Archive for the ‘Words!’ Category

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program 2014

Monday, October 27th, 2014

NaNoWriMo Participant-2014-Web-Banner

November 1st is the start of NaNoWriMo!

What is NaNoWriMo?

From their website:

National Novel Writing Month happens every November! It’s a fun, seat-of-your-pants writing event where the challenge is to complete an entire novel in just 30 days. For one month, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!

That means participants begin writing November 1 and must finish by midnight, November 30. The word-count goal for our adult program is 50,000 words, but the Young Writers Program (YWP) allows 17-and-under participants to set reasonable, yet challenging, individual word-count goals.

In 2013, over 300,000 adults participated through our main site, and nearly 90,000 young writers participated through the YWP.

Click here for more information about the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program.

Sign up today!

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Vocabulary development

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

The fashion plate The quickest way to grow as an educated person is to master the vocabulary of a particular field. That really is what we mean when we say someone is “educated.” They know the verbiage that goes with that field. They know the people who comment and write about it, they know the critical players in the field (whatever field of expertise they are in – inventors or football stars!), and they know especially the language of the specific domain.

For instance, your kids are often expert in a particular video or computer game. When they talk about it, don’t you feel bored and a little out of your depth? That’s because your kids are experts and you are a mere out-of-date novice! On the other hand, your knowledge of a particular area (birth? tennis? art history? literature? gardening?) trumps your kids’ I’m sure!

The point is this—growth as an educated person is all about mastery of language and how it relates to a specific field. The more you read, the more nuances you’ll master. It’s one thing to say: “What a pretty night sky” (a novice’s appraisal) and another to say, “There’s Cassiopeia! It’s a constellation in the northern sky, named after the queen Cassiopeia from Greek mythology. You can recognize it by its unique “W” shape and how it’s formed by five bright stars. See it?”

The tendency in homeschool is to over-value “academic” vocabulary and to under-appreciate the vocabulary your children naturally acquire in their areas of “common” interest. For instance, you want to claim “genius status” for the kid who loves astronomy, but you overlook the child whose enthusiasm for fashion makes her an expert in fabrics, necklines, and designers. Yet the exact same set of skills goes into “expertise” for both. Both of these fields offer your child the opportunity to deepen a vocabulary around a particular field of interest. Knowing the language, the insider-jargon, the methods for evaluation for whatever research is being done, the successes and failures in the field, the “celebrated persons,” the career opportunities that go with that field—all of these lead to a level of competence in that subject domain that empowers your child to be “smart.” The mastery of a particular area of interest leads to the ability to replicate this style of inquiry for other areas later in life (both personal interest and academic).

Not only that, you can use your child’s natural interests now, for spelling, grammar, writing style, and exploration in a way you can’t conjure through bored children being dragged through history or science that doesn’t engage them.

When Caitrin spent several years deeply invested in fashion, we made spelling lists of words that were particular to that field. (See photo above.) Words like couture, stilettos, boutique, sleeveless.

She kept a daily blog for a year writing about fashion and modeling her individual outfits each day.

We watched Project Runway with religious regularity.

We took a trip to Chicago to see the stores of designers she had studied in her magazine subscriptions (Vogue, Elle, etc.).

She acquired a vocabulary far superior to mine in that arena and we used her passion for that field to learn about how you take a subject area deeper. She is less interested in fashion today. Her particular hobbies this last year have ranged from WWI to Korean Pop Music! But as she focuses on what she loves, she finds the names, ideas, and language that go with those subject areas because she knows (instinctively) that that’s how you demonstrate intelligence, and credibility when you talk about any subject.

Try it! You’ll like it.


Do a little violence to words

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Homeschool tip of the day:
It’s about time we take back our power in language. We are not controlled by Mrs. Cox, the ghost of public school past sitting on our left shoulders. We are free. We are at home. Let’s figure out how to make writing a freeing, liberating, sparkly experience, shall we?

