Archive for the ‘Writing about Writing’ Category

Focusing on the interior

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Paragraphs writing voice

Kids speak in paragraphs. Paragraphs are not magical formulas. In fact, most programs teach the life out of them and we wind up with cardboard boxes of tedious sentences.

What we want—what we aim for—is LIFE in the writing. Paragraphs are the result of indenting when the mood or content shifts—like learning how to stick shift a car. You don’t stare at the gauges, you get a feel for when it’s time to shift. Paragraphing is similar and it’s not difficult to learn once your children feel free to express their natural vocabulary about a topic. You can always read it to see what’s missing or needs to be moved. Far better than preparing the writing by dictating what sequence the ideas must proceed from the mind to the hand (sure to bottle up or rob the writing of its power).

So—in Brave Writer, we focus on that life in the writer—the interior. We help kids discover how to find the writing voice within. As they age, we introduce “containers” for all that robust self expression—sometimes a lapbook, sometimes a journal entry, sometimes a freewrite, sometimes a report. We allow the content to help dictate the shape.

By high school, kids who are used to self expression and exploring their mind lives in writing are ready to learn about the academic containers for writing—the essay forms and research papers. But remember: these only get used for about eight years of anyone’s life. The rest of life requires all sorts of writing!

Kids who grew up knowing that writing was as available to them as speech generally can meet any writing demand with confidence and competence. Kids raised on formats tend to feel they don’t know what to write when confronted with a new “container” for writing.

So that’s how we do it! Every project in our program is one I’ve done with students or my own kids. This process works beautifully. You can trust it.

Originally shared on the Brave Writer Lifestyle Facebook Group.

Image by ND Strupler (cc cropped, tinted, text added)

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Content then meaning

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Correct_childs_writing

Writing Tip:
The Trick is to Focus on Content First

How do you correct errors without provoking tears?

The trick is to focus on content first. As we say in the biz, “Content is King!” Someone asked me what was “Queen” and I said, “Meaning.” So do it like this:

1. Start with content. Focus on the topic, the insight, the great ideas or explanations or details that deliver the idea to the reader. You want to say words like:

“You know so much about roller coasters! It was surprising to read that the Raptor was so tall! I had no idea that the speeds got up to ___ mph. I could feel like I was on the coaster when you talked about the ‘wind whipping’ your hair. Great use of the ‘w’ sound.”

Notice that every comment is on the content – finding what is good in it, noticing it, remarking on it.

2. Now focus on meaning. Notice if the writing makes sense, if it is conveying what it hopes to convey. So, make comments more like these in the “meaning” portion:

“I’m reading along here, and I notice that I got a little lost when I moved from this idea to the next one. Did you want it to read like this (read the run-on sentence all together with no stopping or pausing) or more like this (pause where a period should go to make it make sense)?”

When your writer chooses the second, you comment like this:

“To help the reader really get what you’re saying, a period here will make all the difference. Let’s put one in.”

This is how you work through the whole text. Punctuation is not just marks on a page, but a way to ensure that the reader gets the right, accurate understanding of ideas that the writer wants conveyed.

For weak language, you can say,

“I can tell that you think the ride was ‘awesome.’ The reader might want to feel what that is like. Can you think of more to say to unpack that word?”

And so on.

If a step in a process is missing, you want to note it conversationally:

“Oops! I got a little lost. Is there a step missing here? I don’t want to miss what you really want me to know.”

So start with content – be prolific in praise.

Then move to meaning – be conversational, friendly, and helpful.

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Top photo: woodleywonderworks (cc cropped, text added)

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Why journaling helps people

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Journaling Quote

When I lived in France as an exchange student, I wrote over 1000 pages in my journal. When I lived in Morocco, I wrote dozens of journals. I’ve kept some semblance of a journal since 4th grade—writing more some years than others. I always know when I’m “going through something.” Journaling pops back to the forefront of my life.

This study is fascinating to me. It clarifies why journaling helps people. Writing helps us tell our story back to ourselves. It helps us put the emotions and experiences into a meaningful context.

You might try this with your own children. I remember how Noah struggled with big emotions after particularly meaningful experiences in his life (sleep away camp, performing in a play, a great vacation). He’d get swamped by the feelings and didn’t know what to do with them.

I suggested he keep a “special occasions” journal. He could write his memories while they were fresh and then reread them any time he wanted to revisit those precious experiences. It worked…and he still has that journal to this day.

Image by Emma Larkins (cc cropped, smudged, text added)

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Writing with Teens: Don’t miss these 5 blog posts

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Time Capsule_Writing with Teens

2015 marks the 10th anniversary for the Brave Writer blog, and to celebrate we’re revisiting helpful posts from the past.

