IEW’s Student Writing Intensive is a practical, step-by-step writing curriculum that works great for kids who think they hate writing.
Coming up with a great idea can be the hardest part of creative writing — so make coming up with those ideas your first homeschool writing assignment of the year.
I sat outside the high school band room simultaneously on the verge of either tears or a full-fledged panic attack. In my hands were the notes I had taken about the assignment due in two weeks: a research paper in MLA format with a minimum of five resources and no less ten pages. The number of research papers I had previously written? ZERO. The amount of guidance the teacher offered us? ZERO. Almost twenty years out from high school graduation, I remember only a handful of assignments from those years. That one, though? I doubt that the memory of my utter despair and desolation of my confidence as a writer will ever fade.
This experience was an extreme example, but my old teacher made a mistake that a great many writing teachers make. They fail to TEACH writing. Telling kids what you want them to write about isn’t teaching writing. Telling them how many pages they should write isn’t teaching writing. Lighting up their work with red pen marks after the work has been done isn’t teaching writing. That’s assigning and assessing writing.
So how does one TEACH writing then?
1. Mentor Texts. Mentor texts are samples of writing that come from skilled writers. They’re an important tool in both the pre-writing and drafting stages of the writing process.
Before writing, mentor texts can be studied and even dissected. A child writing an expository essay about a historical figure could study biographies to see what techniques biography writers use to begin their books. A child writing a book review could open up the Sunday newspaper to investigate the book and movie reviews written by professional writers to see how they write conclusions without saying, “You should read it, too.”
During writing, mentor texts can be a valuable reference. A child who is struggling with the mechanics of dialogue can refer to an admired novelist’s books to see how the rules of dialogue play out in “real” writing.
2. Modeling. Don’t worry—no one is asking you to put on a swimsuit or strut down a runway. Modeling in this case means that you own your role as the most skilled writer in your homeschool, dig in there right alongside your students, and show them how it’s done.
I know, I know. Writing is hard work. Actually, Hilda Taba called writing “the most complex of all human activities.” I promise you, though, that if you make the investment of chewing on a writing project alongside your child, you’ll be amazed at the improved outcome.
It’s worth noting that you don’t need to complete every step of the writing process every time to be successful with this teaching tool. Usually I find that it’s most important to be there at the beginning of each step in the writing process, and then it’s okay, even for the best, for me to get out of the way.
Probably the most important aspect of modeling is thinking aloud. Don’t just let your child see the product of your inner thoughts—speak your thoughts as you think them. It’s okay, too, to share when you struggle with something. “I’m really frustrated with this, so I’m going to leave it and come back to it later,” is a no-joke important lesson to learn as a writer.
Learning to write doesn’t have to feel overwhelming or bewildering. Using mentor texts and modeling absolutely has the potential to transform both the outcome of your child’s writing and the way your child feels about him or herself as a writer. Writing is hard. Don’t send them into the wilderness of words alone.
OK, I’m a little late with my winter homeschool update, but that is actually metaphorically sound. This winter has been a challenging homeschool season. I’ve been spoiled for most of our homeschool life by having a super-flexible work schedule and a partner whose schedule allows him to work from home most of the time, too. Now that Jason’s running an actual school, there are days when I have to get up and get dressed and get everyone out of the house before my second cup of coffee kicks in, and it has been an adjustment. These are the seasons when I am glad we homeschool year-round—otherwise, I’d be stressing about whether we were actually doing enough work.
Other than scheduling, this has actually been a lovely season of homeschooling. I was nervous about our first year of homeschooling high school (I might have mentioned it a few times), but now that we’re well into it, I think it’s one of the most satisfying years of homeschooling we’ve had so far. With earlier grades, we’re interested in “what does this mean?” and “why does it matter?” — totally valid, interesting questions. But I love that high school pushes us to also ask “what does that tell us about the world we live in?” and “how does that connect to what else we know?” The hardest part has been Japanese, which my daughter was passionate about studying but which no one in our family has any real knowledge of. I’ll talk more about it in my end-of-the-year wrap-up, but we ended up hiring a tutor and using a combination of GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese and Japanese from Zero for texts. This was good for me: I can’t do it all, and I couldn’t do this. But I don’t have to do it all. It’s a useful reminder. (And our tutor is awesome.)
Having two kids is great because it keeps me from getting overconfident—whatever works with one of them is almost absolutely guaranteed NOT to work with the other one. This year, it’s language arts. Suzanne and I were talking about it on the podcast, but my daughter would write just because she loved writing — she used to play school and write essays for each of the different students, grade them, and have the students revise them. (Gunther, I recall, did only the most slapdash revisions.) My son, on the other hand, would happily embrace any reason not to write. (Recent reasons have included: “This pencil is itchy” and “The lines on the paper distract me.”) We’ve fallen into an uneasy but tentatively effective program, combining Patricia’s brilliant dictation method (I could not homeschool without it) and comic book pages (which he seems to have more patience with), and I’m trying to just take it one day at a time.
