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Students 'camp' to prep for test

The students at Mary C. Snow Elementary School on Charleston's West Side are decidedly city kids - but this week, they're going camping.

Thursday morning, there were three huge tents in the school's gymnasium, each with a class of students huddled inside, talking about ghost stories, s'mores, fishing - and adjectives, details and narrative structure.

Each tent housed a writing workshop of sorts, where the teachers went through the finer points of academic writing with their students, a lesson couched in a camping theme.  

"All year long they've worked on the mechanical piece," said principal Mellow Lee. "Now we're trying to get their imaginations going."  

All this is in preparation for the writing portion of the Westest, West Virginia's annual standardized test. The kids at Mary C. Snow will take that test next week, and administrators are going all out to push for better test scores.

Last year, only 26 percent of Mary C. Snow students earned proficient scores on the reading and language arts portion of that test - that's the fifth lowest performance in the state in that category. Math scores were nearly as bad - 26.5 percent achieved proficiency; the school had the 9th lowest scores in the state.

Those scores have left administrators at the school scrambling for answers. Mary C. Snow already has a waiver making it exempt from the traditional academic structure - students go to school year round, and teachers are allowed to focus almost entirely on reading and math, the subjects most crucial for children in elementary school.

But after spending weeks on grammar and writing practice essays, school officials wanted to make one final push before the writing portion of this year's test. A group of teachers devised this camping-themed writing intensive and spent hours planning the logistics of the operation, coming up with lessons, and finding tents big enough for an entire class of students.

"We've tried everything else," Lee said.

A few classrooms over, Karen McClure, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, was showing a classroom of students how to use a fishing pole.

She'd pull the line back, then gently cast it into a makeshift pond with felt fish, trying to catch one with the Velcro on the end of her line and reel it in (once she did, she'd have to make a sentence with the word written on the fish).

When she missed, the kids groaned. When the Velcro caught on the felt, they squealed with delight.

The class's teacher, Angela Silverstein, asked them to get in "line order" to wait their turn with the fishing rod, they shuffled their feet a bit, but quickly lined up.

"Every time we do something like this, our disciplinary actions go down, our attendance goes up," Lee said. "I had someone who was sick today and didn't want to go home because he didn't want to miss anything."

That's notable for a school that has been plagued by a low attendance rate and a high rate of tardiness, and Lee wishes she could use this

model all the time. Of course sometimes they have to drill kids on things like grammar - but Lee thinks that a combined approach just might work.

"We're going to keep trying," she said.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.


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