A fundamental confusion exists around how to teach writing. I’ve spent two decades looking for just the right metaphor to explain how a parent facilitates writing growth. Then the other day, on the phone, I stumbled upon a perfect metaphor.
Let’s look at learning to sew using a sewing machine.
A sewing machine makes it possible to create all kinds of sewing products—anything from hemming a pair of pants, to constructing a crazy quilt, to producing an evening gown. The machine doesn’t do it for you. You have to know how to use the machine, and you have to develop skills: how to sew straight seams or how to drop in a sleeve or how to gather a drape. You need to learn how to create casings, and how to use the zig zag, and what the tension dial does.
When learning the skills needed for sewing, students start with scrap fabric. They don’t pick a dress pattern and then sit down to the machine. Usually they have to learn how to thread the needle and bobbin, they have to sew lots of straight lines and learn how to turn corners and how to backstitch the end of a seam so that it doesn’t unravel.
No one can learn all she needs to know in one sitting or even one year of sewing. There are levels of skill that are gained over time, as comfort with the machinery, and dexterity, and familiarity with the properties of sewing are internalized and mastered.
But it is possible at each stage of development to introduce a little project. At first, these might be things like bean bags (squares) or a string dress (no pattern, but the dress uses casings). As the student gets comfortable, making an a-line dress for a doll from a pattern becomes possible and a thrill! Producing a doll quilt is the first step toward making one for a bed.
Eventually, the seamstress learns tricks to make the process easier and faster. The student of sewing can size up a pattern to know if it’s too difficult or too easy, and can make changes to make the pattern work.
Sewing is not about the dress patterns or quilts. Sewing is a set of skills that can be applied to patterns.
Let’s drive home the analogy to writing.
In Brave Writer, The Writer’s Jungle is the sewing machine. In that manual are all kinds of functions the student learns about the writing process. These are discovered using scrap language—whatever is in the mouth of the child at the time. The writing is interest-driven and exploratory. The child is gaining facility with the practice of accessing language from within and getting it to the page in a variety of ways (all different styles of “language stitching”). Each week, the parent reads a chapter and then tries the practice with the child. This is how you would teach sewing – try one stitch at a time, try button-holing on scrap fabric, try dropping in a sleeve with a doll dress.
The Arrow or Boomerang (our language arts products that teach the mechanics of writing) would be similar to needle and thread. You learn how to use the machinery of writing in these products. Students learn how to handwrite, punctuate, spell, and manage the mechanical demands of writing. In sewing, the student has to learn to use the machine—how to thread the bobbin, how to control the speed of the pedal, how to backstitch, how to zig zag, how to set up the button holer. These skills enable sewing.
The functional skills needed to run the machinery of writing are spelling, grammar, punctuation, handwriting and/or typing.
The writing assignments (like we offer in Jot it Down! and Partnership Writing, or the ones found in our online classes) are the dress patterns of writing. Now that your student understands how the machine works, now that the student can manage the demands of the machine, it’s time to make a dress!
In writing, once the student knows how to find language within, knows how to get that language to the page and how to handwrite, expand, revise, and edit it, he or she is ready to “make something” – to write a report or letter, to write a poem or a dialog, to write a story or ad copy, to write an essay.
The point is—don’t hand your brand-new-to-writing student the equivalent of an evening gown dress pattern and expect it to turn out right on the first try, just because there are “clear instructions.” Writing is a set of skills practiced independently of assignments, leading up to developmentally appropriate writing projects that reinforce and expand evolving skills.
Cross-posted on facebook.