Sunday, November 7, 2010

Express Yourself -- Writing With Kids: Truly a Gift that Keeps on Giving!

By Holly Van Houten

This is Part 2 of a series (Part 1 focuses on younger kids and is here)

I've had such a tremendous response to Friday's post on Writing Skills for Homeschoolers that I'm eager to continue the series.  I really should be writing on my Nanowrimo novel though -- so I feel a little like I'm playing hooky.  Of course, playing hooky from school was one of my very favorite past times in high school.  I'm an old pro.  I'm also extremely proficient in procrastination.  Skilled, aren't I?

Anyway, thank you for all the wonderful comments and I hope this post lives up to expectations.  (Again, I know this is longish, but read to the end for lots of practical, day to day writing tips for kids and teens).

My last post talked about the importance of making writing a daily activity for kids.  Writing daily just about guarantees proficiency and fluency and is the easiest way to make it a less intimidating task.  Kids who write often, won't balk when they get to college and are faced with the inevitable and innumerable research papers.  They also won't feel tempted to turn to plagiarism to meet those demands -- unlike certain magazine editors who've made recent headlines, and actually justify their actions by saying "it happens on college campuses all the time."   Aaarrgh!

I also described writing as "organized thinking." (Sheeesh, I just quoted myself.)  Anyway, that aspect of writing holds so many benefits for kids, especially teens.  Laying the foundation for those skills is an invaluable gift you can give your child.  Kids can be easily overwhelmed by all the changes in their lives.... puberty alone brings physical and emotional changes that can be confusing to say the least.  But the child who can sort through her own thoughts, define them and question them has huge advantages.

Regular writing is a workout that trains the mental muscles one needs for just this sort of task.  Instead of a teen wandering around in a cloud of "angst" that seemingly can only find an outlet in heavy metal, punk or "emo"-type music, the teen that writes can begin to sort that cloud into more manageable categories and get a better handle on her own emotions through that process.

Even as a teen myself, I thought the friends around me that tattooed and pierced themselves, dyed their hair green and donned ridiculous amounts of heavy eye make-up -- all in the name of self-expression -- actually hadn't a clue as to what they actually thought or felt about much of anything.  They wanted so desperately to define themselves as "different" by any means possible and in all their flailing about for self-expression, didn't always make the best choices.  But we all want to be thought of as "different," as unique individuals with separate thoughts and feelings -- it's a vital part of separating from our parents and families.

I've always liked the metaphor that parenting is the process of giving your child "roots" and "wings."  Helping your child towards authentic self-expression through writing adds some very strong feathers to those wings!

But these feathers take time to grow and they don't often sprout without serious encouragement from parents.  Writing is rarely instinctive, especially in our highly visual world.  Writing and reading take focused effort, whereas being bombarded with images is a fairly passive activity (whether in the form of TV, movies, videogames or computer screens).  It is the rare kid who (at least at first) will be begging to be allowed to write!  Trust me though, especially if you start young, this will become a strong possibility.

I've already given some ideas for starting with the youngest kids (in the post linked above), so now I'd like to give suggestions for the teen and tween crowd.  I'll start with storytelling first this time and then move on to more academic types of writing.

Teens LOVE to tell stories -- this is why they spend hours on the phone with their friends (gossip - is storytelling).  Telling each other what happened at the mall the other day, is their way of framing a story and crafting it until it's just the way the want it.  They're already pros.  Take these skills a step further and involve them in what's known as "fan fiction."  There are tons of websites for this.  J.K. Rowling's rich characters are ripe for this, so Harry Potter is always a huge draw -- a good site is here.  I can't claim to be nearly as impressed by the writing of Stephenie Meyer, but girls seem to adore her stuff and a site for Twilight Fan Fiction is here.  A general fan fiction site for tons of different books is here.  Even if your teen isn't an avid reader yet, these fan fiction sites work fairly well even if you've just "seen the movie."

The benefits of writing fan fiction are numerous -- they allow young writers to stretch their creative muscles without the pressures of coming up with all new characters and settings.  They also provide a venue for feedback from other kids with similar interests.  They encourage critical reading and writing too -- as kids evaluate the fan fiction of others they will have to begin to develop a vocabulary of criticism.  Nothing helped my writing as much as learning how to "grade" the essays of my college freshman.  "Knowing" there's a problem in someone's writing, doesn't necessarily mean it's an easy thing to define that problem or explain how to repair it.  The thought process that goes into critiquing the fan fiction of their peers will help them develop those skills that will in turn improve their own writing.

If your teen doesn't take to fan fiction and would prefer to write their own fiction "from scratch" -- send them over to NANOWRIMO's Young Writer's Program.  The National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) organization has tons of resources for students and lots of encouragement to participate in their annual November "noveling" challenge, setting their own word count goals for the month.  They also have an organized "editing" month and a script writing month!  The support they can get from several tens of thousands of their peers as they take on a challenge like this is invaluable.

When it comes to more academic/argumentative writing, the internet is a huge boon to writers.  Use it.  If your teen tires of writing essays for himself and you, consider letting him start a blog.  Ann Zeise's amazing site for homeschoolers includes a place for kids to start their own blogs, here.  Your child's writing curriculum can simply consist of daily posting.  This works best if you set the parameters for how organized and researched those posts need to be.  Maybe ask for two out of the seven each week to be fairly formal, essay style posts of a certain length and depth.  That way the other five can be of his own styling (within reasonable limits of course).  Most blogging programs allow you to control the amount of exposure you want for a blog (make it searchable or not) and allow you to moderate comments.  Blogging though, will generate commentary (if only from family and friends) and requires, by it's very nature, that the writer be aware of audience.  They will respond to both compliments and criticism and incorporate the ideas of others into their blog.  Encourage them though to avoid single-sided rants and "talk-radio" style argumentation.  Argumentative blogging provides the perfect opportunity to teach about Logical Fallacies.  A good primer is here.

Lastly, every teen should be encouraged to keep a journal to document the private ideas and thoughts they don't particularly want feedback about.  Invest in a beautiful leather bound journal or even better, play around with book binding (art!) and make one together.  If they don't know what to write in their journal, prompt them with ideas.  The Write Source website, here, has grade by grade lists of journal writing ideas for kids.

Writing doesn't have to be a boring or isolating activity for kids.  With these methods, they really will start to view the process as dynamic, creative and dare I say it.... fun!  Really emphasize the social aspects of writing.  Writing, after all, allows one access to the "Great Conversation" and kids should realize they have unique and very valuable things to add to that conversation.  I can't guarantee your young, expressive writer will never pierce her nose, but I do know that writing creates an essential outlet for kids & teens and is an exercise that will, more than anything else, train them to think for themselves and think well of themselves.

I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments and if you like this post please consider sharing it on Facebook or anywhere else you think it might reach the most parents and writers :)


  1. Thanks for the great resources!

  2. Having read both Parts, just wanted to let you know I've Twitter tweeted this blog post:

  3. Thank you for the comments and the "tweet" :) I'm so glad you liked the post!

  4. FanFiction - I had never heard of that before now! This will be great, since many of my boys' ideas for fictional writing come from their favorite books! When we get through NaNoWriMo, I will tell them about FanFiction and we'll see if we can find a few places for them to start writing and sharing! Awesome!

  5. Great post mom! for more info on writing, come see my post "the importance of being excellent in writing" on pinkribboneyes.blogspot