March 11, 2013
You are going to love the interview I have for you today!
Writing is a "subject" that stresses out many homeschool parents and kids. I get a lot of questions on the blog and in coaching sessions about writing, usually along these lines, "My kids' don't like to write. What do I do?"
I prefer an interest-led, everyday communication approach to writing instruction. In brief, writing to communicate student-motivated thoughts and ideas. But I have my moments of doubt when I think I should be "requiring" more and that my kids should be "producing" more writing. In these moments of doubt I look to those who have gone before me for wisdom and support. I look to homeschool parents like Patricia Zaballos.
Patricia is an educator, a homeschool parent and writer. She recently published a book called Workshops Work! which is all about creating an audience for your child's writing in the form of a writer's workshop.
Patricia has years of experience facilitating writer's workshops for kids. She has taken that wisdom, plus her personal story as a homeschooling mother of three, and written a fabulous how-to manual for those of us new to writer's workshops. Her book Workshops Work! walks us through the entire process, providing a whole toolkit of ideas, examples, and anecdotes to get us going.
I reviewed Patricia book before publication and I am so happy to recommend it to you as an excellent resource in your homeschool toolkit.
Today I'm interviewing Patricia a bit about her book but also about writing in general.
What I really want to know is how can we teach our children to write without all the angst that often accompanies it?
Let's talk to Patricia and find out.
My kids are 20, 17 and 11. We homeschooled from the start. I'd been an elementary teacher before that, and I became intrigued with the possibilities of learning outside the confines of a classroom. My oldest homeschooled until he was sixteen, and then decided to go to high school for two years. He is now a junior in college, studying film production. My daughter homeschooled until she was fourteen, and then decided to go to high school as a freshman. She's now a junior. My youngest is still homeschooling.
I think we often misunderstand how kids really learn to write. School experiences have convinced us that writing is something that must be taught; I would argue that learning to write should not be so very different from learning to talk. It can happen quite naturally and painlessly if we allow it to evolve on its own timetable.
Many parents underestimate how much kids learn to write simply by reading and being read to. Kids who grow up in literature-rich homes naturally develop expansive vocabularies. They seem to pick up how literature works by osmosis, especially if they are allowed to dwell in books and genres that interest them. It's especially useful if families talk about books and stories and films together, so kids can develop opinions and insights about what they like and dislike in literature.
Along those lines, kids learn to write simply by talking. If they grow up in homes where ideas are discussed and debated, where their own ideas are valued, those kids learn how to speak clearly, logically and enthusiastically. That will absolutely carry over into their writing, eventually. I have talked to many, many homeschooling parents of kids who did very little writing in their younger years, yet who somehow magically developed into writers as teenagers. It isn't magic that does it; it's the fact that the kids grew up in literate homes in which the kids' ideas were valued. All the reading and talk of childhood can transition into writing without too much difficulty if it isn't forced.
Of course, the more kids write, the better they will get at it. One of the most important things parents can do is help kids find authentic, exciting reasons to write. By authentic, I mean writing for a real purpose, rather than writing because a parent or teacher has assigned it. It can be a challenge to find real writing formats that excite a kid.
The best place to start is the child's interests. I can't tell you how many parents I've talked to whose kids became enthusiastic about writing for the first time in order to chat online while playing Minecraft! Look for opportunities like that, and don't underestimate their value, even if the writing looks sloppy, error-riddled and unacademic. Once kids understand the power of making words work for them, they will want to keep doing it, and will get better at it.
I wrote a longer article about these ideas called How Do Kids Really Learn to Write? It gives several examples of authentic writing possibilities, based on kids' interests.
(And yes, writer's workshops are one of the best writing motivators I know!)
We parents can do more damage than good if we do too much "teaching" when it comes to writing. Our teaching is likely to be based on our school experiences with writing--and most of us did not receive good, useful writing instruction in school. That's why most adults are self-conscious about their writing abilities!
Most writers will tell you that they had to overcome and forget what they learned in school in order to learn to write well. Kids who grow up in literate homes develop excellent instincts about writing. Don't muck that up! Rather than teaching too much, we should be providing excellent models of writing for our kids: good books on topics that interest them. Then, if we help our kids find authentic reasons to write, those opportunities will provide organic, real reasons to get better at writing.
Honestly, I think we should worry less about preparing our kids, and do whatever we can to help them enjoy writing right now. Kids who find a writing forum that they enjoy will dig into it. They will learn what it means to tinker with words, to move them and change them until the words express what the kids are trying to say. It doesn't matter if they develop this expertise by writing longwinded fantasy stories, or reviews on video game forums. Kids who know how to manipulate words for their own purposes will be able to take on any writing format that gets thrown at them by the time they're of college age.
There may be a small learning curve, but they will adapt because they understand how to work with words. Also, they know the joy of saying just what they want to say in writing! On the other hand, kids who are marched through a bunch of writing formulas and formats may never really learn to make words work for them. If the required writing doesn't matter to them, they will put their energy into guessing at what the teacher or parent wants--not what they want to say. They won't learn to write well.
One of my favorite writing encouragements comes from writer and college English professor Thomas Newkirk:
"The good writers I see in college have often developed their skill in self-sponsored projects like journals or epic, book-length adventure stories they wrote on their own." Our task as parents really ought to be helping our kids find those self-sponsored projects!
Rather than pushing formal essays on kids, we can expose them to wonderful nonfiction writing on topics that interest them. If they like sports, find excellent sports writing; if they enjoy music, films or videogames, search out well-written reviews on those topics. Just the other day I saw an anthology of the best writing in mathematics! There's something for everyone. If you find nonfiction that your child enjoys, talk to him or her about it. Find out what they like and dislike about it. Help them develop opinions about which writers are their favorites and why. (This is all essay-writing practice, even if it feels like casual conversation!) After reading for a while, kids may feel inspired to try writing similar nonfiction their own. Emulating one's writing heroes is one of the best ways to learn to write.
Teens might enjoy taking part in a research paper workshop, in person with other kids, or online. You could use the book The Curious Researcher, by Bruce Ballenger, as a guide. This is a college-level text, but it could easily be adapted for teenagers. Older versions of the text are quite affordable. I like this guide because it encourages students to write a paper based on a personal interest, and it helps them hone in on their questions and curiosities about the topic, and to structure the writing around those questions. It teaches them to think like writers, and to write work that is both academic and engaging. Hallelujah! Teenagers could meet regularly to discuss and share their work in progress, adapting the text to their needs. Such a workshop would probably be best facilitated by an adult, but eager teenagers might be able to do it on their own.
Try not to worry so much about teaching writing, and instead take up writing yourself! Find a forum that excites you: a blog, a personal journal, even your Facebook updates. Dabble in poetry if you like it, or write about your kids. Consider taking a writing class, or finding a writing group, if that sounds exciting to you. I wrote more about this on my blog. If you experience the joys and frustrations of writing yourself, you will be able to offer better writing advice to your kids. It won't be based on your schooling; it will be based on your real writing experiences. It will be useful.
I loved what Patricia shared with us here. Thank you Patricia!
This was a long post (and if you are a homeschooling parent I do recommend you read it all) and if you need a recap I've pulled the important points out for you. More homeschoolers need to hear the freedom of this message.
Patricia has a great homeschool blog and make sure to check out her book Workshops Work! Do you want to inspire and support meaningful writing in your homeschool? Consider the role of writer's workshops for kids and use Patricia's book as your guide.
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