This is maybe a superfluous thing, but it’s been so great I want to mention it: For Hanukkah this year, my mom bought the kids bungee chairs. They are awkwardly shaped and look a little silly, but holy cow, these chairs are little miracle workers. My bouncy, can’t-sit-still son can read in one for long stretches of time and my daughter likes bobbing up and down while she’s doing math. Who knew chairs could make such a difference?
What about you? What was your winter homeschool like?
Now that my daughter is in middle school, I want to start giving her real grades on her essays and papers—but I am really not sure how to decide whether an essay should get an A, B, or C. Do you have any tips?
You can make yourself crazy trying to grade essays because there are so many possible components to consider. So make it easy on yourself, and determine the purpose of your essay upfront: Is your essay an analysis of a story? Then your grading should focus on how successfully your student analyzes the story. Is your paper a traditional research paper? Then your grade should focus on how well-researched and organized the paper actually is. This does mean that you’ll be mentally shifting gears with each essay assignment, but that’s really the key to thoughtful essay grading. Beyond that, here are some practical tips for grading essays that will help keep your grading consistent and helpful for your student:
Know what makes a good essay. It seems dorky to write a rubric for a single student, but you really should. Write down what differentiates an A paper (all sentences are well constructed and vary in length and structure) from a B paper (most sentences are well constructed and vary in length and structure) from a C paper (most sentences are well constructed but have similar structure and length). If you’re new to rubric-writing (and most homeschoolers are), this example from readwritethink.org is a good starting point that you can tweak as you go.
Let your student know your method. Say “For this book report, I’m going to be looking mostly at how well you explain the strengths and weaknesses of the book. You can use the plot to help support your argument, but you don’t need to summarize the plot for me.” If you make a rubric for grading essays, you should definitely share it with your student.
Don’t play copyeditor. Your job isn’t to correct every misspelling and grammatical gaffe in your student’s paper—this isn’t a manuscript, and you aren’t an editor. Pick two or three grammatical concepts to focus on per paper (using quotes correctly, for example, or including citations appropriately), and limit your red-penning to these specific concepts. Look for patterns rather than specific instances—it’s more helpful to say, “I notice that you’re having trouble trying to squeeze too much information into one sentence, and you’re ending up with a lot of run-ons and hard-to-read sentences” than to mark up every awkward sentence. If your student seems to be backsliding on a grammatical or structural issue that should already be old hat, return his paper and ask him to do the grammatical revisions before returning the paper to you. (“It looks like you didn’t break this essay up into paragraphs—why don’t you fix that before I grade it?”)
Look for things the writer is doing well. I think you should always try to point out two things your writer is doing successfully in a paper, even if they feel like small or unexceptional things to you. It’s not that you want to cast faint praise or give a participation ribbon to your kid, but young writers need to know what they are getting right as well as where they can improve.
This Q&A was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of HSL.
Whether you’re putting together a curriculum or just stocking your reading shelves, these books are a great addition to your homeschool writing library.
I teach a creative writing class at our homeschool group. It’s one of the best parts of my week because the class always comes together like an explosion of creativity. (Also all my students are just fantastic humans.) I’ve been lucky to watch the students I’ve taught get accepted to college, find professional writing jobs, and even go from mumbling that they hate to write to telling everyone that writing is their favorite class. I like to think that my students have picked up some knowledge over the years, but the truth is, I’ve probably learned more than they have—and all these lessons have proven helpful in helping my own kids to be better, more engaged writers.
- It’s smart to go back to basics. The first time my class turned in a story assignment, I realized that some of them had never turned in a written assignment before: No one wrote names on papers, and some kids wrote on the back side of the paper instead of the front. Obviously that’s no big deal in a class like mine, but I made a mental note that I wanted to be sure to talk to my daughter about how to set up a paper that she’s turning in to someone else.
- Deadlines are your friend. My first class, I didn’t want to risk curbing creativity by being hard-core about deadlines and encouraged kids to submit work on their own timeline. But I realized that my writers did better when they had a firm deadline—otherwise, like me, they would just keep poking and poking at a piece until long past its best-by date. Setting deadlines gave them permission to finish a story and call it done-for-now. I still believe writer’s block is a legitimate excuse to miss an assignment, but now I set lots of deadlines and students consistently rise to them.
- Spelling and grammar are easy to fix. I don’t worry much about about grammar and spelling in creative writing—that’s not really the point—but I do mark recurring errors in spelling or grammar, no more than two or three per story. And you know what? Probably 80 percent of the time, students don’t ever repeat an error after I mark it once.
- Good writing does not only happen on the page. When I was planning my class, I envisioned kids bent over their notepads, the sound of their furiously scratching pencils echoing through the room. Instead, I found myself surrounded by non-stop conversation. (I even attained a dubious level of fame for having the loudest class in our group.) But I soon realized that all these conversations—even the ones that seemed the most off-track—found their way back into what the students were writing—and their work was better because of them. Lesson learned: Creativity doesn’t have to happen in vacuum.