You know how we let our kids take apart an old phone or toaster to see how it’s made, to learn how to use a screw driver, and to have the satisfaction of working on a “real” household item? That’s a great thing, isn’t it? Little screws lying on the ground, bits of wire, the metal tray, the coils that heat… It’s amazing to see it in pieces and to marvel at the fact that someone knew how to put these bits of metal and wire together to make a tool that burns our toast! Taking the toaster apart is more effective to teach us about the toaster than studying it in a book or even making toast, right?

Some of us have rooms dedicated to art exploration—a similar freedom to discover. We might keep an easel, paints and brushes available any time, a tray of pastels or colored pencils, and stacks of scratch paper.

Still others of us will collect musical instruments—percussion and piano, recorders and flutes, and two kinds of guitars! Or maybe we’re the kind of family who has a whole slew of balls, frisbees, hockey sticks, hoops, and goals available to practice a favorite sport or to learn a new one.

We know that play and exploration produce learning.

By contrast, we’re reluctant to play with, take apart, explore, and mess with language. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the grammar hangover from school where teachers are more about accuracy than inspiration.

Flip the script.

What if your house had an accuracy-free play-zone for words? What would be in it? How about a variety of writing utensils (gel pens, fountain pens, markers, sidewalk chalk, calligraphy quills, crayons, lipstick)? How about some unique writing surfaces (butcher paper taped in a big sheet to a wall, dry erase board, chalkboard, clipboard, various sizes of lined paper, cards, notecards, postcards, an iPad, a mirror, colored paper)?

How about making a stack of notecards with all the words you like—a whole big mixture of words you collect for a week, one per card?

How about putting individual punctuation marks on notecards (a comma card, a period card, an exclamation point card, a quotation marks card, a question marks card – or several of each!)? Then use your word notecards to make a sentence and lay the punctuation marks where you want them to go. Walk around the room and lay them out on the floor. If you want, you can use big poster boards rather than tiny notecards.

Begin by punctuating it all wrong, first. See what happens when you start a sentence with a period or an exclamation point? What if you put one in the middle of the sentence?

What new uses of these marks can you think of?

Are you getting the idea? Language is not meant to be treated like an antiseptic vaccine. It’s a toy! Play with it! See what happens. Discover how the pieces of language and writing work together to create meaning and joy, communication and inspiration.

10 tips for the lazy writer

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Writing tip of the day:

There are tips, practices, tools, and helps that make writing easier. Don’t believe for a minute that your kids are lazy.

Here are ten ways to provoke writing today:

    1. Gel pens and black paper

    2. Instant Message with your child

    3. Text with your child

    4. Write a sentence on a white board that is provocative yet unfinished, like “If I could design today, I would….”

    5. Write together (at the table, everyone at the same time)

    6. Write at the mall, jotting down fashion fails and snippets of ridiculous conversation

    7. Give shoulder massages before writing to everyone (do it in a circle and then switch directions)

    8. Write on a clipboard, under a table, lying on a trampoline, up in a tree, with sidewalk chalk on the driveway

    9. Comment on 5 status updates on Facebook

    10. Rewrite the ending to a favorite movie or book (make it melodramatic, sad, angry, happy, or include aliens)

Writing is about freedom to express without the pressure that comes from straight jacket formats. Formats are only helpful once kids feel FREE to write. Let me say it again: You can’t produce good writing that fits a format until you’ve spent hundreds of hours writing without caring one whit about format. Once you feel as easy writing as you do talking, formats are a snap of the fingers to teach and follow.

So play with words today.

State Slogans

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

My daughter (21) and I got into a little chat this morning about state slogans. Oh my gosh, how we laughed! If you’re looking for a great way to foster discussion around word play or if you want to expose your kids to the various cultural associations with each state, be sure to Google the list. Here are our favorite top ten:

10. TexasIt’s Like a Whole Other Country (Sometimes, it seems they wish they were!)

9. California: Find Yourself Here (If there were ever a state where finding yourself rose to the level of imperative, California would be it!)

