Book Store in China Grove, receiving a gift certificate for writing about her favorite part of her favorite book.
For Baker's contest, Sydney says, "When I first started working on my story, I was on a cruise ship with my parents. I decided that I wanted my story to end with the characters getting ready to go on a cruise.
"My mom actually said something on our trip about a private detective and that got me thinking that a kidnapping might be an interesting plot. When I started writing, the story just came to me.
"It felt great to win a contest. I was pretty surprised because I thought my classmates wrote some interesting stories. I love to write so I guess it was kind of exhilarating to win!
"I am nervous about going out to eat with college professors but I'm sure I will have a lot of fun and will learn a great deal."
Over the years, Rymer has invited Baker, along with other Catawba professors — Dr. Sanford Silverberg, Dr. Janice Fuller, Dr. Kurt Corriher and Dr. Bethany Sinnott — to her classroom.
"It is memorable for the students and helps to make learning more authentic for them," she says. "It is my goal to keep them engaged, and getting help from Catawba professors is a big plus.
"I love the partnership we have established."
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury and is a full-time student at Catawba.