TERAJI: Students learn about possible future careers

Kat Teraji with fifth-grader Macale Ceballos, winner of the Gilroy Elks Lodge writing award. Teraji spoke for Career Month at Eliot Elementary School on the east side of Gilroy. Photo by Roselle Tobias, fifth-grade teacher at Eliot Elementary.

This past month, Eliot Elementary School in Gilroy has been celebrating “Career Month.” I had a great time visiting as a guest speaker on the topic of writing to the entire fifth grade, in two waves of 97 students total.

The students were inquisitive, engaging and interactive. When I asked for questions, many hands immediately shot up.

“How do you find your ideas to write about?”

“Does anybody ever check your work?”

“Do you turn in what you write the first time, or do you have to rewrite it?”

The teachers jumped on that one and guided me to emphasize the importance of creating several drafts of one’s writing.

“You are never finished improving your writing,” I said. “It’s just that at some point you have to let go and turn it in because you have a deadline. But up to that point, you can always improve what you’ve written. I often notice something I can still change even as I am e-mailing the article.”

The kids seemed surprised, and a discussion ensued about what to do when one is stuck with the fear that paralyzes us when we try to write something perfectly on the first try – and the importance of brainstorming.

“It’s important to just keep writing no matter what,” I said. “Don’t get hung up on trying write something with no mistakes; they can be fixed later. Just keep writing, and eventually something will come out that works. It’s like a sport; you have to keep practicing, and it gets easier.”

My favorite question was, “What kind of secret things go on down at the newspaper?”

Now that’s an investigative reporter in the making!

The kids were totally engaged in the presentation and did not want me to leave. After the question and answer time, they showed me their writing. They had wonderful Valentine poetry, and a student named Starlene showed me her portfolio of poetry and stories. Her writing was very versatile in that it covered every topic from her brothers to Halloween to goal setting; it had humor, a playfulness with language, and expressed a lot of different emotional hues.

She and other students talked to me about how some students are given a hard time, and it was clear that writing for them is a catharsis and a positive outlet for expressing difficult emotions, which is more healthy than taking their feelings out on others.

A framed writing award was on display, and as I was admiring the award received by fifth-grader Macale Ceballos for his essay on what the national anthem means to him, I talked to the class about how significant it is to receive any award for writing.

I don’t know if anything like this happens to students who excel at Eliot like Ceballos, but when I was in fifth grade I was teased for spending so much time writing. I was also always the tallest student, so I was called the Jolly Green Giant.

“The competition is always great,” I said, “And if you win any recognition for your writing, it is remarkable, and you should feel good about yourself.”

As I highlighted Ceballos’ writing achievement, I could hear whispers of admiration from the kids, including, “He’s so lucky!”

The kids wanted to interview me after I had talked about how I interview people for columns. One of the fifth grade teachers, Ms. Tobias, wrote to tell me about how the students responded after the discussion on writing.

“They initiated a classroom newspaper! They assigned each other with responsibilities, scheduled weekly meetings, and continued interviewing people to highlight in their newspaper. They really showed teamwork! Great practice, right?! Thank you for staying after your presentation so that the kids could talk to you more.” 

In the past month, the students have been learning about different career options, including from Officer Gutierrez, CSI; Detective Bolton; Captain Randy Wong, firefighter; Leo Oliver, IT supervisor; Ginger Chen, civil engineer; Mary Lai, accountant; Dave Camacho, business owner and personal trainer; John Gurich, PE coach; Bouapha Toommally, CFO and Maria Vasquez, business owner, and Louise Shields, social worker.

Next up are a counselor, a veterinary technician, and a SWAT officer.

My thanks to the fifth grade teachers at Eliot, who are opening up this educational vision with role models who are examples of what they too might someday be if they keep learning and applying themselves.

And writing.