Monday, April 8, 2013

The Power of Writing

Writing may be one of the least favorite parts of an elementary school kids' day. I'd wager most of you have a child that hates to write, even if they love to read.

I have one of those. Mary hates writing. Her mother is a writer. Our home is overflowing with books. She is rarely without a book. Literacy is a integral part of our family, so why does Mary hate writing?

I have no idea. A big part of it is the physicality of actually writing on the page (Mary has terrible handwriting), but that can't be the only reason why. I've tried to figure out why Calvin loves to write. He writes pages and pages of creative writing for fun, on his own time, and he never complains about any of the writing I have him do for home school, and I have him do a lot, way more than he would get in traditional school. 

Lucy loves to write too. Unlike Calvin, it isn't so much the story she loves, but the language. She likes to write poetry (unlike me!) and she likes to put beautiful phrases together. 

So far, Shaemus seems to enjoy writing as well, though his writing is more structurally based. He likes following a formula, and he has started using formulas (goofy alphabet books, retellings of fairytales) to write stories for fun. (But his grade went down in writing this past quarter because his handwriting has gotten worse. His teacher told me he is a brilliant little first grade writer, the most literate in the class, but she couldn't give him the highest grade because of his handwriting—and now I'm watching his self-esteem sink a bit. Not too happy about this subjective grading system... 4, 3, 2, 1)

So why Mary? Why does she hate any and all forms of writing? And how do I change this?

If you have time, read this great article on how a college English teacher got his non-writer students totally excited about stories. And writing. 

If I believe every child can love reading—and I do—then I also believe every child can love writing. Really. I believe that. Writing is not a subject, it is a tool to get across a point to an audience. Like reading, the more you write, the more confident you are in your ability to write well. The greater your confidence, the more you enjoy yourself as you write. And the more you write.

But how do we achieve this? If I believe this, why isn't it happening in my own home for Mary?

It's not happening in my own home because Mary has yet to experience for herself two major truths: one, stories are incredibly important things, not just fun, important. Exciting. Meaningful. Life changing. World changing. Two, Mary has yet to believe that she has the ability to harness that power.

Notice I am not talking about interest here. I know some people might say, lay off! She just isn't interested in writing. It isn't her thing. But writing isn't like History or Science or Underwater Basketweaving. It isn't a subject. It truly is a tool. You can dislike writing fiction, because you don't enjoy fiction, but you may love nonfiction and you may love writing nonfiction. To say you hate to write, just plain write, means you hate to express yourself. To have ideas. To communicate.

I think if every kid believed in the power of writing to make a difference and if they believed they had the innate potential to write well, they would want that power. They would be motivated to seek it and develop it.

I've got to teach Mary about this power and I've got to get her to believe she can use it, and then I've got to give her the autonomy we all crave to use this power HOWEVER SHE WANTS TO. 

I cannot express how exciting it is for me to create a story. I love having these people in my head, I love giving them life, giving them actions and relationships and personalities and problems. These people are in my control, they are my play things. If you are writing nonfiction, you still have this power. You are choosing words that will teach and excite emotions in others. You are choosing what facts to share and when. You are striving to get across a point and convince others that you are right (or maybe just get them to think). You are bringing to life ideas and images that were invisible before.

Kids do not get autonomy in the writing they do in school (and with the common core, they will get even less autonomy than they've had in the past). For my master's degree in creative writing, I had creative work due regularly that was in every way my own. My stories were mine. No one told me what to write, only how to make it better. Even the critical writing I did for my degree—and I did a lot of it—was my own. I chose what I wanted to write about, what I wanted to study. All the writing I did during my master's degree was autonomous, and I loved (nearly) every minute of it.

I need to say to Mary, "How did that book make you feel? What did you love about it? What did you hate? What does it make you think about? Do you think this book is important? What words did the author use that made you feel that way? How did the author do it?" Then, once this discussion has established that stories are awesome (!!!) and writers are powerful, I need to say, "You know, I'll bet you could write a story that would do the same things, a story that is powerful. If you wanted to give it a try, we could publish it. We could put it on a blog and add segments of the story as you write them, or we could take your book over to Kinko's and have it bound, like a real book." 

I need to give her first, a spark of passion, second, autonomy, and third, an audience. In that order.

Your child is not Mary (obviously). What kind of a child do you have? Why don't they like writing? What can you do to help them discover the power in writing? What can you do to love writing more yourself?

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