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Fifth-grade students at Red Trail Elementary School have some interesting tales to tell.

One student wrote a story about a boy named Bob whose mom constantly nagged him to clean his room. Another wrote one about two siblings who lost their parents and were forced to live with their aunt. Then, there's a narrative about three iPads that go home with a nefarious buyer.

After working for three months, Red Trail teacher Marcy Gray and her fifth-grade students have finished a book they wrote called "Tales From Fifth Grade," a collection of short stories told from the perspective of an elementary school student.

The project helps students become better writers and is an extension of a new Mandan Public Schools writing program that aims to do just that.

Gray said her students were eager to write the book, which will be a published, bound book that students' parents can buy. Overall, the students have learned how to work as a team, become confident writers and make deadlines.

"We have really seen some amazing gains and growth with our kids and their writing abilities," Gray said of the book project and the districtwide writing program. "Kids that couldn't put together a paragraph are now putting together five-paragraph essays, so, I'm really pleased with it."

Gray said her goal for students this year was to demonstrate that writing is a process — often messy and can take several drafts. As a graduate student earning a master's degree in education, Gray often brings in her academic papers as an example of the process.

"I show them this is what I started with and this is what I have to change, and I use my own school papers as an example for them to say, 'Look, I had to rewrite this four or fives times,'" she said.

Riley Daniel, a student in Gray's class, wrote about a bully at a school and a student named Greg, who fights back and, in the end, the bully gets put in a swimming pool, which the bully does not like.

The story is not from experience, but rather a spinoff of Daniel's favorite book, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Despite writing being hard at times, he enjoyed the story because it was a topic that interested him.

Trudy Frank served as a student-editor and helped Daniel and another student, Callie Heinle, write their stories in class last week.

Heinle wrote about a girl who found a cat in a mailbox and took the cat home as her pet.

"Some people seem to not appreciate their pets, and they should," she said.

Frank wrote two stories for the class book, which she said was stressful.

"(Writing is) not my best subject, but it's fun when I know what to do," she said. "When I start writing the story, I get into the story and just like, it all comes together."

The students learned that writing is not always easy, but, in the end, strengthened their writing skills, Gray said.

Chris Vargais wrote about his favorite basketball players,  including Lebron James, Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook, who are friends and play on the same team in a playoff game. Vargais said he has never written a story before, and hates writing.

"(It's been hard) coming up with a good idea to write, and then editing it and then writing it, because I'm not a good writer. So, I had to (look up) words to spell correctly and then that was a huge mess," he said.

Last school year, the district began a writing program called WriteSteps, a national program that helps elementary school students become better writers through instructional modeling and daily writing practice.

Red Trail started with the writing component of the program last school year, and added reading this year, according to Dave Steckler, principal at the school. 

"What I'm hearing from classroom teachers is that it's working. Our students are writing better and they feel more confident with it," he said.

Jerri Carlson, an instructional coach for the district, said the program is broken up into different genres of writing — narrative, informational, opinion, poetry and research— and each grade level is different. It provides templates for students, and they build on their writing from year to year.

"It really focuses on a lot of areas to strengthen students as writers," Carlson said.

Next school year, Gray said she hopes to do the book project again, except digitally, as the school will go one-to-one, meaning all students will be given an iPad.

Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or


Education and Health Reporter