8. Delaware: It’s Good Being First (If you say so…!)

7. Indiana: Restart Your Engines (Home of the Indy 500)

6. South Dakota: Great Faces. Great Places. (Can you name both?)

5. Illinois: Mile After Magnificent Mile (Look up Chicago’s shopping district to understand this one.)

4. Kansas: There’s No Place Like Home (Used to be “The Land of Ahhs” – can you identify the irony in this one?)

3. West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful (Awesome! I want to live where people are wild and wonderful!)

2. District of Columbia: Taxation without Representation (snort)

and finally, drum roll please…….

1. New Hampshire: Live Free or Die! (I ask you: who enforces that?!)

These slogans give you a great chance to discuss word play, the history of various states, their selling points and how advertising is a vital part of any state’s economic growth (is the state emphasizing travel? business? historical importance? shopping? buying a home and staying put?). Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page: State Slogans.


Surprise! No one teaches it.

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Ut-Oh....Image by Nadia Hatoum

In all the writing literature I have crammed between DVDs on my book cases, the one literary element that gets short shrift is: Surprise. I can’t find it—no chapters devoted to expounding its importance. Exercises for plot, dialog, essay format, poetic structure, yes. Surprise? Well, occasionally it gets a passing mention. But almost always it’s tied to some other element (like, powerful verbs should be surprising, or a thesis statement is best constructed in a “surprise reversal” format). But that’s not what I mean. I mean, writing is absolutely dependent on subverting reader expectations over and over and over again, to be considered powerful.

Surprise means bursting through the door unannounced with cookies and milk, just for the reader, right when energy flags and minds wander. I’m not talking about big plot twists or even hiding information only to reveal it later. I also mean surprising the reader with a fresh metaphor; casting a commonly known term into a new grammatical role; picking unusual proper nouns for characters, street signs, shops; starting the story in the middle of the action; saving your best argument for last in an essay; hooking the reader’s attention at the top of the paper and saving the resolution for the conclusion (hook and return); littering the writing with alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme and consonance… and so on.

The best writing is as dependent on generously ladled portions of surprise throughout its lasagna layers of meaning, imagery, cool logic and vivid language as middle-aged readers are on good lighting and corrective lenses!

What’s more, it can be taught! Part of what makes your young writers’ quirky, poorly spelled and punctuated early attempts at written communication so enjoyable is the way their view of the world surprises your jaded, middle-aged one. You “crack up” when they surprise you.

It’s not hard to be surprising, once you know where to hide before you pop out!

Let’s take a look at this mysterious little element and introduce our kids to it. (Psst! They love surprises, so this may be your own subversive way to get them from the couch to the kitchen table, too!)

The “personal experience metaphor” trick

The hardest thing to do is to create fresh comparisons (metaphors, similes, analogies). Readers are sick of the “tried and true,” “old as the hills,” “dry as toast,” cliches that have served since the Spanish-American war! To wake up your readers, take an old cliche and buy it a new outfit. Draw from contemporary experiences that are alive to your kids.

Example: Her body twisted and flipped like Play-Doh in the hands of my baby brother.

Example: He focused his attention like a gamer trying to find the secret passage on level 6 of Mario.

Example: My Mom is older than an Atari play station.

Example: The early bird may catch the worm, but in my house, the early homeschooler catches up on math left unfinished from the day before.

The “grammatical transformation” trick

When I say, “What part of speech is ‘couch’?”; you think ‘noun’.” Right? How about this: “Don’t couch your words in flattery when you talk to me, mister!” Suddenly this ho-hum noun takes charge of the whole sentence (and the offending party!). If you flip the grammatical use of a few words, on a regular basis, you keep your reader vertical and awake! Not only that, habitual meanings can be subverted by using verbs and nouns in unusual pairings. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth.” Do they? Well, yeah, kinda! It makes you pause and reconsider your internal vision.

Example: Drew lego-ed the sticks together into a kind of backyard fort.

