I don't know how teachers do it: dealing with mercurial students for hours on end, day after day, for nine straight months.

Being editor of a newspaper is a far easier job. I only have to deal with cranky letter writers and miffed politicians.

For most of this school year, I've spent an hour or so each morning volunteering in my daughter's first grade classroom. (I know. What was I thinking?) What an eye-opening experience it's been! Teacher Don Rotterman deserves combat pay andndash; all teachers do.

Hanging with first graders is a nice way to begin each day (remember, I'm only there for an hour or so). Watching the children's minds click, whirl and spin as they tackle assignments is fascinating. Watching them make the same mistake over and over is equally fascinating.

Each morning, often before I can finish grading homework and classroom papers, students line up at my table seeking help on their journal papers. "Journaling" is when a student spends a half-hour or so writing about themselves and their experiences.

Mr. Rotterman has an ingenious way of encouraging students to spell words correctly and use proper grammar and punctuation. First, he gives each student a raffle ticket andndash; just for being cute, he says. Next, he requires that each student have two other students check and sign the writer's work before submitting it for review. If there's a mistake in the final version, then not only does that student lose his raffle ticket, so do the two classmates who proofed the paper. (Mr. Rotterman, an old softy, usually gives students a few chances to find and remedy the mistake before they must forfeit a ticket.)

Losing a raffle ticket is a big deal because it decreases the number of chances students have to win the raffle at the end of each day. Students receive tickets throughout the day for various accomplishments. The prize? Usually, it's one of Mr. Rotterman's enormous homemade cookies. Countries have gone to war over these cookies!

Some students, assuming that I must know something about writing because I work for the newspaper, ask me to review and sign their journal writing. Fine with me. I don't have any raffle tickets to lose.

Still, I try my best.

I rarely spell the words for them. Instead, I direct students to a nearby dictionary. Or I have them spell it out themselves to see how close they get, then I direct them to a dictionary. If the dictionaries are all taken, then I say "Good luck, kid."

Nah, I'm just kidding.

With no dictionary at hand, I will help the students sound out the word in question, correcting as needed.

Students who insert adjectives into their writing, or circle the verbs or nouns as they are sometimes instructed, get extra raffle tickets. Those with particularly imaginative journal entries also receive extra tickets.

Mr. Rotterman admitted one time that he didn't come up with the raffle ticket idea. He picked it up from a teaching seminar many years ago. It's an effective tool, making learning more fun.

Inevitably, each day, there are a few students who are disappointed at not winning the raffle. (Now there's a life lesson!)

However, Mr. Rotterman is quick to point out that getting a raffle ticket is winning. The cookie is simply the icing on the cake.

True, but cookies taste better than raffle tickets.