Archive for the ‘Writing about Writing’ Category

Mother Tongue

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Your alsome

I want to live in a world where the content of written communication is more important than spelling and punctuation.

I want to live in a world where people are generous about typos and the accidental homonym-switcheroo.

I want to write in a world where readers value the risk of self-disclosure that goes into all writing, even blog comments, even Facebook status updates, more than grammatical accuracy.

I want to read in a world where voices very different from mine have access to being published, in their natural writing voices—whether or not they use “prestige English.”

I wish for a world where communication of all forms is regarded as self-expression, and the vibrant ever-changing shape of language is appreciated, not judged as good or bad or in need of protection or preservation.

I like language and people and varieties of spellings and deliberate and accidental misuses of grammar and creative punctuation.

I love seeing the explosion of self-expression that is the Internet—the spontaneous need to share and express and be heard. I love that that hunger overcomes the endless drum beat for perfectly edited copy.

I am less fond of the pride that stems from “being a grammar snob.” But I’m trying to love and understand that impulse, too. After all, I know it takes quite a bit of work to master the prestige form of English, and most people who do so are passionate about language, and have been rewarded for that effort.

If there is one soapbox that I still mount occasionally, it is the one that says, “There’s no officially right way to say or write anything. There is only custom and convention—and these evolve all the time. In the meantime, please—hear the content before you eviscerate the copy.”

Cross-posted on facebook. Image by Quinn Dombrowski (cc image cropped)

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What to do if you’ve been avoiding writing

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

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An email I received:

What do you do if you’ve been avoiding writing for a long long time?

The child in question is 14. He is male.

My reply:

First, congratulations! Thank you for not damaging your writer. It is far better to ignore and avoid writing than to require it and create writer’s block due to applying methods that harm the child’s natural ease of self-expression.

Any child who has simply “not written” can be taught/encouraged to find his or her writing voice no matter how old. The older the child, the more swiftly this process can happen. Why? Because older children (12, 15, 17!) have been speaking fluent English for many more years than their younger siblings. They have read more words than new readers. They’ve handwritten or keyboarded to the point of near fluency (spelling, punctuation, how to make that weird cursive ‘r’, where the question mark is on the laptop). They have thought about ideas and have mastered facts that were unfamiliar to them at ages 6, 8, and 10.

When we turn our attention to writing with a child who is already a teen, we are greeted with a person who is truly ready to write! So if your way of avoiding all that trauma that attends most writing programs was to ignore it—well done! You’ve waited for the key moment to make real progress. I’ll help you with that in a minute.

If you are the parent of a teen who won’t write because the programs you used have created writing paralysis (a block that is bigger than “I don’t know what to write,” but is more like “I hate writing and will never use it therefore I will not do it now or ever, forever more”), you have a slightly different issue but no less solvable.

Here are the two strategies.

1. For the writer you neglected to cultivate: Start from scratch! You can. Start by listening to him, having great conversations, jotting down some of the great stuff he says in words out loud to you. Read back what he says to his dad or siblings or to him later in the day, talking about the content of what he said.

Begin with copywork—song lyrics, humor, his favorite quotes from books. Do it at the same time with him, copying your favorite quotes. Read your quotes to each other. Pick quotes for each other as a surprise. Light a candle or eat brownies or use fountain pens or create an entire passage by snipping the words from magazines and gluing them in order on a page. Make a collage of favorite quotes! Make up your own quotes!

Freewrite—about anything, about everything. We have prompts on our blog, but you can get them anywhere. With teens, you want the topics to be interesting to the teen. Provocative positions are often best: What makes X band better than Y band? If you could change one law, which one would it be and why? If 18 year olds can be asked to fight for our country, does it make sense to say they aren’t old enough to drink alcohol? What’s one part of your education you’d like to take control of and how would you do it?

Get into fan fiction or NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or blogging about gaming or online discussion with kids who have similar hobbies or texting or Facebook or whatever drives a kid to write without thinking about “school.”

Play with words—use them, write big ones on a white board to stump each other, recite Shakespeare or poetry or quotes from Seinfeld.

Then, over the course of a year of this kind of practice, talk about moving into some preparation for college. Look at the Brave Writer online classes or local classes in a co-op or junior college. Move one bit at a time, but first, focus on reading, copying, freewriting, and language play. Like you would at any age.

2. For the damaged writer, the same process applies, but you have to rebuild trust and that happens through this little conversation that you need to have.