- You cannot give too much positive feedback. My students like to tease me about all the little green comments I leave on their work. (Also about my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s another story.) When I was a teenager, my papers would usually come back with As scrawled on the top and sometimes “nice work” or “good job.” But I wanted more feedback—I wanted to know where my word choice had been spot-on and where my arguments had been particularly strong. I wondered if my teacher had caught my allusions or gotten the joke I’d tried to make in my conclusion. So I mark up papers with that memory in mind, making a point to note great sentences, smart ideas, and interesting constructions. If I think there’s a place where something could be stronger, I definitely note that, too, but the majority of my notes focus on what the writer is doing right—which is usually a lot.
Once upon a time, I looked forward to arriving on the other side of this unschooling journey. I thought that if I would only wait and watch and learn long enough, I would eventually reach a point where I could fully articulate how a child learns.
In the fall issue of home/school/life, Amy shared a list of books on writing. I believe she was right on target when she wrote, “The best books for young writers inspire as much as they instruct, giving kids enthusiasm for writing as well as tools they can use to improve their stories, essays, poems, scripts, and other work.”
Inspiration, enthusiasm, and tools are all words that have been common to my vocabulary over the years, and I have learned that it is as important (maybe more) for me as mom to be inspired and enthused as it is for my kids. The tools for gaining knowledge are the ultimate goal, after all. It is not nearly as important that kids pick up the various facts and figures that are so commonly thought of as scholarly matter as it is that they gain practice and skill with the many tools of knowledge acquisition.
I now live in a house with three young people who are certainly independent writers and I’m still not sure I can explain it exactly. They are three very different kinds of writers even though they have enjoyed many of same introductions to reading and writing activities over the years.
I thought I would share a few of those activities and my thoughts about growing writers here:
Read, read, read, and read some more. There is no substitute for reading together and reading out loud. Every day you should be reading together, and don’t stick to age-appropriate books alone. Read the stories you remember loving as a kid. Read the stories your kids pick up at the library. Read even the bad ones, and when somebody says, “I really don’t like this book,” stop and have a discussion about what makes it a bad book. Put that book down and start another. I read to my kids from the newspaper, from news magazines, and often from the books I was reading for my own pleasure. As soon as they began reading on their own, we took turns reading out loud together. Books on tape are great, too, but the real power comes from reading with your own voice.
Make your own books. Starting as early as ages 3 and 4, I encouraged my kids to tell stories that I would write down. I returned these stories to them in booklet form. Their stories would be divided by scenes that they could illustrate. We made copies of these books to share with grandparents, aunts and uncles. The books we made went on the shelves beside other books and we were just as likely to read the stories they had written as others. This taught them that they had the power to manipulate words and that their efforts were legitimate.
Play word games while on the go. Mad Libs is the bomb. It is simply fun and no homeschooling family should be without a book or two of Mad Libs. It is easy to keep in a copy in a bag to pull out when entertainment is needed to fill some time. Most word games, however, require nothing more than your imagination. Time in the car, for our family, was typically filled with word games. Make it rhyme – I have a pet snake, his name is Jake; I have a pet flea, his name is Larry… Add it alphabetically – I’m going to the store and I’ve got an apple in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple and a banana in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple, a banana, and a cucumber in my cart… Tell round-robin stories!
Give them reasons to write. Here’s the thing about writing. The power of words can quickly be diminished when they are turned into worksheets and steps you are required to learn. My kids learned about punctuation when they asked, “Why do they put those dots in there? Why does the dot sometimes have that little tail that drops below the line? What’s that squiggle mean?” If I had to name the single most powerful tool my children received early on, in regards to their development as writers, it was power over the list. We moved our grocery list to kid height and announced that everyone in the house should add to it when they saw there was something we needed from the store. The list was one area where I didn’t take dictation, at least not throughout the week. If you wanted it, you had to put it there.
But don’t force them to write. I just wrote that the list was the one area where I didn’t take dictation. I should emphasize, however, that I did take dictation. I took a lot of dictation when my kids were young. I wrote whole stories as they were told to me. I typed letters that they mailed to their cousins. I encouraged storytelling, both fact and fiction, and I preserved those stories in printed form until they had mastered the skills to preserve what they wanted on their own. And gradually, as they did begin to write, I found myself taking less and less dictation (though occasionally they still came to me because I typed faster, or perhaps they just felt the need for some one-on-one time with mom…) There were times in my life where I was writing by hand for one kid and spelling words out loud for another while reviewing the third kid’s email because she wanted it to be “all right” and I thought my brain might explode from all the different directions it was going. Then, almost as quickly, I realized that nobody was asking me for help anymore. Last week, I proofed one college composition paper the morning it was to be turned in and reviewed an email my son had written for an event he was organizing. That was it. An entire week, and nobody needed any real help with writing.
Withhold judgment, at least until they ask for it. When you homeschool, it is tempting to turn every moment into a teachable lesson. Learn to bite your tongue. If your child brings you a handwritten note, a love letter, a book they made, a poem, whatever… simply observe and appreciate. Don’t point out the words they have misspelled, or the fact that it’s hard to read because they haven’t really put any spaces between their words. If they ask what you think about it, start with what you like. Then ask what they think about it. Children will often recognize their own mistakes, and if you start a conversation about the work they have written, the conversation becomes the lesson they need at that moment.