Example: The birds pinwheeled through the autumn sky.

Example: The solution became a schmear of peanut-buttering one side of the argument while jellying the other, until the two competing options were slammed together into a single sticky whole.

The “collecting crazy names” trick

Get a moleskin notebook—the kind that fits in a pocket, or a purse. When you’re driving around, pay attention to signs. Jot down interesting names. Look at billboards, freeway exits, stores and hotels. Record terms that will serve as good choices for your writing. Names of people can be gathered from Greek myths, the Norse Gods, fiction you are reading, TV shows, cartoons, comic books, Shakespeare plays, a directory of your homeschooling community. It really doesn’t matter how you gather them, but pay attention and collect when you are not writing. Then when you need one, pull it out!

An expert in the field of surprising name choices is none other than J.K. Rowling. Whatever you think about her books, her use of creative names is unmatched. She tells her readers she’s been keeping a little notebook for more than a decade where she jots interesting names to be used at a later date. When she’d create a new character, she’d flip through her book looking for the right name.

Example: There’s a reason Rowling has “Hermoine” paired with Harry and Ron. Much more interesting than “Mary” might have been.

Example: Shakespeare has great names like “Hero,” “Benedick,” “Ophelia,” and “Iago.”

Example: The Greek myths include epic names: “Persephone,” “Demeter,” “Agamemnon,” “Xanthe” and “Kallisto.”

This hunt for a good name applies not only to people, but to stores, cities, street signs, organizations, tournaments—all fiction depends on a slew of proper nouns carefully selected.

Example: Diagon Alley (play on words: diagonally)

Example: Island of the Blue Dolphins (using a Native American name)

Example: Camp Kooskooskoos (Trumpet of the Swan: funny to say)

So join the game! Make “naming” a joy, not a chore.

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That Absurd Little Bird: The Topic Sentence

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


If you want to see my dyed gray hair stand on end, talk to me about the importance of the initial topic sentence.

My left earlobe is very attractive for three reasons.

I like anchovy ice cream more than pizza.

Captain Diaperpants is an entertaining book and I highly recommend it.

Need I go on? ::yawn::

Truth is: The topic sentence is to the paragraph what support hose are to vericose veins. We don’t really want to be aware of the work they’re doing. They offer support, yes, but why announce that fact to the world? The best ones are hidden in the compelling-to-read prose.

I was trolling the Internet the other day and read a whole bunch of sample paragraphs on a writing site for homeschooled students. The curriculum writer stressed the importance of both the topic sentence and structured, orderly writing as hallmarks of correct writing. She then conceded that this kind of writing would be “stiff and stilted and even boring in most cases,” but it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter? In what universe? The point was to learn to write these orderly, cardboard, stiff, spiritless, uninspired, i-n-s-i-p-i-d paragraphs (::grinding teeth:: ::mad hair standing on end::) with duty and diligence no matter how painful to the reader.

Oh break my writerly heart!

Reverse the curse of the initial topic sentence.

Here’s how:

  • Start in the middle.
    Don’t tell me all I need to know in the first sentence. Once I find out that you are a black belt in karate, what interest do I have in reading how you earned the belt? Start with the struggle, facing the brick with your sore hand throbbing as you prepare to sever it in half as with a cleaver. Leave me hanging out there, flapping in the breeze, worried and curious.
  • Get me involved.
    Use sensory detail to suck me into the scene without revealing your point until I’m hooked: I sneezed when I leaned over the basket of cumin to examine it for bugs. The spicy fragrance reminded me of kasbahs and Moroccan stews. Unfortunately, I found myself in a modern Farmer’s Market in downtown Cincinnati instead. I miss North Africa, where I grew up.
  • Put the main idea at the end of the paragraph.
    Most freewriting will start with a typical topic sentence that generalizes about the subject for writing. That’s fine when getting your thoughts together. To help hide the know-it-all sentence when you revise, move it to the end and see what happens. Like in the sample above—the topic sentence is last to appear. It’s so much happier modestly revealing itself at the end.

