Friday, November 5, 2010
By Holly Van Houten
(This is Part 1 of a series -- Part 2, which is for older kids is here)
I've been thinking about this post for awhile now. I not only homeschool my kids, but I spent over ten years teaching freshman writing classes at USC, Pepperdine and other area universities. I KNOW exactly where a student's writing should be by the time they're ready for college classes. See my post on being an Adjunct Professor here. I also currently teach writing and literature to homeschoolers at the Huckleberry Center for Creative Learning -- more on that, here. (Warning: this is a long post, but read to the end for practical day to day advice on teaching writing J)
I'm passionate about this subject because I feel it's the one area homeschoolers don't always handle well. I'm a huge advocate of homeschooling for so many reasons. It fosters creativity and complex, divergent thinking in ways that classroom experiences can rarely attempt. Socialization, is (hopefully, by now) a dead issue. My kids have so much more access to social experiences than their "schooled" peers because they are out in the world meeting a variety of interesting people from all walks of life. Kids who spend their days in a school room with only their age peers as companions miss out on so many opportunities. It's such a limited way of experiencing life as you grow up and mature. My kids have plenty of friends in their age range, but they also get the two pronged benefit of mentoring from older kids and leadership experience with younger kids.
Homeschoolers do so many things so well. They score higher than their "schooled" peers on just about every imaginable test and colleges actively seek them out, aware now from experience that homeschoolers are self-starters and self-educators who do very well on the university level. They haven't lost the love of learning that too often is drummed out of kids in school by 3rd grade.
That being said, I think homeschoolers often don't get enough experience writing. I want to be clear though: I don't think "schooled" kids do any better. I just think homeschoolers COULD do better. Homeschoolers are in a position to gear writing tasks around the specific interests of each student -- an opportunity rarely possible in the classroom. (Again, see below for practical ways to do this.) Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. Writing is difficult to teach. There are few "right or wrong" answers when it comes to teaching writing. Sure, we can all correct grammar, syntax and spelling errors, but that's really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing.
In reality, writing is "organized thinking." This is what makes it difficult to teach. Teaching writing is like teaching students to sculpt their own thoughts. It's an art. Even the most brilliant among us needs to be able to convey those brilliant thoughts to others and that requires organization. We've all had the experience of trying to follow disjointed or meandering writing. It's no fun. "Stream of consciousness" style writing may be fine if you're James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but fiction and academic writing have different goals.
That being said, reading fiction works wonders for the burgeoning writer. Avid readers of all ages have a huge leg up when it comes to writing skills and home schoolers often have more time to enjoy literature and lots of encouragement to do so. Reading gives young writers lots of experience "watching" others practice the craft and that experience is invaluable. When it comes time to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, readers have the advantage of having watched the "pros" organize their ideas and that WILL make it easier.
Teaching writing, however, can be difficult BECAUSE people perceive it as an "art," a talent you either have or don't. There's a teeny tiny bit of truth to this -- certainly some people are naturally better at it than others. Like every talent though, proficiency really comes only if you're willing to work at it. We need to think of "arts" like writing as "skills" because that's really what they are. Do you admire that kid playing the Bach Invention at age 10? He can only do it because he's practiced the piano daily for a good chunk of time since he was probably 6 years old. Is he a prodigy? Maybe.... but probably not -- more likely he's a "practicer." He's played scales up and down that keyboard every day, building the muscles in his fingers until he's able to handle the demands Bach makes on your fingers.
Writing is a skill the way playing the piano is a skill. You will only get better if you practice. Students need to start practicing this skill early and often: daily. All students need to do this whether they are homeschooled or schooled in a classroom, but homeschoolers have the advantage of being able to design their own curriculum and schedule their time as they think fit. With that freedom of course, comes great responsibility.