“Son, gulp. I’m just realizing that the writing programs we’ve used have been really unhelpful to you in becoming a competent, comfortable writer. I feel awful about it! Can we start over? I promise to pay attention when you say something is boring or isn’t working for you. I want us to start with writing that has meaning for you. Here’s a brownie. Let’s talk.”

Some version of this with more or less apology depending on how much damage is there will work. Brownies or going out for Cokes helps.

The goal with any child or teen is to recognize that the writing voice is already alive and well within. It may be hidden from view or afraid to come out, but some attentiveness to your child’s speaking voice and some humility about how difficult writing is for many kids will lead to breakthroughs. Start where your child is. Kids can go from not writing to college level comp between 16-18.

Promise.

Cross-posted on facebook. Image © Richair | Dreamstime.com

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Use writing in your lives

Monday, September 29th, 2014

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I had a question about what program I would recommend to a child who has recently come out of school and is dysgraphic and a perfectionist. Of course, my first thought is to scrap programs. This kid needs a zoo pass and Legos!

What to do about writing, though. He is struggling and fears it. Of course! We all avoid those skill areas where we are weakest.

To start changing the narrative around writing in your family, even before you buy Jot it Down or Partnership Writing, make writing more interesting, more useful, more fun right now in your home.

Put Post It Notes all over the bedroom door of your child. Fill them with comments about his or her strengths, jokes, silly word pairs, brief memories of their exploits, hints about the fun you will have at winter break, questions of the universe (“Who am I and why am I here?” “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”), aphorisms… You decide. Put these Post-its all over the door after the child is asleep and see when he or she finally notices them. You might leave a stack of Post Its and a pen somewhere nearby. See if the child reciprocates. Some will.

Use lipstick to leave love notes on the bathroom mirror for your kids.

Create a treasure hunt—that rhymes! Send your kids hunting for some treat with clues you design. Then later, ask them to make one for you (on your birthday! or for Mother’s Day!).

Tape words to items in the house—any words. See who notices first.

Play with refrigerator magnets.

Mail letters to your kids. Text your kids. Facebook chat with your kids. Even when you are all sitting in the same room (hilarity will ensue!).

Write margin notes in the books they are about to read—like, “This was my favorite part” and “I can’t believe she did that, can you?” and “When you get to this section, come to me. We must discuss.”

Leave notes in a teenager’s car with cash: “Here’s three bucks for a hamburger! Enjoy.”

USE writing in natural, life-affirming ways. See how it changes the feel of writing in your home.

Go for it! Now Today! It’s far more likely you will grow writers if you live like this than if you tirelessly work on paragraphs. Paragraphs will come, once everyone is friends with writing.

Cross-posted on facebook. Image © Lefrenchbazaar | Dreamstime.com

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Top 10 Myths about Writing

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Top Ten Myths

1. Writing is entirely different from speech

Not so. Speech is the source of voice—writing voice comes from being in touch with how the writer generates language and insight. These are first experienced in speech and then modified and expanded for writing. Valuing speech (even jotting some of it down for your fledgling writers) helps kids learn to value their thought lives, which in turn helps them to know what should be on the page/screen. Tell your kids that what is in their heads, what they might say aloud IS what you want to see on their papers. Once it’s there, you can mess with it.

2. Formats help kids know what and how to write.

Nope. Formats act like straight jackets. They tell children too quickly what can’t be included. Formats require a well planned outline and the ability to hold sequence and detail in the mind before writing anything at all. The best use of formats is after a period of freewriting and revising (revising the content to make it pop or feel more complete). Then the sentences can be rearranged to suit a format. But start with freedom and revise to format. Never start with format.

3. Write every day.

My revision of this idea is: Interact with writing every day. Some days read it, some days copy it in your own hand, some days use bits for dictation or word play, some days play a word game, some days revise a draft, some days edit a revised draft. And, of course, on some days, write from scratch! It’s exhausting to come up with original thought through original language every single day. Don’t require that of your kids. Engage language every day and they’ll be just fine.

4. Imitate the masters.

Imitation is challenging for 4th graders. And 12 year olds. And grown ups! The pressure to “outdo Aesop” is unnecessary. Read the masters. Use their quotable quotes for copywork and dictation. Allow their writing styles to naturally infiltrate your own. But do not deliberately try to write like your favorites (except for fun, fan fiction, or as a language play tool). You want to sound like YOU in your writing, but you also don’t mind if you pick up a bit of a JK Rowling accent or a little EB White on the side.

