On Writing in Education - A Model from a Homeschool Mom
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. It was torture. I hated writing in general because my value was based so much on my final product and following the process, rather than finding my own way and being creative.
Writing became natural to me as I grew older; I used is as a tool 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 disk1 with journal entries and found my own little routine with headphones and instrumental music to block out the noise of my dorm. My writing journey 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. I am attracted to writing that is unpredictable and 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 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 it. Not that I’m comparing myself to the masters of fine art, but I often wonder how an artist would teach a toddler to finger paint, or how a concert pianist would 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. 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 mother-daughter home education consultant, speaker, and writer duo, say that, “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.”2 Writing students need to be able to formulate an idea, put that idea into a group of words, 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 young writers, as Bauer and Wise put it, “need to be taught, explicitly, how to do [these] tasks” by separating the process into individual parts. 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 the frustrating. The tension of teaching young writers how this form of communication works is thick. 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 felt frustrated at the complex structure being taught to a mind that wasn’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 so 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, such as the fact that English words never end in 'i' or 'v', the list of 9 ways to spell the long /e/ sound, and how syllables are affected by vowels. 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, their writing skills are sharpened. 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 school work without problems in spelling or handwriting, for instance, then suddenly come to a standstill. When this happens, I modify assignments so that her learning in her stronger areas isn’t slowed down. I have the option of giving a worksheet to fill in rather than have her copy the complete sentences down onto another page, or give her a computer to type her answers. Most recently, one of my daughters has become extremely discouraged 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 in the long term - but it has been a great tool for us at times. I knew her struggles with handwriting were finally 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, 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, like Maclean’s father, 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 choose based on the level of fatigue I see in their eyes. Sometimes, when this happens, I table the assignment and finish it the next day. I extend the assignment because I want them to learn the skill deeply and to mastery. The days when the school assignments are met with excitement and vigor, 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.
As I tackle the task of educator daily, 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.
1Editor's Note: For you young'uns out there, floppy disks were these square, flimsy, plastic things housing a small black disk that stored computer data in the decades before flash drives and cloud storage.
2From The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise; 4ht Edition, 2016; pg. 73
In addition to being a homeschool mom, Lindsay Banton is a campus missionary in New England along with her husband. She is addicted to her husband’s home roasted coffee, wearing boots as much as possible and collecting cute office supplies. When she isn’t homeschooling her kids, she loves sewing and dreaming of new business ideas with her friends. You can read more from Lindsay at www.lindsaybanton.com
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