Changing the Way We Teach Kids to Write
I promise not to go to the mailbag each week, searching desperately for an interesting question I can answer and pretend it’s my Writing Tip for the week. However, last week’s Tip “Sun Valley Serenade”--that writers engage readers not by giving information, but by withholding it--prompted a response containing this sentence:
“Since [this Tip] is very reading focused, I’m going to forward it to my 9-year-old’s teachers and the teachers in charge of the Learning Assistance Program so they can use your tip with their reluctant readers (I have a couple of them in my house – it breaks my heart).”
Although I usually write about serious stuff, like blowdarts and fruitcake, that sentence and the advent of spring just around the corner made me wonder, How do we engage young readers, if we can’t even get them to open the book? Here’s the answer:
If you want them to read, teach them to write.
If you want them to write, teach them to see.
See, hear, smell, taste, feel, all five. Teach them to observe their surroundings through their senses, so they can recreate a scene, which is what writers do. Get them excited about noticing details and selecting the most revealing to tell their own stories and engage their own readers. If they understand how to observe and select detail to write their own stories, they will recognize The Process of Engaging a Reader and therefore more willingly engage in The Process of Being Someone Else’s Reader.
Remember that kids have nothing in their brains but imagination and thoughts of food. Feed both. Take them to the woods, a park, an empty urban lot, a busy street corner, the mall. Have them observe their surroundings, and ask them, “What do you see here?” Engage them in seeing, alone or as a group, the dozens and dozens of details:
Sidewalk cracks, longboards, fireflies, corndogs, rain, dirt, mannequins, fence posts, stairs, broken windows, chocolate chip cookies, horses, palm fronds, roller bladers, pretzel stands, heat shimmers, dandelions, escalators, surf, swing sets, train cars, weeds, day-glo electric shoes, grilled meat, pine needles, asphalt, oak trees, yellowed paper, dahlias, taxis, soccer fields, aspen leaves, hair stuck to a sweaty neck.
Have them close their eyes, sniff the air, listen to the sounds, focus on their taste buds. And have them write it all down, everything they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. We all know that kids love games, so time them, or have them compete against each other to see who can record the most details.
When my daughters were in elementary school, I taught their classes a short course on writing and storytelling. I made up a story about World War II and how the nuns who ran the school in 1941 had gathered the children in the hallways after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ushered them quickly out the back door, down the steps, around the gym, through the apple orchard, along the path, into the blackberry brambles, down, down, down, to the water, where several boatmen waited to ferry them across Lake Washington to the eastern shore, where they would be safe from enemy planes. I told them that several of the 1941 kids had kept diaries, recording their fear of being bombed, the smell of rain in the orchard, scratches from the blackberry thorns, the chill of walking through the trees, the boats and the boatmen who awaited them, the mist on the lake.
The teachers gave each child a pencil and a pad of paper, and I led them through the halls, down the staircase, telling them the story, as they recorded their own impressions of what they saw and felt: the worn stone steps, the red brick, the leaves on the trees, the trail that led through the orchard, the woods, the blackberry brambles. They imagined the dock where my 1941 kids had loaded into the boats.
With spring nearly upon us, do this with your own kids or grandkids. Take them on a two-hour adventure, pencil and pad in hand. To make the experience even richer, create a simple story about the setting. It does not have to play out on the grand scale of World War II; the squirrel on that branch who lives in that knothole and chases after acorns all day will make a fine story. But help them see and feel and taste and smell and hear the scenes and record their details and impressions. And when they have recorded all of the details their senses will allow, remind them of the lesson from last week--we engage a reader not by giving information, but by withholding it. Now ask them:
Which three details would you choose to describe the scene to a stranger?
The tin heating duct? The gnarled bark? The peeling paint on the swing set? The mustard-stained paper plates? The broken windows? The ripples on the water? When they build their own scenes, then their own stories, from these selected details, they now understand: This is what writers do in books, The Process. So they search for it among the words--the details chosen by another writer to convey a scene--and they are engaged just enough to fire their own imaginations.
When I explained this to the woman who sent the email I refer to above, she sent me another email with this sentence:
"Oliver (my youngest) is reading Harry Potter with some of his friends, and we’ve cheated and watched some of the movies, too, and he recognizes how less rich the movies are than the books because the picture in your head is always unique, while the picture on the screen is someone else’s vision."
How can I improve upon that?
A final hint: Don’t give the kids a word minimum; give them a word maximum; encourage them to treat words preciously. Tell them: Now describe the entire scene; you have one hundred words.
By the way, the squirrel who lives in that knothole and chases after acorns all day is named Rufus.