5. Use a thesaurus to enhance the vocabulary in a piece.

Please don’t do this for more than a word or two (best to use the thesaurus when you are trying to replace a term that repeats itself). Instead, when you see a word that is weak, consider replacing not just the word, but the sentence. Add detail, include an experience, expand the idea, create an analogy. Weak writing is not improved by better vocabulary. It is improved by more writing.

6. Adverbs add a layer of sophistication (the old “ly” words).

The best stylists advise removing every word that ends in “ly.” The use of adverbs is seen as “lazy writing.” For instance, “Instantly, she jumped from her seat.” The jumping is already an expression of “instantaneous action.” Delete the adverb, add power: “She jumped from her seat!” In academic writing, “ly” words can be covers for an explanation of the fact. “The study positively shows the effects of the drug.” Better to make it clear—are the effects positive or is the study reliable? “The study shows that the effects of the drug are positive when taken with x, y, and z” or “The study showcases the effects of the drug by using hard data, not only anecdotes.” To review: weed out adverbs to enhance the power of your writing. Ask yourself: “What do I want to say with this adverb?” Then say it!

7. There is no place for “I” in academic writing.

Not so! Ever since the revolution of postmodernity in the academy, the humanities (in particular) allow writers to indicate their “social location” (to explain who they are and how they relate to the topic for writing, if relevant). It is commonly understood today that writers bring bias and personal experience to their research. It’s important to be explicit about how those biases and experiences impact the writer’s position. The use of “I” is limited to writing about personal experience, not used for “I think” or “I believe” writing.

8. If you paraphrase, you don’t have to cite where the idea comes from.

Reverse the sentence. Paraphrasing requires citation just like direct quotes require citation. Always give credit—you can’t overdo it.

9. To grow as a writer, start your day by journaling.

Journaling is not necessary for growth in writing. Writing is. Any kind of writing. Facebook, twitter, texting, papers, stories, and journaling. The only people who should keep a journal are those who wish to. Journaling need not be done in the morning, either (what’s happened in the day to write about by 9:00a.m.?). Journaling before bed is a nicer time to record the day’s thoughts. Journaling only about special occasions, or when life is painful is equally valid to the “daily diary.” Let journaling be the individual’s choice.

10. Do not help your child write; it all must come from him/her.

This is my favorite myth to bust! No child learned to speak in isolation or without scripts given to that child to repeat. Likewise, it is entirely too challenging for children to go from barely reading and handwriting to transcribing their own thoughts all the time. It’s perfectly fine for you to jot things down for them, or to dictate their own words back to them as they write, or for the final product to be a mixture of your words and theirs. This is how every other practice in a child’s life happens—your help until they can do it alone. Writing works the same way.

Go forth and support good writing practices!

Cross-posted on facebook.

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A word play tip

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Does it smell good?Image by Savannah Lewis (cc)

Ask your kids to find the nuance differences between synonyms.

Example— all the words for “smell”

Smell
Fragrance
Aroma
Odor
Scent
Stench
Perfume
Bouquet

How are they used? Can you use ‘odor’ for flowers? Can you use ‘scent’ for a skunk’s spray?

Can ‘aroma’ be paired with anything besides food? Why or why not?

What’s the difference between a ‘bouquet’ and ‘perfume’? Which is lovelier, easier to breathe in?

How much worse is a ‘stench’ than an ‘odor’? Can you think of two different items and why one would be paired with ‘stench’ and another with ‘odor’?

This is how you build vocabulary far better than using a workbook that makes kids identify definitions or put the words correctly into sentences.

Focus on complexity—nuances, subtlety, relationships, contexts, situations, habits, contradictions in language. These practices help the words “stick” and enrich a child’s writing as you find that some of them will “pop through” to their own work.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Talk, talk, talk…and talk some more

Monday, May 19th, 2014

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Writing comes from thinking. Thinking is expressed in several ways:

Action (you act on the thought: Toothbrush into mouth to clean teeth)

Speech (you speak the thought: “Hand me my toothbrush.”)

Writing (you fingerwrite a note on the steamy bathroom mirror: “Where did you put my toothbrush, goofball?”)

Because writing is the transcription of thoughts into words, we need to recognize all three components and help our kids make the connections.

For instance, action often occurs without much “word-conscious” thought. We go about our business without narrating it to ourselves in words. We might walk to the refrigerator to get a carton of milk, but are thinking about when we get the next turn on the Wii to play Dance Revolution. At least, this is what is happening for our kids. Both require thought, but one is thought in words and the other is thought in activity.

