On Writing In Education: a model from a homeschool mom
*Most of my posts are considerably shorter than the following. I'm posting this because the online magazine for which it was originally written has shut down. Scroll on by unless writing in education is your jam. Original date of publication was May 2018*
I am a product of public school education which taught a plug and play model of writing. Teachers gave sample sentences and we were to form ours similarly while trying to display our own creative abilities. This wasn’t a bad method necessarily, but rather limiting to say the least. We were taught that sentences had subjects and predicates, paragraphs had an opening sentence, two or three points and a final sentence, and that essays were built with four or five of these paragraphs. Writing was like building a retaining wall with styrofoam blocks- it appeared nice and orderly but there was little heft behind my words. And the worst part of the assignment was the forced prewriting-outline. I disliked needing to know what I was going to say before I wrote it. This was torture. I hated writing because my value was based on my effort and final product.
Writing became natural to me as I grew older and used this tool as a way to understand myself and life experiences, a sort of self-imposed rite of passage. As a freshman in college, my friend showed me how to make a password-protected document on my own laptop and I finally felt free to write absolutely anything. I filled floppy disk after floppy disk with journal entries and found my own little routine with headphones and instrumental music to block out the noise of my dorm. My journey towards writing was launched. Now, I scribble down thoughts on the backside of other papers, in my journal and in my laptop. I find beauty in sentences that are built creatively, that have a sort of rhythmic- without rhyming- style and I am attracted to writing that is unpredictable which forces me to slow down to understand what is being said. Writing turned into a love when I was able to communicate my value through writing, when I was the one determining the order, the rhythm, the pace and the topic. I began processing life through the written word and often felt like I was missing something important when my laptop wasn’t within reach.
Just as quickly as I grew up and developed this love of writing, the tables have turned. I am now the teacher. I am the one who makes the kids memorize the list of adverbs, sing little poems about grammar and enforce the right amount of spacing between words. I am the one responsible for conveying the skills of writing to my kids. For me, as a homeschool mom, teaching someone else how to write is kind of like teaching someone how to move in the space around them. A skill that seems so natural and life-giving to me is rather difficult to break down into basic steps for someone that is new to the trade. Not that I compare myself to the masters of fine artist, but I often wonder how would an artist teach a toddler to finger paint, or how would a concert pianist break down intricate details of music theory to a young student? The frustration I feel is what I imagine a mother bird would feel if she had to articulate to her babies how to warm themselves in the sun. This skill of finding warmth in sunlight is natural and life-giving, and is what writing feels like to me. I picture a mother bird would lead her fuzzy-feathered fledglings to the edge of the nest, point out the sunshine, steady them in the light and remind them to sit still to soak up the rays.
Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, a mom and daughter home education consultant, speaker and writer duo, says “writing is a difficult skill because it requires the child to express content at the same time that she is learning the tools of expression” Writing students need to be able to formulate an idea, put that idea into a group of words, then connect those words into strings of meaning and chronicle those words on paper. These are much higher level thinking skills than we, adults, tend to realize. But the young writer, as Bauer and Wise put it, “need to be taught, explicitly, how to do both tasks” by separating the process into individual parts.** You see, writing is more than the smooth line of a well-built sentence with an elaborate diagram hiding in it’s shadows. The ability to write is actually the blending of many different skills- holding a pencil and knowing how to form the shapes of letters, the knowledge of spelling those words correctly, how to order those words to make logical and complete sentences, and the high-level thinking skills of blending those thoughts into a complete narrative.
For me, teaching writing is an exercise in both the fascinating and frustrating. The tension of teaching young writers how this form of communication works is felt. I am fascinated by the why’s and how’s of the rules of writing as I turn to these places in our writing textbooks. These are things I am sure I was taught, but never fully understood as a young student. I suppose these rules were spoken or modeled in my classrooms as a kid, but I was only told to pop in my own word in the proper order. This produced a smart, albeit sterile, sentence, but it wasn’t mine. It was rigid and so similar to 23 others. I also feel frustrated at the complex structure being taught to a mind that isn’t developed enough to fully grasp the potential beauty found in the skill of writing- or the awareness of the beauty found in others’ written works. My kids are still forming their own thoughts on things- and will be doing that for a very long time- so why should I expect them to be able to form this thought and express it effectively with the written word? Thankfully, because I have the blessing of being able to homeschool my kids, I am given the authority to blow up the rules.
As a home educator, I am free to teach writing in an order that makes sense to me and my kids. We take our time making handwriting feel natural and less of a struggle. We learn the mechanics and rules to spelling words. We read quality literature to experience beautifully written sentences and stories with depth unfound in much of today’s juvenile chapter books. We make up our own stories and listen to audio books in the car, filling our brains with how fantastic stories unfold. Then, we write.
We write letters to friends. We write stories. We copy amazing sentences and works from other people. We write reports on fascinating individuals in history and scientific narrations. As we do these small assignments, the skill of writing is sharpening. I have noticed though, as with most areas of children’s development, some skills accelerate while others pause or even digress. One of my kids can speed through a few weeks or months of academics without frustration in spelling or handwriting for instance, then suddenly come to a standstill. When this happens, I modify assignments so that continued learning in the stronger aspects isn’t slowed down. Most recently, one of my daughters has become extremely frustrated with handwriting. So, I occasionally ask her to dictate her answers, sentences or stories and I act as scribe. This isn’t realistic for everyone- or even for me longterm- but it has been a great tool for us at times. I knew her frustration with handwriting was beginning to lessen when she asked to add calligraphy to an art project for her history lesson.
I am frequently reminded of the moment in Norman Maclean’s book, A River Runs Through It And Other Stories (1976), when he submits his weekly writing assignment to his father for review. His dad reads it, crumples the paper and instructs him to do it again. The boy obediently walks away frustrated, and rewrites the paper. When my kids have worked hard on their assignment and turn it in, I experience a miniature internal battle. Do I correct it and hand it back for them to rewrite, or do I let it stay as is and watch for their growth in the next assignment? I teeter between the two responses and often respond based on the level of tiredness I see in their eyes. The days when the school assignments are met with excitement and vigor and the moments when the effort required to accomplish the task is forgotten and the focus is the topic remind me why I do this. I want to produce good writers, certainly. But I want to produce lovers of learning more.
So, as I daily approach the task of educator, I will continue to tweak our methods of writing to simplify the steps for my own children while holding the end result in mind. I will push them farther than they think they can go and continue to expose them to all sorts of great literature. I am already amazed at the detailed stories they tell their younger brother and the depth of their imaginations, and I hope this skill becomes natural to them as it did in my life. Writing in education is such a messy endeavor and I feel our attempts at making it anything less will perpetuate the sterile, plug-and-play feeling many kids experience in today’s classrooms. I hope I am raising real retaining-wall builders, the kind that withstand an actual storm and live to tell- or write- about it.
**Bauer, Susan Wise and Wise, Jessie. The Well-Trained Mind, a guide to classical education at home, fourth edition. 2016. Pg. 73.