The bane of writing programs in existence
Yeah, I get emails.
In the emails, I get questions like these:
- What do you think of X writing program?
- How does your program compare to X?
- When I finish with your program, what can I use to learn real writing? (!?!)
Because I like to speak with some intelligence on these matters (and not just tell the emailer what she wants to hear – that Brave Writer is better than them all :)), I spend time clicking around the Internet reading what other writing programs put out for consumption.
A few commonalities leap off the screen if you take the time to scroll through sample pages.
First of all, there is a lot of bad writing out there. It never fails to amaze me that the primary writing materials are poorly written. What do I mean by poor? Do I mean they can’t spell or they mis-punctuate? Not usually. I mean, my eyes glaze over and I itch to click out of the screen. If the writing used to persuade the customer to buy the writing product is lifeless, impersonal or written in the passive voice, how does that bode for the actual product?
Worse, if the samples of the writing program are tedious, unimaginative or stilted, why would I be expected to think the program will produce quality writing in my child? That’s when I sprint the other way no matter how neatly organized the daily lesson plan looks in the floral spiral binder.
The primary goal of any writing program ought to be the production of compelling writing.
That is, writing that is interesting to read. Just because the writing is clear or neat doesn’t make it good writing. If you don’t enjoy reading it, it isn’t good writing. Period. Trust yourself. You know good writing when you read it.
One other thing I noticed on my Internet sojourn:
Lots of programs believe in direct imitation of writing models. The program provides a model and then asks the child to put it into his or her own words. Imitation of quality writing is a long-heralded writing principle. Yet I can’t help but be uneasy about the present style of imitation common to homeschooling curricula. In one case, the model was so poorly written (condescending, unimaginative, vague, and riddled with passive voice), I shuddered to imagine children being taught to imitate that writing as though that would help them become quality writers themselves.
The truth is, writing benefits from two things:
- Discovering one’s own voice.
- Allowing other voices to color and enhance yours.
The way I see it: work on getting in touch with the power of having something to say first.
Read lots. Read widely. Read a variety.
Narrate, talk, imagine, freewrite. Then consider imitating a style or a genre, or allowing for phrases and formats to influence how you present your writing voice.
We do this in Brave Writer. We spend a lot of time cultivating writing voice first. Freewriting and narrating provide the primary ways kids get in touch with having something to say.
- We give them interesting questions that probe their imaginations and thoughts.
- We give them interesting ideas to consider.
- We give them opportunities to interact with those ideas without also worrying about how their writing is coming out in that delicate phase where they tentatively develop an insight but don’t yet have mastery over the language to explain it.
Simultaneous to encouraging voice, we read quality literature, we study it for its literary elements, we try our hand at short poems or creating metaphors or paraphrasing research materials. We use models such as The Just So Stories or expository essays when we learn a new format.
But all the while, the primacy of a child’s quirky, personal, unique, important voice is cultivated and celebrated.
The finished products of our students bear little resemblance to each other. Instead, they reveal individual persons engaged with interesting material, sharing it with an interested audience. Once a child knows what she wants to say, she can then determine how to say it. If that includes copying someone else’s style, then wonderful! But not a minute before.
Homeschool shoppers are vulnerable to being seduced into purchases that look slick but deliver little in terms of real writing instruction.
Thank you so much for discussing this. I have been in a quandry lately as I considered all the choices out there for teaching writing. I had heard about your program and have been enjoying your blog for a month, but the truth is $100 is quite a bit for us to commit to a program that I had never seen. At the same time, I have been examining every writing program I can get my hands on. Over and over again, I found dry, uninspiring materials with less-than clear progression and instruction. I kept coming back to your blog, feeling drawn to your approach. This post just sealed it for me…I’m ordering next paycheck!
Thank you Angela.
I wanted to add: The Writer’s Jungle has an entire chapter called “Dumb Writing Assignments” that helps you transform inadequate writing assignments into useful ones. I don’t think we have to throw away everything we’ve ever purchased for writing. I do think we need to evaluate it through a different lens – the lens of the writing process (not scope and sequence).
Also, as I thought about this blog entry and my own writing, I realized that writing in the educational environment is too often tied to academic goals. But that is not what writing is. If we confined talking to academics only, we’d lose the very person that is our child and if we turned our child against talking or taught the child to only repeat after pre-packaged speeches, we’d completely eliminate the personality and personhood of the child.
Think of writing as the expression of person on paper. If that person isn’t visible in the writing, then the writing has not yet come to life. That’s the time to evaluate the program. 🙂
I confess I’ve been on the fence for quite a while too, looking at that $100 price tag. I love the ideas presented on your blog, but get stuck in implementing them with my 12yo son who adamantly refuses to put pencil to paper, and isn’t much better when writing at the computer.
How can he develop any sort of writing skill, when he simply won’t write in the first place? (His verbal skills are below par as well, since he is the master of one-word answers.)
We specialize in the reulctant writer. If it’s true that your son’s verbal skills are also underdeveloped, then I have some help for you there as well. One of the ways to encourage his verbal development is to “put him in the driver’s seat.” Rather than asking him to write or narrate, spend time with him doing what he loves to do. Go to a movie together or play one of his games or throw a football. Whatever it is that he enjoys. Join in. Ask him questions (so that he can show you how to do X, or so that he can explain something to you). For instance, if you see a movie together, don’t ask what he liked about it. Reveal something that confused you or puzzled you and ask him if he understood. Let him take the driver’s seat. If it’s a game he plays online, ask him to teach you how to play. Kids tend to talk more easily when they feel expert in the topic. Let this be his “writing” for awhile… cultivating the ability to talk to you (without him even knowing that’s what’s happening – it’s more to reassure you than him).
Once you’ve spent time with him this way for a few weeks or a month, then I want you to try what I call “catching him in the act of thinking.” The next time he starts to tell you something (narrates what happened with a friend, tells you about a level he beat on a game, shares with you the plot of a movie), jot it down. Grab the nearest scrap of paper and start writing right while he’s talking. He may balk at first. That’s okay. Reassure him that what he’s sharing is so good, you don’t want to forget it because you want to share it with his dad. If he’s fine with that, keep writing while he talks. If he doesn’t want you to write while he speaks, stop writing and listen really well. Then as soon as he’s finished and has moved on, you write down everything you can remember as best you can.
Later, in his presence, share those recorded words with his dad and talk about how interesting he was and how insightful. Ask follow up questions. Have a conversation.
The problem with most writing curricula is that they are utterly unrelated to the mind life of the child. They make writing external to the person, as though there are words hovering outside of self, waiting to be found after a lot of agony and criticism. The truth is – the words are already inside. We parents have to discover what draws them out first, and then we have to demonstrate that these words *deserve* to be recorded in written form and then *shared* with someone who appreciates reading/hearing them.
That’s when kids get it – writing is the expression of self on paper honored and valued by an interested audience. So yes, I think Brave Writer can help your son… and you. 🙂
I just found your blog via the Bravewriter website. I have read through several months and what a breath of fresh air you are!!
I tend to be a relaxed homeschooler so I have never “taught” writing we just read, read, read. What are your thoughts on kids who “love” to write? My daughter just turned 13 . She bought a laptop last summer and my problem isn’t getting her to write it’s getting her to go to bed!! 🙂 If she’s not writing she’s reading,. She devours and rereads Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare.
She has a natural voice and writing comes easily for her. Its the flip side to her dyscalculia. Math is a major struggle for her. I have had some High School English teachers review her work to give me an idea on how to help her improve. Their only advice was just let her write, write, write as she had all the high school basics down. So far that is what we have done. She has several short and long stories in process. She keeps a journal of story ideas, pages with descriptive paragraphs, names for characters, settings etc. If I find a book on writing that I think she would find helpful I let her read it. Occasionally one of the books strikes the right note and she is able to apply what she has learned and then there is a flurry of more writing. I feel out of my element to help her improve. I can do the â€œeditingâ€ but not the â€œstretchingâ€ to her full potential. I am not sure she is ready for outside â€œcritiquingâ€. Presently she writes simply for the joy of writing. I donâ€™t want her to loose that joy by making her write for someone else. Do I just let her write? Would the “Slingshot” be a good fit for her?
Writing for pleasure ought to be honored and revered more than critiqued or handled. You may, though, also want to let her know that there are other venues for writing besides fiction and personal pleasure.
If she is interested in working on specific skills associated with her writing (perhaps detail or description, character development or organization), then you can tailor some writing exercises to suit.
Brave Writer does offer a fiction class on occasion that would be perfect for her. Kidswrite Intermediate would also be a wonderful next step for her.
The Slingshot Companion is a place to explore one’s thoughts about books in writing without the pressure to produce an essay or a specific piece of writing. It’s more like a discussion group and works well for kids whoar e tentative about formats but who need practice getting their ideas into written language. Then of course there are essay classes etc.
Sorry I didn’t get to this until today. I appreciate your post and questions!
Thank you for you taking the time to post and give advice. I will talk with my daughter about Kidswrite Intermediate.
I haven’t read all your blogs so you may have already posted on this question. What are your favorite books on writing? Are there specific books that you feel are helpful for kids? My daughter just read The Case of the Misplaced Modifier and loved it. She said she learned alot about editing her work. Any leads on other helpful books would be great. Thank you!!
Julie , thanks for your suggestions for getting started with my reluctant writer. I think even I find it hard to connect with the “mind life” of my son, given all his gaming passions, and yes it’s true, any writing program I’ve looked at is totally unrelated to all the things that matter to him. We will start out with your suggestions, and will persevere. Thanks!