One way you can help your kids grow into writers is to help them narrate their actions and thoughts with words (spoken words). By speaking words: “Let’s see, I need to brush my teeth before I put on my pajamas and before Jordan hides my toothbrush again,” you help your child to use language for thinking.

You model the narrating of life in front of your kids. Literally be the crazy lady or man who talks to self: “I need to pick up the dry cleaning before I call the arena to buy the football tickets.”

Some kids (particularly math/science kids, or those who are introverted, or speech-delayed) find it most difficult to speak their thoughts. They can do them more easily (punch the offending party, slam a door, open the bottle of 7Up, toss a football, take the dog for a walk, roll around on the floor in frustration).

Your job with your kids is to talk: talk, talk, talk, talk. Name what you see (without judgment) giving the action language:

“I see you rolling around on the floor. You were just playing a game. What happened?”

Get the story. Try not to evaluate what you see; allow your child to find words. You can help as he or she works it out.

“Are you frustrated? Angry? Worried? Did someone misunderstand you?”

You can’t reel these off in a list, but you can ask them gently over time. You can help the child to sort the action into feeling words.

Feelings aren’t the only “thoughts without words” that kids experience though (and mothers often think this is the height of child self-awareness, but articulating feelings are only one piece of the thought-without-language puzzle).

Sometimes kids need help puzzling through actions and sequences of those actions in words.

“Okay, you’ve finished breakfast. Let’s go over what will happen today. Catie, what do we do next this morning? What comes after that? When will we eat lunch? How many hours until lunch then? Okay, so how much time do you think we have for reading and copywork? Is there time for you to play Candy Crush now or later in the day?”

That’s a dense word-picture of how to engage through words, but these comments can be items in a dialog of conversation back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Your goal is to lead your child into language for action and thought. So your child, who mostly operates without a clock and let’s you initiate all the activities of the day, can now begin to put words to those activities, can be called on to calculate time frames, can sequence the events of the day, can examine how her desires fit into the structure of home education. All in language.

How does this help with writing? Kids need practice sequencing, naming emotion, evaluating priorities, planning in words. These are all skills that go into the production of papers and detailed examination of other processes and sequences.

Your job, as a home educator, is to talk your mouth off! You want to talk, talk, talk, narrating—probing in a gentle, genuinely curious way, lending words and vocabulary to your fledgling thought-generator.

You do so much automatically, as though you’ve always lived from this ease-of-thought to action and word, you forget that you need to train your kids in these practices. The more your children explore language for ideas, thoughts, actions, experiences, sequences, priorities, plans, and connections, the more language will be available to them when they go to writing. Count on it.

You’ll also have models to draw from: “Remember when you were frustrated? How did you show that to me? How did I know? Exactly: you were yelling at the computer screen. How might you use that action to show General Washington’s frustration when he….?”

You might say, “Remember when we figured out how to plan the day so you had time to play your favorite game? We saved the game for last. ‘Emphatic order’ is kind of like that: you save the best argument for last…”

This is how it works—a dialog between one’s natural life and language, leading to an application of all that narrating to writing.

Cross-posted on facebook. Shared on Hip Homeschool Moms.

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Sometimes the writing doesn’t have to be brave

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

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Sometimes the writing will dribble off the page and puddle around your feet. Spare t’s and floating dots over i’s, unimaginative terms like “good” and “fun,” lack luster sentences of uncertain viewpoint…this is the stuff of regular writing, as much as any brave revelation of a person’s interior or a keenly carefully observed guava—poked, prodded, and tasted.

The days of writing accumulate, just like the days of potty training or balancing on a bike or eating salad.

They aren’t glamorous, and often the contents, particularly of freewrites, feel a bit frightening. I confess: I panic a little each time it’s my turn to read and comment on a freewrite. There’s that moment where the words clack into each other and the sound is unclear—the heart and meaning undifferentiated, and the terms out of tune. I worry that this will be the One Time when I won’t have the right feedback that moves the piece forward or that will support the child’s risky (albeit, bland) self-expression.

To calm myself, I remember that my job isn’t to fix, prop up, or find what isn’t there. My job is to read.

And so I begin.

I read the writing. I notice that it fills the page (or doesn’t). I notice that there are words, lined up—as many as there are. I read them and let myself hear them and feel them. If the words are “unremarkable,” sometimes I ignore the meaning and listen to the sounds—as though hearing English as a foreign language.

I let the writing speak; I do not judge it.