These five address writing with teens:

Writing Starts Off the Page: Saturation and Incubation

You don’t want to ask for writing before your kids are good and ready to spill over onto the page. All of those writing books that give your kids topics are a waste of time (unless you happen to be one of the lucky ones with a child who loves to write and just needs a gentle nudge and away she goes!). Topics don’t generate writing. Having something to say does…

Writing with Teens: How to Begin

Without an essay guide, you might feel you can’t even begin to teach your students to write them. Hogwash. Let’s look at some ways that you can start essay training right now…

Essays: Not Just a Gateway to College

The word essay means “to try.” It comes from the Latin root. (In French, the word “essayer” is the verb “to try, to attempt.”) I think it helps to remember that an essay is an attempt, it’s your “best shot” at looking at the materials and giving a reaction (sometimes a strong opinion, sometimes an exploration of the issues, sometimes how that material relates to your life and background, your experiences and beliefs)…

Brave Writer’s Guide to Writing for Exams

I remind students to make a plan, follow the plan and stick to the plan because initially it is tempting to run off after some mental flurry of activity and think that is the same as good writing. It usually isn’t. Clarity and organization trump flights of fancy in timed assessment essay writing…

Why Academic Writing Doesn’t Come Naturally

Essay writing is like learning a brand new sport while playing the game. There are steps to take that make the process less daunting and that will prepare your kids to be successful with less stress. The actual format itself is not difficult to teach or understand. Learning how to bend the essay to the writer’s purpose, to make the essay form work for the writer instead of against him is something all together different…

Enjoy!

Also, check out Brave Writer’s Help for High School. It’s a self-directed writing program for teens that both teaches rhetorical thinking in writing, as well as the academic essay formats for high school and college.

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To “risk” self-disclosure in writing

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Snowy_treelined_road_Lahiri_quote

A local writing organization in Cincinnati shared this quote by Jhumpa Lahiri and I thought it was a wonderful summary of what it means to “risk” self-disclosure in writing. There is no point at which writing stops being a risky act, which is why it is critical to support the writing our kids are brave enough to do and to share with us!

“It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’” —Jhumpa Lahiri

Background image by Ali Inay (CC.O)

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“A beautiful mess”

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Snip_and_Pin_Natalie_blog

Earlier this week we shared Jot It Down in action. Today it’s Snip & Pin!

Snip & Pin Technique: Type your child’s writing into the computer. Print it out with one sentence per line. Then cut it up into individual sentence strips (or individual paragraphs, if that works better). Put the strips on the floor or on a table top and start moving them around to see what order makes the most sense or delivers the most surprise.

Brave Writer mom, Natalie writes:

Julie,

My daughter, Rachel, has been working on a paper for her Chemistry class this semester. She has been frustrated by the process of organizing all this material into the required seven page paper. As we read through her rough draft, it became apparent to me that the best course of action would be the snip and pin revision. She didn’t recall doing this before, but I assured her it would help.

I followed your directions to get it started. She saw all the strips of paper and was unsure how this would help. However, after an evening of moving sentences around, she is now a believer. It has been a wonderful way to work together and make her paper shine.

I’ve attached a picture of the process. It is a beautiful mess.

Thanks,
Natalie

The Snip & Pin Technique is thoroughly covered in The Writer’s Jungle and is also taught in our Kidswrite Basic class.

Image (cc)

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Once they catch on, look out!

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Image by Carre 1 -blog

A theme that is coming through Facebook, email, and phone calls is this:

“My kids are getting it!”

What are they getting? That what is going on inside (their mind life) deserves a home on paper. As parents hear their children’s thoughts expressed in oral language and help those thoughts get to paper, more and more kids take the risk to cut out the parent-step and try it for themselves.

It’s crazy, really. We spend all this time explaining how important writing is, we tell them to follow X model or imitate Aesop or just write three lines, and they show us their sad, uncooperative faces instead. The brilliance of their quirky personalities is hidden behind attempts to sound like someone else, and they look to us to tell us what is still wrong with that effort. Everyone is demoralized.

Yet if we flip the script—start hearing what our kids are saying in that spontaneous not-school moment, jot down what they say out of our own enthusiasm to preserve the insight, thought, joke, or snatch of story—they perk up.

This is what you wanted me to write? is the thought.

You think what I have to say is important enough to write on paper? is the next thought.

Young children, especially, will respond with, “Well in that case” behaviors. They will scratch images and misspelled words onto sheets of paper laying around the house, trying to impress you again! You will be impressed. This child who “didn’t know what to write” suddenly has things to say… on paper!

The spelling, punctuation, and capitalization of the words will seem so much less important (and rightly so) when you see the child taking such initiative. Your only task is to fan the flame! Enthuse, supply cool writing utensils, create little booklets (paper folded in half, stapled between a sheet of construction paper), and READ the results aloud to the child and anyone else in the family who will listen.

The momentum this process creates is entirely different than required writing at a desk every day.