Most homeschoolers realize they can make science a lot more fun if they do hands-on experiments and incorporate field trips and active discussions. Writing is more difficult to make "fun," but it's certainly not impossible. The best way to do this is through modeling. Show your child how to write down ideas. It can involve anything, as long as it happens daily. Consider the following scenario: you're at the market and you notice that once again someone has parked so close to your car, you can barely open your door. You complain about this, but when you get home, sit down with your child and "organize" your own and your child's thoughts on this. Ask your child to describe what the main problem with this is and then write down her thoughts -- making them more concise as you do so. For example, your child might say: "It's no fair when people take up so much space. We can't get into our car and we get scratches on our paint and it's just really mean for them to hog all the room." Then you write down: "Parking too close to other cars is unfair and can damage the cars." Then go a step or two further (even with the youngest child): Ask whose fault this is? Is it just the fault of the driver parking too close or are the parking spaces made only for small cars? You could even incorporate math skills in something like this. Be creative. Next time you go to the market, bring the tape measure and have your child measure the spaces and then measure a sampling of cars in the parking lot. Is there enough space for the average car/truck/SUV? Then write down your findings and ask your child what she thinks you can do to avoid this problem in the future. Maybe she'll say you should park further from the door, so the chances of someone parking next to you are slim. Maybe she'll say you should complain to the market. Maybe she thinks people should buy smaller cars. Prompt her with questions when she gets stuck and then write down her answers. As you can see, you're not just teaching her how to write, you're teaching her how to organize her thoughts and add depth to them.
Imagine making this your writing curriculum (and think of all the money you'd save!). Every day you take twenty to thirty minutes to model writing a short paragraph on a real world scenario experienced by your child, something they are already thinking about. By the time they're eight or nine years old, they can do all the actual "writing" themselves with you just prompting them with thought provoking questions. Gather all these paragraphs into a special book you keep for your child. Title it "Junior's Thoughts" or whatever you like and fuss about how proud you are of that book. You can do the same with storytelling (I don't like to isolate writing stories as "Creative Writing," since so much creativity goes into academic/argumentative writing too). Here's what I used to do with my daughters: I'd sit at the computer and say, tell me a story. I did this from the time they were 4 years old. They'd tell me some long, meandering story and I'd prompt them with questions to try and elicit a clear plot. As I typed, I'd clean up their sentence structure, but keep the main essence and details of their story. These too I'd keep for them in a book and they would proudly read their stories to anyone who would listen. You can title this something like "Junior's Stories" and they will have two ever-growing volumes that serve as monuments to their writing abilities. Every day add something to one of their books. EVERY DAY! Miss it only the way you'd miss a day of practicing the piano.
As your child gets older, their writing will get longer and more complex. There are plenty of free writing guidelines available on the internet to help them understand more complicated paragraph and essay structures... every University writing program website has these. Here's a link to Purdue's Online Writing Lab or OWL. There are MANY more (and did I mention they're FREE!!). These can help you to guide the 10-12 year old to more sophisticated writing and teens can use them on their own. The whole key is practice... DAILY PRACTICE!
Sorry to shout in ALL CAPS like that, but "Daily Pracitce," is the most important thing anyone can glean from this post. Too often I get homeschooled students who have hardly any experience writing. They can't put sentences together, let alone paragraphs. These are really bright kids too, but by 9 or 10 they've already missed out on years of experience they should have had. As a result, when they sit down to write something, it's often pretty lousy and they don't need anyone to tell them that. They struggle over every word and procrastinate as much as they can possibly get away with. Believe me, I talk to the parents and I know they're struggling too. Their kids HATE writing. It's like pulling teeth. The best advice I can give is to make it a habit, a non-negotiable habit like brushing their teeth before bed. Make it fun though and make it practical. Help them to see the value of writing down their ideas. If you didn't start when they were little, start now. It's literally never too late. Start today, and you'll already be doing better by tomorrow.
I could go on for hours about this. I'd love to talk about how being a strong writer helps immeasurably with a kid's self-confidence. Teaching kids to express themselves in writing can help eliminate some of the more destructive forms of self-expression teens sometimes choose. I'd love to talk more specifically about the skills a student needs to prepare for college writing. I'd love to talk about how writing will help them in every single subject they ever study, I'd love to describe some of the amazing things kids in my writing classes have accomplished.... Clearly, I could go on and on, but this post is already approaching dissertation length, so I'll curb my enthusiasm for now.
If you found this helpful please repost a link back here to your facebook page or whatever forum/group you think would reach the most parent/student writers. And if you would like to see posts on some of these other issues, leave me a note in the comments section below and I'll definitely oblige you. J
****I have now written a second post aimed at teens and tweens -- it's about writing as self-expression, here: http://www.knittedthoughts.com/2010/11/express-yourself-writing-with-kids.html