This is the first step in being a brave reader. It is an easy thing to read a piece of writing that pops off the page and entices you forward into its tributaries of well-chosen language and clever ideas. It’s another to accept what is offered and to know that it doesn’t have to shine or sing or stand out above other efforts.

Thank the writer. Be earnest, rather than disappointed (it’s easier to not be disappointed if you go into the reading looking for what to affirm and choosing to find something—one thing!). You can always affirm effort, complete sentences, handwriting, a well-placed piece of punctuation or capitalization, congruence between subject and verb (why not notice that and say “Well done” rather than only noticing when it’s “off”?), and the single best word in the piece. Maybe that word is “I”—how the writer (your child) showed you his or her viewpoint and you appreciate it.

Not all freewriting will delight you or speak to you immediately. Sometimes you must be patient—just like when you go to game after game after game of soccer and your daughter runs along the inside of the sidelines as though she is playing, but really she’s just avoiding the ball. You still cheer, you still hope she’ll bump into it and make contact and be a participant. She still gets the orange slices and juice pack. She sweats and runs and cares.

Then there’s that one day when she least expected it—the ball is right there, right next to her foot and she sees the open net—and out of nowhere, she boots that ball into the goal—no one is more shocked than she is and you cheer even louder!

You loved her no less before, and not more now—you just feel that affection a bit more deeply in that moment. You know she’s a soccer player in a new way.

That’s how it works with writing, too. You can coach, you can share strategies to help ease the challenge. But sometimes it takes a lot of running up and down the sidelines, cowering a bit, avoiding the ball, but hanging around the game anyway, before your child scores.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. Keep finding reasons to cheer. That’s what brave readers do.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Just how foreign is writing?

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

WBWW 118- Image by Lisa

A debate exists about writing: is it related to speech? If so, how much? If not, why not?

One camp says that learning to write is akin to learning to speak a foreign language. Writing is as foreign to native speakers of any language as Amharic is to you or me (unless you are Ethiopian!). That’s why children struggle to become fluent writers, so the thinking goes. Children are naturally wired for speech and are frustrated trying to translate those words into language suitable for writing (the style of it, the vocabulary of it, the spelling of it, the punctuating of it, the organization of it, the handwriting or typing of it). Even my guru, Peter Elbow, says that some people feel as if they are translating speech into something else when they write. Have you ever experienced the “Hmmm, how shall I say this?” thought as you sit down to actually write the thought you are having?

That’s what this camp is getting at. There’s a weird translation process between speech and writing. Because so many of us have experienced that moment, there’s a sense in which it must be true: writing must be so different from speech, we are prone to writer’s block as a result.

There is a bit of truth in this perspective. The brain is not wired for writing, like it is for speech. Writing is a learned activity. Speech, however, is hardwired into all human beings.

The other camp sees writing as related to speech. Dr. Peter Elbow, again, recently published an entire book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing(affiliate link), that attempts to make this case to a resistant academy. Writing is the extension of speech, he argues. If we can understand speech first, and then see how it informs and creates writing, we will wave a wand of release over thousands of frozen would-be writers. The mechanics are only one aspect of writing—writing actually sits inside each of us as native speakers already.

What is fascinating is that in the world of homeschooling programs, both views rely on copywork, dictation, and two varieties of narration (oral and written) to help students gain fluency in “writing.” But their starting points of view are polar opposites.

What I’ve noticed in my work with thousands of families is that children are more inclined to put in the effort of learning the skills associated with writing when they can see that it relates to a skill they have already mastered: the English language.

When we talk about putting their thoughts into written words, we are asking them to identify thoughts! In Brave Writer, I suggest you “catch your child in the act of thinking.” Help your child discover that he or she is having thoughts worthy of record: write them down when they least expect it, when you hear those thoughts tumbling out of their mouths!

Every single day your children are not only thinking thoughts, but using those thoughts to generate oral language. That language can easily become written language when they have a transcriptionist (you!).

Once the connection is made (“what’s inside my head and comes out of my mouth can also be what shows up on paper and is read to others”), teaching the mechanics of writing becomes much more interesting to children. They get it—writing is about their mind lives and they love sharing those thoughts with others.

Are there style differences between writing and speaking? Of course! Are there pesky rules of grammar and syntax that prefer one over the other (sometimes we allow in speech what we prefer not to use in writing)? Naturally.

