They were making books instead of sandwiches, but the 16 families that filled the Mount Airy Elementary School gym were spreading out blankets as if for an indoor picnic.
The school sponsored a "Family Writer's Night" Thursday. Parents and children unfurled their blankets and pulled out family photos and mementos for inspiration.
"I wrote stuff in kindergarten, but I didn't write books," said Corey Franklin, a first-grader. He and his parents sat on a plaid wool throw, looking through pictures of a day they spent tubing.
The permanence of a book appeals to the young writers, said kindergarten teacher Wendy Gahm. As part of the school's emphasis on writing this year, a group of about 100 volunteers began the Parent Publishing Center a few months ago.
If a student is proud of a particular writing project, he or she may take it to the publishing center. The parents can laminate the pages as written and illustrated by the child. For older children, the parents will type the stories and, if the child wants, leave space for illustrations.
The pages can be bound like spiral notebooks or stapled or glued between pieces of cardboard covered with decorative wallpaper and fabric.
By the end of the writer's night Thursday, most families had a first draft of a story the children will write and submit to the Parent Publishing Center.
One of the parent volunteers is Shawn Franklin, Corey's mother.
"They have been emphasizing writing the whole school year, and the kids in his class really love it," Ms. Franklin said. "[Corey] really looks forward to Mondays and his writing workshop in the morning.
"When you see your child enthusiastic about something, you want to be involved, too."
She said she appreciated writer's night because the family might not otherwise have gotten together to write a book.
"I would never have thought of it before," she said.
Meredith Jenkins, a fourth-grader, had already thought about turning her work into a bound book. She and her mother had seen an ad for a company that would bind a book for about $20.
They had considered publishing an account of the building of an addition to their Mount Airy home. Meredith chose that topic for the book she was writing Thursday night.
"It starts out 'This is the house that Jeff built,' " Meredith said. Jeff Renshaw is her stepfather, and he's doing most of the work, she said.
Her mother, Karen Renshaw, and her sister, Sheridan, 4, joined her for writer's night. Sheridan brought a lap desk and some blank ruled paper to write a book of her own.
Ms. Franklin said her younger daughter, who starts kindergarten in the fall, also tries to write books as her brother does.
First-grade teacher Cindy Compton chairs the school improvement team that chose writing as the priority this year.
"We see the importance of writing in every subject area, and in life skills," she said. "Specifically in the lower grades, there's a tie between writing and reading: If the children learn to write, they learn to read better, and vice versa. It's such a close tie."
The school brought in authors such as Barry Louis Polisar, who writes children's books and songs. But they also had speakers from other professions talk about how they use writing in their jobs. An accountant, plumber, nurse, car dealer, banker and journalist were among those who visited classrooms.
All teachers got extra training from the Maryland Writing Project during in-service days, when children were not in school. More than half of the staff attended a voluntary workshop after school, for which they were not paid extra.
"A lot of teachers really are interested in improving the way they teach writing," Ms. Compton said.
Meredith said that she and other students notice the increased attention to writing because of the events throughout the year, ,, such as writer's night and a writer's fair earlier in the school year.
"Even in their math class they focus on writing, about the process, how they find answers," Ms. Renshaw said.
jTC Meredith said that since she has been writing more, she has been reading more, too.
"The [school] library lets us take two books out at a time now, instead of just one," she said.
"She's really come a long way," her mother said. "Just the desire, and the ability to sit down and write. And it's organized. It used to be labor."