A couple necessary caveats:

1. For reluctant writers who don’t trust you (because they feel the weight of pressure coming from you), adopt a bored gaze (this is for parents whose kids get suspicious when they effuse too much). When you hear them expressing, show enthusiasm and jot it down. But when they write on their own, simply acknowledge it matter-of-factly and then ask hours later if you can read it. Ask plainly without over stating how proud you are so there is room for this child to enthuse or even dislike his own work. Then, when you do read it, praise the content by engaging it—”I love how the princess gets out of trouble” or “I didn’t know that about amphibians.”

2. Writing programs that teach kids to copy (imitate) other writers, if used too much, sometimes stunt the writing voice. Initially your young writer may look like he or she is imitating a style more than showing his or her natural writing voice. Time will heal this, the more you support and encourage the natural speaking voice to show up on paper by capturing and recording it.

3. Pictures are writing too! Any attempt to symbolize language is writing. So if a child is writing “picture books,” without words, affirm the child as writer! As we know, there are loads of wordless books on the market (we find them in libraries). Ask your child to “read” the book back to you. You’ll discover so much thought life and language happening in those pictures. As the child gains skill, words will begin to emerge too.

4. Passion for writing comes in bursts. It’s a creative activity. A child may write 16 little books in a month and then nothing for 6 months. Do not treat writing like an onerous task. Treat it like the creative outlet that it is! You can always gin up more enthusiasm for writing by changing the setting (write somewhere else, use new utensils, add brownies, change the time of day to write).

5. Read what they write during the read aloud time. Put the finished products in the library basket and read them each day. Most kids love this! Those who don’t, honor their choice to not be read aloud.

Above all: value what your kids express and get some of it into writing.

Image by Brave Writer mom, Carrie (cc) cropped. Cross-posted on facebook.

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Your secret weapon

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

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You thought I’d tell you what it is in the first sentence? Oh heaven’s no. You will have to read a bit to find out.

You know how you have kids who don’t want to “do school” or resist a new curriculum or say they hate assignments or projects? You know how you keep telling them that at some point they will just “have to learn to write” or they “can’t write fiction forever” or they “can’t play all day”?

It’s one of those things where you kinda sorta freak out a bit when that resistance really gets going—in the form of fights, tears, refusal to even write one sentence, a willingness to outlast you.

So, are we on the same page?

The tendency is to view yourself in those moments as a teacher who deserves respect and authority by virtue of being the home educator. You think you have the right to expectations because you are in charge. You can’t understand why that sweet little munchkin is becoming such a curmudgeon!

Here’s the thing, though. You’re at home. You’re the mother or father. Your kids know that there is negotiating space. That’s what home is. It’s the one place where “have to’s” have less power. Home is supposed to be a relief from the stress of the outside pressures of life. Enforcing “school” at home feels so contrary to the natural untidiness, lack of schedule-ness that home is supposed to represent in life.

You need to embrace home as a home educator first—really allow yourself to notice and enjoy its properties (you know, like waking up when you want or wearing pj’s until lunch, or cuddling with a blanket on the couch for read aloud time).

For those formats and practices and programs you wish to see flourish in your home, then, you need to embrace them through that lens.

You ready? Here’s your secret weapon:

Stop talking, start doing.

In other words, if you want a child to write in a new form, stop telling your child to write in that form.

Wake up, gather paper and pencil, and after breakfast, without a word (that’s the key here), start writing. Write the kind of thing you are expecting your child to write. You might be writing a thank you note. You might be writing a short essay on paper dolls. You might be copying a quote from a book you love. You might write a non-fiction paragraph about Pocahontas.

Simply start.

Your kids may hover around you saying, “What are you doing? When do we start math? Mom, can I have more orange juice?”

You might respond: “I’m writing about Pocahontas. In fact, I can’t remember: does anyone remember the name of her tribe? Can someone get me the book we were reading?”

Keep writing.

Someone asks, “Mom what am I supposed to do while you are writing?”

You reply, “I don’t know. What do you feel like starting with today? I’m going to work on this. You’re free to help me. Or you can get going with math. But I’m doing this.”

Then do it. Keep going.

You’ll be shocked. Some will join you. And because YOU are doing the assignment, you will discover just how difficult it is, too. You’ll have some raw direct experience of just what it is you are asking your child to do!

At some point in the next few weeks of doing a couple of these, you will see that your kids start to participate. You don’t simply flip over to telling them to take over, but you can say, “If you want to work on your own version of this, I’m happy to help you while I complete mine.”

Be open to collaboration, to multiple children doing one project, to everyone helping you with your project. This is HOME. Not school. Not about grade levels. This is about giving your kids a chance to watch a process before they have to engage in it or learn how to do it. This is your chance to model and lead by silence, rather than lecture and enforcement.

Try it!

Stop talking. Start doing.

Cross-posted on facebook. Image © Sergey Khakimullin | Dreamstime.com

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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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