But if we start by seeing writing as foreign (as a foreign language), if we begin from a mental space that says that writing is “hard work” and that the “discipline” of writing requires rote work with someone else’s words first, if we suggest that what is inside your child is not yet suited to the page until some kind of mastery is achieved in handwriting or spelling, we literally alienate the fluent native speaker from writing—from believing in his or her writing voice before it has uttered a written peep!

That alienation, time and again, manifests as writer’s block or not caring. The spark of individuality that is your child is lost in all this “hard work of precision and accuracy.” Accuracy matters, but it is not more important than originality of thought. Accuracy can be added; originality can be lost.

What studies are showing to be true is that children are far more likely to take writing risks when they believe that their content is valuable, and when they trust their thought lives to be adequate to self-expression. They are more likely to work on their mechanics if they experience the mechanics as supporting their original thoughts, rather than having to show perfect mechanics before they are permitted to have original thoughts.

If we value our children’s thought lives, help them to express themselves in Big Juicy Conversations, if we transcribe some of their ideas and read them back later to our children, if we ask for expansion of thoughts and show curiosity, if we model language choices that are more likely to be associated with written language models, our children will, absolutely, discover writing in much the same way they found speech!

They will risk, test, try, show off, back away, make huge silly errors, make huge leaps of logic, express vocabulary beyond their years, will imitate and create, startle and master, and sometimes mess with you and act like they don’t have a thing to say. But they will grow! This is what growth looks like.

The approach we use in Brave Writer does not see writing as a foreign or antagonistic process that requires painful hard work. Rather, we see writing as the opportunity to take speech further—to enhance, expand, and nourish speech (oral language, inner thought), and then to preserve and share it with interested audiences.

Kids respond well to this vision of writing. They love to read, to be read to, to talk and converse. Writing, particularly in today’s dialogical world of the Internet, is another conversational tool. We can learn how to wield writing for a variety of audiences, but why not start with the one closest to home? Why not let them write for themselves? Then for you, and then for their friends, and finally for “academic purposes.” This is the progression that works.

I hope you feel reassured. You are not teaching Hindi to your kids, with a whole new language structure and vocabulary. Writing in one’s native tongue is built from the English already spoken and understood. Writing is simply gaining mechanical skills to transcribe one’s own fluent thoughts, and learning how to develop these thoughts into the flow of written language.

Brave Writer has created oodles of tools and tactics to help kids “get it.” We’ve got more in the pipeline.

You can help your kids learn to write well. Start from the idea that your children are writers already, learning mechanical skills, in search of a supportive editor/reader: you.

You can do it!

And so can they!

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image by Brave Writer mom, Lisa (cc)

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Does “Open and Go” work for writing?

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

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The “resort on a beach” of all curricula is the “Open and Go” variety. You receive the UPS box in the mail, crack the spine of the new workbook or text, and immediately know what to do, right now, with your kids, without any preparation, reading of instructions, or adoption of a particular philosophy.

This magical product teaches the tough subject you have avoided without taxing you, plus your kids like it! What a bargain!

So do these products work for writing? More specifically, does Brave Writer have a product like this? Please, Mother may I?

Writing is unlike content-oriented subject matter. You aren’t exposing your children to a list of facts or details and asking them to memorize or consume them. Writing isn’t a set of formulae that needs to be introduced and practiced. Writing isn’t the coordination of handwriting, punctuation, spelling and grammar that can be learned, at times, in workbook formats. Writing is more than any of these, even if at times it embodies all of them.

Writing—original writing—is created from thoughts. Thoughts are personal to the writer. Thoughts come first. Everything else is window-dressing.

Just as speech required a context for risk and communication with an active partner, so, too, writing requires a witness and compassionate reader. Writing thrives when it becomes a dialog between the author and his or her audience—particularly the audience of an invested parent.

Scripting that dialog is not possible. A set of workbook pages doesn’t get at the mind life of the child. Writing forms don’t instruct a child in the process of self-inquiry (which is the genesis of all good writing). Handing a child a set of instructions to be read alone, and lines on the page to fill in, doesn’t help a child imagine herself as a writer. Rather the child is being taught that writing is external to self, done for that page, according to someone else’s ideas of what should go there.

Literally—open and go workbook writing programs ask children to think of writing as a task done according to someone else’s prescription of what goes “over there” away from self. Children are taught to think that the thoughts for writing exist inside someone else’s vision, and their job is to hunt them down (pluck them from the thin air) and hope they’ve collected enough of them in one place to get a “good grade.”

This is not writing. This is puzzle solving—holding the directions in the mind, while wrestling language into the imagined form the assignment creator may have intended.

Yet this “assignment writing in a workbook” is the holy grail of writing instruction! Can’t parents hand a book to their children and ask them to follow the clear instructions? Won’t writing grow with practice? What about all those writing assignments in high school and college? Kids don’t get to pick their topics or formats then, do they? Why not practice now?

Parents, typically, don’t have good memories of writing instruction from their childhoods, and many are not self-confident writers today. Yet many programs expect parents to instruct children in writing using similar methods that didn’t work all that well for them. These programs lead to similar results—mediocre, unsure writing. That’s not to say that some kids don’t find their way to brilliance and enthusiasm! Writers (kids who love writing) find their way regardless of method, half the time.

Helpful writing instruction requires a philosophy that is a paradigm shift away from how you, the parent, likely learned to write. The shift is in focus—away from form and accuracy as primary, and toward risk and expression as essential. Original writing is about how the mind generates thought—instruction is about how you foster an environment for creative thinking and language use to grow. It’s about recognizing that writing is more than words on a page, but is, rather, the valuing of the writer’s own perspective of the world—a writer’s personal experiences and values, curiosities, mastery of facts, passionate reads, hopes and aspirations, confusions and frustrations, challenges and arguments, connection to others, and reporting of information.

THIS is writing. All writing is this—this distillation of an individual’s mind life/thought world. Clarity and accuracy matter, but so do inspiration, imagination, critical thinking, and flexible, expanded vocabulary. Form helps to manage these aspects of the topic for writing, but forms can also stifle original thought. Knowing how to write means knowing how to manage the forms, rather than be managed by them.

WBWW 48Image by Brave Writer mom, Sandy

All this to say: “open and go” deprives writing of its essential context—space and room to explore. Can you imagine asking for an “open and go” parenting manual? “Open and go” driver’s training? “Open and go” sexuality and reproduction workbook?

When we are dealing with danger, complexity, values, intimate relationships, connection, or thought lives, we do our children a disservice to think we can teach them by opting out of the hard work of engaging with them. True partnership and dialog go more slowly, but so much more richly.

Brave Writer has materials and classes that support the relationship of new-writer to parent-coach. We even give you specific words to say, and processes and practices to try together. There are tools that can be used again and again as your young writers learn to internalize the self-inquiry style of writing generation. We give you projects to test together—with week by week instructions of what to do. But in each case, all the way until high school, your presence—your appreciation for and understanding of the process, your conversation and modeling—is essential.

Make time and space for writing in your family. It can look like teatime and poetry on some days. It can look like family movie night or read aloud time or freewriting or riddle-creating or limerick reciting. It may be the hard work of jotting down an endless story or the wise support you offer a teen trying to start a blog about recycling. Writing instruction might include the hard work of grammar study or learning to edit for spelling errors. But it isn’t essentially that. It is the discovery of what one has to say that is worth preserving and presenting in a cogent manner.

Writing is unlike any other subject in homeschool. In fact, —not a subject. Writing is about writers. Writers need readers. You are the reader—the partner, coach, and ally your child deserves, as you help your writers discover their voices, their vocabularies, and their powers of refining their messages in the written word.

No “open and go” workbook can show you how to do that. You need to live it alongside your kids, once you’ve adopted the principles into your heart. It’s a privilege to be that person in your child’s life. Don’t delegate it to a workbook! Yes it takes time. So do all the things you care most about.

Surprisingly, teaching writing this way is so pleasurable when you get there, it doesn’t feel like work any more. It feels like relationship. A good, rich one. The kind you want with your kids—the kind that lets you into their minds and hearts.

So worth it.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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No one likes to be criticized

Monday, March 17th, 2014

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No one.

You don’t. You don’t want someone to come along and examine what you do in your homeschool and tell you that you’ve got it wrong.

I don’t. I don’t like being examined and found wanting.

Writers don’t. They risk putting themselves out there, even if what they risk appears paltry and disconnected from what they care about, and still recoil from editorial feedback.

Yet we all want to grow and become better versions of ourselves. Don’t we? In our most honest moments?

It takes some toughness to be open to criticism. There’s a reason for this. Criticism exposes mistakes. The experience of being mistaken is painful. You feel exposed—there it is, your failure, out there for all to see.

No one likes that feeling. Worse, if you are seeking support and feedback, getting criticism in return can feel like a betrayal of trust. You shared your struggle using the words available to you, and this other person picked them apart or misheard your intention or cared only about her superior understanding and appeared to take pleasure in her reconstruction of the “right way.”

