Friday, January 4, 2013

A tip to help your child with writing—plus a YA Pick

First, a book I reread over the break. A fat, romantic fantasy that is actually two books in one that I love so much. I'm not sure how great it is in any particular respect, I only know that I love it and I can reread it and reread it.

I greatly envy the person who gets to read this for the very first time. I wish I could have that experience again.

Give it to your teenager if they love action and adventure and romance, and if they particular like it clean. There's nothing even remotely worrisome in that regard in this book:

Product Details
Crown Duet by Sherwood Smith. A combo of Crown Duel and Court Duel.

Sherwood Smith is just plain fun.

And now for a tip on helping your kids with writing.

The gist of this tip is simple: make sure your kids know what they are trying to say and help them recognize whether or not they've said it.

For example, in homeschool, I asked Calvin, my 3rd grader, to read, Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin, a retelling of Cinderella. I pointed out to him that the rough-face girl's good qualities—humility, kindness, being a hard worker—bring her trouble at first, but by the end of the story, they are the things that bring her victory. Her sisters—mean, nasty, and vain—seem to be winning in the beginning, but those bad qualities make them lose in the end.

What is the author trying to tell us? I asked Calvin.

That it is better to be good, he basically said.

I asked him to write me a story with a message. A story where a character's certain qualities or personality traits seemed to bring them trouble at the beginning, but ended up helping them in the end.

This is what he wrote as a first draft (spelling mistakes included):

I am a rat. It is not fun. Cats and dogs and other predators and other pretaders a plenty and food and shelter is scarce. My mom always says don’t go outside. I go outside anyway. 
Well, how was I to know that there was a cat right under the kitchen table? Or the dog was prowling around the house? Or the pet snake and the scary ferret had escaped from their cages?
Well back to the story. I was sleeping in my hole when I heard a thump. I strolled out onto the floor. There were people with a cage of eagle mice (I read the label). I went back into the hole. 
“It’s some eagle mice!” I said. “Eek!” everbody screamed. I dont think they heard mice. 
I was right. They ran outside the hole. They were running toward the ferret. 
“Stop!” I yelled. 
To late. The ferret grabbed my brother. 
I ran into the bathroom and came out with a bottle of germo. I sprayed it on the ferret. The ferret dropped my brother and ran. “Hooray for Nick!” everbody shouted.
The End

After praising him for a great first draft, I asked him, "So what is the message of your story?"

Boy, did he have to think about this. Because even after giving him the example of Rough-face Girl and after specifically telling him that I wanted him to write a story with a message, he got so caught up in writing a funny story about a rat, he forgot about the message. He forgot why he was writing in the first place. 

Eventually, after a little coaxing, he decided the message of his story would be that it is good to be adventurous, even if it gets you into trouble sometimes. I asked him to think particularly hard about his ending. The rat needs to do something really great, I said. Something really important, because he is adventurous. It needs to be something that wouldn't have happened if he hadn't ventured out where other rats wouldn't dare. The action of your story needs to tell the reader the message, being adventurous can be a great thing!

He then wrote this:

I am a rat. It is not fun. Cats, dogs, and other predators are plenty and food and shelter is scarce. My mother always says “Don’t go outside our hole.” 
I go outside anyway because I want to know what’s out there and I want to have adventures. Well how was I supposed to know that there was a cat right under the kitchen table? Or the dog was prowling around the house? Or the pet snake and ferret had escaped? As soon as I got back to my hole my mom ran up to me. She scolded me and I had to do exra hard chores and exra hard exra chores and I was sent to bed early. “Bummer!” I thought. The next morning I got up and yawned. Then I snuck outside to have an adventure!
The people were coming in the front door. They had six cages with a ferret in each cage. Gulp. Seven ferrets were living in the house now! “We’ll set them free to kill the rats.” said one person. Double gulp.
I ran up the stairs and got a baseball bat and a rope. I tied them together and started down the stairs. 
Too late! Two ferrets were starting up the stairs! I hit them both and knocked them sensless. I then bit off some of the rope and tied a loop around ones head. I connected the rope to the other ferrets head. Then I tied the baseball bat—rope to the back of the ferrets. Then I woke them up and yelled Giddy’up!
I became a hero in rat history! As for the ferrets I trained them and they were our horses!
The End

Is it perfect? No. Is it better? Yes! The message is much more clear. He is now a hero in rat history because he snuck outside to have an adventure. If he hadn't done this, he would be dead. There is, of course, more work he could do to make his message even more clear, but this was a great improvement. I think parents and sometimes even teachers don't quite know how to help kids with the meat of their writing, with what they are trying to say, so they focus instead on grammar and spelling mistakes. Those are easy to spot and easy to correct.

But grammar and spelling can come with time. Kids need to know what they are trying to say as they write, and they need to learn how to make their meaning clear. This is true for all kinds of writing. And it does much more than just teaching them how to write. It teaches them how to think! It teaches them how to organize their thoughts and express themselves clearly. 

And really, it is fun! Kids love to make their writing better, and they will especially love it as we guide them with patience and love and buckets of encouragement!

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