by Laura Hill
My 11 year-old daughter doesn't think she’s a good writer. This is despite the fact that she has co-written five children's fiction books and two non-fiction books as part of our Great Story World Mix-Up chapter book series. This also goes against the sentiment of her teachers who say she has a strong original voice, and that of her friends who log onto her blogs to read posts about funny things that happen in school. So why does she think she’s a bad writer?
I have a little insight. When my daughter gets a writing assignment she is completely focused on fitting her idea into the model the teacher has provided. So if it’s a small moment about an adventure she is dead-set on writing about the most important small moment in the greatest adventure she has ever had. As she thinks about the mounting choices she tends to talk to her friends, usually suggesting ways they can turn their small moments into great stories. By the end of the period she has no idea what she is going to write about, is behind in the assignment and is frustrated.
My daughter's writing problem is two-fold. Her first problem is that she is a perfectionist and very hard on herself, a personality trait I am constantly puzzled by coming from a "mistakes are great" school of thought. None of her ideas are good enough to turn into a story. I often remind her of how she helps her friends embellish their ideas, but for herself it just doesn't gel.
The second part of her writing problem is that she is trying to squeeze her idea into the model her teacher provided. Is it a big idea, is it an adventure, does it have small moments, is it good enough? It’s painful to hear her rattle off all the ideas she has rejected because in her mind they do not fit the assignment, when in reality they sit quite neatly within the parameters.
My daughter is not unique. She is suffering from two of the biggest problems facing young writers today, the belief that their ideas aren't good enough and the thought that their ideas need to fit into a model.
Writing is tough enough. An innocent request like writing a small moment can be a huge task when a blank sheet of paper sits in front of you. Here’s a question to ask yourself, do you remember what you had for dinner last Thursday? Can you write about the meal, the setting, the dialogue at the table, the texture of the food, the smell and the feeling it elicited? Maybe you can but chances are it would be tough.
Try this when starting your next writing project. Instead of asking the students to work in a model give them each a big piece of paper, or roll one out to cover a group of desks. Then ask them to these five questions, have them answer quickly drawing or writing down the first thing that comes to mind:
2) Write or draw three things you remember about the experience.
3) Write or draw one sound, smell and feeling you associate with the experience.
4) Write down one thing that was said.
5) Draw a picture of the place where you had the experience.
What you have done is re-create a rich memory with a subject (1), action (2), senses (3), dialogue (4), and setting (5) for the student to pull ideas from. Now plug in your model by instructing the students to use this memory as a basis for writing a small moment, fairytale, narrative...you get the picture.
Once students have a rich idea to write about they can easily concentrate on the form.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly your students advance their writing once they have the basis of the story down. Most stories aren’t grown in a single brain pop, our books certainly aren’t. Instead they are woven like a rich tapestry full of many colored threads with different textures that create the layers of the story. By having the students write the idea quickly without worrying about spelling and form helps shape a stronger story premise full of rich detail, and chances are since they are already thinking about action, senses, narrative and setting, they will add more, effortlessly, with your guidance.
Expressive and powerful writing may be the singular most important thing a student can learn today as they live their personal narrative live, on-line, in front of a global audience. It permeates technological creation in gaming and programming, explains scientific and mathematical discoveries and communicates the most integral cultural aspects of who we are to a world populace that sees no barriers.
By teaching children to organize their thoughts quickly, efficiently and richly, you are teaching them to express their ideas in a way that will be heard. And who knows, that one student voice may be the one that sparks the next great innovation. You’ll never know if you don’t try. I’m counting on you, so are my daughters, so are your students.
Laura Hill is an author and producer best known for helping children find their voice and talents through creative arts and technology. To find out how you can bring her writing programs to your school email Laura Hill or tweet @candylandcaper.