I know, I know. I didn’t even talk about the all important topic sentence in academic writing or in subsequent paragraphs. We’ll get to that another day. For now, hook me, seduce me, scare me, move me, grab me by the collar and don’t let me go. Lure me into your writing by concealing the point. That’s the point! (And that second-to-last sentence you just read, the one with the hairy mustache pretending not to be a topic sentence, is the topic sentence for this piece, artfully concealed until the end, incidentally…)

We teach writers, not writing

Monday, May 18th, 2009

WBWW 16 Image by Brave Writer mom, Joanna

When asked to sum up the essence of Brave Writer, I like to start by looking at the company name: Brave Writer (not Brave Writing). That was a deliberate choice. Most companies describe themselves as “writing instruction.” Brave Writer could be described as “writer coaching.” Our core value is to honor people: their voices, their insights, their unique learning styles, their real felt needs, their gifts and talents, their weaknesses and struggles. Writing is the result of unlocking words that lurk inside writers. As a result, we spend our energies in service of people: exploring their experience and process, explicating what is going on inside to help them connect to those words, and then get them to paper.

An analogy I like to use is the difference between reading a book that explains the nature of pregnancy (what is it biologically, what happens to your body and the baby’s, what are the stages of pregnancy, what are the signs of labor, how does birth happen, what kind of birthing options are available, and so on) and reading a book that helps you understand what you will go through as a pregnant person (how to manage cravings or signs of cramping, what sorts of exercises help prepare for natural childbirth, what emotions you’ll experience during each stage, possible ways to cure morning sickness or to relieve swollen ankles, how to handle gestational diabetes, what the body sensations are of swollen breasts and that inevitable “drop” right before labor…).

The first book may give you lots of information you want to know (and all of us want to know it!), but the second is designed to hold your hand as you walk through your pregnancy. In the first, you are left to interpret for yourself how to apply that information to your experience. In the second, someone is actually describing your experience and then sharing possible tactics for managing it and making it more pleasurable, tolerable and enjoyable.

Most writing manuals are like the first kind of pregnancy book. They tell you what a descriptive paragraph is, for instance, and what one must contain to fit the definition. Those manuals provide examples of other descriptive paragraphs; they may even give of list of elements to include. What they don’t do is describe in a process-oriented way what is going on inside of the writer while trying to access descriptive language.

Brave Writer is like the second kind of pregnancy book. Brave Writer materials and classes focus on the writer: “I want to write that descriptive paragraph and include those elements, but how do I find the clever or interesting words hiding inside of me? What do I do with my writer’s block? What happens when I churn out a lousy first draft – how do I revise it?” Brave Writer provides you with a collection of experiences, techniques and coaching insights derived from the writing lives of other writers, as well as investigative tools to help you and your kids dig deeper inside to catalyze writing.

In essence, our programs are labor coaches. We not only know what gestational stage your kids are in when they attempt to birth writing (some of them may still need to get pregnant and we can even help there!), we know how to coax those words forward so that once they make it to the page, we can go ahead and shape them up into something concrete like a descriptive paragraph or an essay. See the difference?

That’s why we say: We teach writers, not writing.

Image (cc)

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My Kingdom for an Egg!

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Repost from previous year. Thought you’d enjoy a fun way to make egg dying a linguistic game. :)

Every year our family dyes eggs together and we use the little clear crayon supplied by Paas to write clever quotations making use of the “egg” motif as creatively as we can.


Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Writing wears kids out, have you noticed? They may get that burst of linguistic energy working for them (when the inspiration strikes, they’re hard to stop!), but when they’re done, they’re done. Sometimes after a successful writing project, all anyone wants to do is lie about doing nothing.

While taking some time off, or while your kids aren’t quite proficient enough to write lengthy passages of prose, you might try writing lists. Lists can be an incredibly therapeutic way to interact with language. For one thing, there is no shortage of topics for lists. Let me give you a quick list (ha!) of what you can list: