Meeting Peter Elbow was a thrill. He is as delightful in person as he comes across on the page. When introduced before he spoke, the emcee said, “A philosophy professor who will remain unnamed said that meeting Peter Elbow is like meeting Mick Jagger.” I laughed. I had just told my kids that meeting Peter Elbow was like meeting the Bono of writing.
I’ll share his ideas over the next several weeks and though we’d start with the language he uses to express the continuum of writing projects.
High Stakes Writing
High stakes writing is the kind that causes most of us to freeze, to become tense or nervous. High stakes writing is graded for both content and mechanics. It usually requires us to consider a more formal audience as well. In school, high stakes writing is the essay that must conform to the teacher’s guidelines and can count for 20% or more of your grade!
In the homeschool, high stakes writing is the elementary school report, the expository essay, the literary analysis in high school. There are not usually grades attached to homeschool writing in the same way as regular school. However, moms routinely turn writing into a high stakes game when they become anxious about perfection as the end result of a writing task.
Homeschooled kids aren’t usually nervous about getting poor grades. The high stakes for them is their mother’s approval and satisfaction. How risky is it for this child to write and submit it to her mother?
High stakes writing is an important part of developing as a writer. The finished products ought to be error-free, the thinking has come through a lengthy stage of development and the format of the writing conforms to the expectations of the particular writing genre.
High stakes writing, by nature then, will vary in its complexity based on age and stage of development. For a young child, it might mean writing a letter to a grandma that gets taken through the writing process and then polishing and sending it. For a high school student, high stakes writing is the essay or research paper.
Low Stakes Writing
Low stakes writing in the classroom is most often journal writing or freewriting. Low stakes implies that there are not a lot of conditions to meet. The purpose of the writing is expressive and personal. Usually the audience is perceived to be friendly or at least, dispassionate.
In the homeschool, we use freewriting to help kids break through writer’s block and to provide low stakes opportunities to write. We leave mechanics aside and allow for the child to explore on paper a train of thought or his imagination. Brave Writer offers lots of ways to engage in low stakes writing.
You know you’ve engaged in low stakes writing if the words come easily and there is little or no anxiety about writing. The writing need not be shared either.
Middle Stakes Writing
In between these two extremes is an idea we haven’t discussed as often on Brave Writer, but that we do in practice. Middle stakes writing is not quite as free as low stakes writing but it is also not so rigidly controlled as high stakes.
Middle stakes writing can be thought of this way: “think pieces.” The goal of middle stakes writing is to guide the writing process with a thought-provoking question that is specific enough that the child is encouraged to explore a train of thought in writing, but that does not require a specific writing format in order to express those thoughts. The results may still be less organized than you’d like for high stakes writing, but the results will also be more thoughtful and will follow a specific aspect of a topic rather than simply writing whatever comes to mind (as in low stakes).
For example, let’s say you just finished studying the American Revolution. A low stakes assignment might be to freewrite about the topic in anyway that your child wanted to. A high stakes assignment would be to write an essay or biography of one of the historical figures.
A middle stakes assignment would be to ask a specific question to explore in writing, such as, “Compare the founding fathers’ idea of equality to today’s ideas of equality,” or “Write a short story illustrating the crossing of the Potomac,” or “Explore two or three reasons for why the American colonies wanted to withdraw from British rule.”
You might even try an open-ended question: “What was interesting to you about this event in history?”
This kind of writing doesn’t need to be perfectly organized, however, you can clean it up so that it is easy for others to read. Think Pieces are more like a letter or email to an interested friend.
Mix it up!
Lots of low stakes writing, some middle and a few high on a rotating basis will ensure agility in writing skills. Remember: high stakes writing need only occur once per month, max. Low and middle can happen more frequently. Just pay attention to your young writers and their level of enthusiasm and energy.