There’s a way to deliver feedback that doesn’t leave the recipient undone, devastated, hurt, embarrassed. It’s the chief feature of our writing instruction, and is at the heart of how I operate in my family and business.

I follow these principles because they ensure emotional safety, while allowing for dialog for growth.

1. Value the person.

Your child, your spouse, your best friend, the member of your email list or discussion board needs to know that you value him or her first. The human being taking the risk to share “self” with you must feel that she is valuable, essentially worthy of care and consideration. That comes from the tedious, time-consuming task of using words, facial expressions, and internal postures that remind you that, in fact, this person is worthy of my time/energy/care. Most people want to be good people, or regarded as such, which is a good enough basis from which to begin.

Your kids want to be good kids, want to please you, want to do what they are supposed to do to become full-fledged adults. They want your guidance, too. Most spouses want to be loved and to give love back. Most best friends want to be trusted allies. Most participants on most lists and boards want to be heard and helped.

Yes, there are exceptions, but let’s start with the rule: Most human beings seek connection, and want a mirror that tells them: “I see you. You matter.”

2. Failure is painful.

The failure to live up to one’s own vision of success (successful living—homeschooling, marriage, career, writing a paragraph, being a teammate, running a household, parenting, managing finances, exercise and diet, calculating percentages in an online game) is painful. All by itself. This must be appreciated before offering a critique. Even the cavalier, halfhearted effort is often a cover for not wanting to risk full commitment to avoid giving a best effort and failing still. Better to only “half-try” and then when criticized you can tell yourself, “I wasn’t really trying.” This half-effort protects the ego because what if you gave a full effort and still failed? That would mean you were fundamentally flawed, unable to grow/succeed. “What more can be given than a ‘full effort,’?” goes the unconscious reasoning.

So before feedback, it’s important to have full appreciation for the pain of failure. Your comments are about to land someone in that pain (particularly if delivered with judgment, anger, or exasperation).

3. Frame your feedback in the positive by giving information, not criticism.

“Looks to me like you wanted the reader to pause here. We use a comma for that.”

Is much better than:

“You left out a comma.”

Or as one of our instructors says, she likes to use “Remember to…” rather than “Don’t forget to…” Even a simple switch to a positive is better received than a negative.

The premise is that everyone is trying his or her best. Even when they aren’t, they can be inspired to try their best when we find the glimpses of effort behind the half-try.

“I’m so glad you answered the question. I look forward to reading more answers from you this week.”

Much better than:

“You aren’t giving me enough material to read so I can comment. I expect more later this week.”

I’ve noticed that homeschool discussion board conversations devolve when the original poster asks a question, not using the evolved vocabulary of the group, and is then challenged for her errant thinking. This experience leads to online flailing: the need to reframe, restate, explain away. The original poster will then try to give some sense of her inner process to justify her poorly worded question, which is batted away by the experts as her not taking criticism/feedback well.

Some people are strong enough for that kind of aggressive help. But many are not. Most children are not.

It helps to receive the intention of the person first, to value the desire to connect, or to ask for help, or to share first efforts in work. It helps to remember that failing is painful, and that having a failure pointed out is exposing and embarrassing. What works at that point is supportive, positive feedback that takes into account the whole person, not just their weakness or failure to perform at the desired level.

You get there through a self-discipline of thinking in a new way. Take time to find it. Your child isn’t lazy. Your child didn’t do the work. Ask yourself why? Think about how you might support a change in atmosphere around the topic, or help your child to see the benefits of effort, even small, short bursts of concentration. Start there rather than a berating of character.

Your child isn’t addicted to video games. He loves playing them. He gets things from them that make him happy. What is he getting? What can you learn about video games to understand why he is so absorbed? What else can you offer him in his life that is also compelling, and could be of interest to him?

Or conversely, is it possible that something “not good” is happening in his world and video games are giving him a way of escape? Can you find out?

Conversations that are non-judgmental, curiosity-seeking, supportive explorations will lead to receptivity more than labels and reactionary anger.

Sometimes we all lose our cool and say mean things or jump to conclusions. Sometimes we’re right—the other person is being mean-spirited or recalcitrant and is not receptive to input from us. Sometimes we are in abusive relationships! No amount of supportive dialog will yield good results.

But on the whole, a practice of this kind will bring about trust, support, and growth. That’s how we grow brave writers, in fact. And it works beautifully.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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